Haunting deja vu

The Ain al-Rummaneh bus is displayed at the Hangar site in Haret Hreik, Thursday, April 12, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

The backdrop to Lebanon’s Civil War, as most people know, was a seemingly long series of events that unfolded over a decade.

In 1965, elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization established a low-key presence in the country, and when the defeat of June 1967 discredited the states that were leading the fight against Israel, PLO factions rose in status and influence.

In 1968, Lebanon saw the increased militarization of these factions, which engaged in hijacking airplanes as one of their tactics, while they were backed by the National Movement led by Kamal Jumblatt and mainly Muslim politicians, who wanted to use them as leverage in their struggle over political power in a Christian-dominated state.

1969 saw the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Rashid Karami and full control by Palestinian factions over refugee camps, staging military parades and otherwise flaunting their weaponry. The Cairo Agreement established “Fatahland” in south Lebanon, where attacks and counterattacks by the Palestinians and Israelis set the tenor for the coming years.

In 1970, the events of Black September in Jordan – sparked by the hijacking of planes – saw even more Palestinian fighters flee to Lebanon. In the next few years, the Israelis engaged in the brazen assassination of Palestinian cadres on the streets of Beirut, as the destabilization of Lebanon continued: the 1973 war, and the 1975 killing of labor leader Maarouf Saad in the city of Sidon.

All of these events preceded the well-known attack on a bus carrying Palestinians in the Beirut suburb of Ain al-Rummaneh, which is commonly cited as the “spark” for the Civil War.

The Lebanese Army was kept on the sidelines, in the fear that it would split if asked to intervene in the crisis – which it later did. The Syrian Army intervened decisively in the conflict against the National Movement, in an undeclared agreement with the United States and Israel, to rein in the Palestinians.

If any of the above sounds familiar, it is because Lebanon today is standing on the same precipice that preceded the outbreak of civil war in the 1970s.

There are two key differences, however. One is that the regional situation is even more volatile today, and the second is that the explosive growth in media means that the impact of any incident is tremendously amplified, when compared to the past.

In short, the country is threatened by the establishment of private armies and militias for “self-defense,” and few people have a definitive loyalty to the state of Lebanon.

Unless the country’s current leaders learn the appropriate lessons and take a radical step in the direction of strengthening national institutions, and loyalties, the specter of civil war will continue to haunt Lebanon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 21, 2012, on page 7.




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