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The conflagration of April 13th, the culmination of a long series of crises

Michel TOUMA | OLJ
For many analysts, it has become convenient to simplify things and say that the Lebanese Civil War began on April 13th 1975. This mistake hides the political context and numerous major developments that, for years, paved the way for a conflict that has had wide ranging repercussions and still does, 44 years later.

Sunday April 13th 1975 was actually a - dramatic - turning point, after a long period of destabilization and chronic internal crises. First of all, on a strictly local level, it happened after

the tensions between what was called the “Christian camp” (or “political Maronitism”) and the “Islamo-Progressive camp” reached its climax. This tension had been simmering since the 1960s, and that revolved around the frail balance between the communities that held political power. At the time, the Muslim leadership denounced what it perceived as "Christian privileges" and was asking for more “participation” in the management of public affairs.

“Christian privileges” and “participation”: in the late Sixties and early Seventies, these were the main slogans around which revolved an often feverish national debate. In addition to these community-based demands, there was a growing socio-economic crisis that provided an ideal breeding ground for Leftist movements.

The Palestinian factor

As explosive as it was, this context would probably not have resulted in the successive wars that began in April 1975 if it had not been connected to another much more serious, endemic crisis: the continuous regional interferences related to the Palestinian problem. It is precisely this factor that explains the longevity and frequency of the incessant conflicts in to which Lebanon was dragged.

If one were to quickly study the newspapers of the 1960s and 70s, one would realize that the leaders of the Kataeb party, Pierre Gemayel, and of the Liberal National Party, President Camille Chamoun (among others), did not miss an opportunity to repeat their leitmotiv, the “priority of sovereignty”. The equivalent of today’s cries of “Lebanon first”. The fact is that by the end of the 1960s, armed Palestinian organizations had established themselves, militarily, in the Arqoub, in South Lebanon, the territory was off limits and was named symbolically, and quite appropriately, "Fatahland".

Led by Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had slowly turned into a powerful mini-state within the Lebanon, with disregard to central state sovereignty. This situation was fiercely condemned by the Christian parties. But the Islamo-Progressive camp was perfectly satisfied with it, seeing it as leverage that could be used to push the Christian camp towards constitutional concessions. This struggle ended in 1969 with the oft-criticized Cairo agreements, which, under the impulsion of Nasser, practically institutionalized the PLO's control over the Arqoub.

State sovereignty was severely breached, allowing Palestinian organizations to keep on gaining ground and undermining the government’s authority, while taking advantage of the Muslim leadership’s support, under the guise of “solidarity with the Palestinian cause”.

Sleiman Frangié reacts

In this context, the Palestinian excesses amplified, prompting President Sleiman Frangié, who had been elected in 1970, to react three years later. In May 1973, on his orders, the Lebanese army launched an offensive against the Palestinian camps in Beirut. The army besieged the camps and Hawker Hunters of the Lebanese Air Force undertook bombing runs. The aim was clear: to put an end to the PLO mini-state. The offensive lasted for several days, but president Frangié was forced to order the army to cease military operations under pressure from a number of Arab countries. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, despite his “special relationship” with Frangié, even went as far as to close the borders between the two countries to force the President to end to the offensive.

This episode was a turning point in the Lebanese crisis. Supported by President Frangie, the Christian parties concluded that they were to contain the armed Palestinian organizations on their own initiative. The Christian parties took up arms, and trained militias to oppose the PLO's growing hold on the country.

The arming of the Christian parties took place gradually with the tacit consent of President Frangié. Everything was in place, the detonator need only be found. The explosion occurred on Sunday April 13th 1975.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 13th of April)

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