The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) lasted a whopping 15 years and resulted in the deaths of as many as 150,000-250,000 (estimates vary) people. By comparison, the Syrian Civil War, which everybody agrees is a catastrophe of epic proportions, has gone on for a mere five years with only a marginally higher death toll (using the more widely accepted, it seems to me, 150,000 figure) on a per year, per capita basis. This was a brutal, extended mess of a war. And today happens to be the 41st anniversary of the event that started it, the massacre of 27 Palestinians by Christian Phalangist fighters in the Ain el-Rammaneh district in eastern Beirut.
Obviously no 15 year war happens because of one single event, and in the case of the Lebanese Civil War the roots run much deeper than the Bus Massacre. Lebanon was created as the post-Ottoman successor to the Vilayet of Beirut, which had itself only been carved off of the Vilayet of Syria (or the Vilayet of Damascus, if you prefer) by the Ottomans in 1888. When France took control of Syria and Lebanon as its post-World War I
colonial spoils League of Nations mandate, French authorities envisioned creating a “Greater Lebanon” that would largely serve as an autonomous enclave for the area’s Maronite Christian population. Christian France, naturally, wanted to do something nice for their new Christian subjects to cordon them off from the majority Muslim population they were now governing. But “Greater Lebanon,” while majority Christian (with a small but significant Druze population), also incorporated sizable areas that were home to Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims. This may not have seemed like a problem at the time, but as Lebanon achieved independence and its demographics changed (by the 1970s it was majority Muslim, and Shiʿa were its single largest religious group), the religious power dynamics were a natural destabilizing element.
The thing that triggered the destabilization was the shift in the center of the Palestinian refugee/resistance movement from Jordan to Lebanon. You may recall the events of Black September in Jordan in 1970, and the subsequent PLO-Jordan civil war that ended with the PLO being decisively defeated. The PLO subsequently made southern Lebanon its base of operations from which to strike inside Israel, which they were only supposed to do with Beirut’s permission but ha ha they hardly ever actually sought it. This meant that southern Lebanon also became Israel’s favorite place to periodically attack.
Southern Lebanon being largely Shiʿa, this led to the Palestinians and the Lebanese Shiʿa developing a sort of love-hate relationship. They had common enemies in Israel, which kept bombing them and launching the occasional commando raid into their territory, and the Lebanese government, which couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it. But the Lebanese Shiʿa also hated the fact that the PLO had moved in and taken over big swathes of southern Lebanon (a turn of events that they also blamed partially on Beirut), and then invited those Israeli strikes by attacking Israel from their Lebanese base. And while Lebanon’s Shiʿa sympathized generally with the plight of their fellow Muslim (albeit Sunni) Palestinians, the officially secular PLO didn’t play on any of those feelings of religious solidarity. Many of Lebanon’s Muslims were already steamed at their government for unequal treatment and high poverty within their community, vis-à-vis the favored Maronites, so the Palestinian problem only added to the mix.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a Druze leader named Kamal Jumblatt (d. 1977), who doesn’t really factor into today’s story but who played a huge role in the coming civil war. In 1969, Jumblatt had founded the Lebanese National Movement as a catchall opposition party for leftists and Muslims (and anybody else) angry at the Lebanese government. The grief caused by the PLO’s relocation added considerably to the list of Muslim grievances against that government and caused Jumblatt’s movement to grow stronger. The LNM took on a mostly Sunni character and fought alongside several Palestinian groups during the war.
Meanwhile, the Maronites had their own militias, affiliated with their Phalanges (or Kataeb in Arabic) political party. Bitterly opposed to the Palestinians and fiercely protective of Maronite social and political priviliege, they formed among Christian communities who were also angry that the government couldn’t or wouldn’t do something about the Palestinian situation (though, in this case, they wanted the government to get rid of the Palestinians).
It was the growing tension between the Phalangists and the Palestinians that ultimately lit the war’s fuse. On Sunday, April 13, 1975, a group of PLO fighters had some kind of altercation with Phalangists outside a Greek Orthodox church in Ain al-Rammaneh, and the driver of the PLO vehicle was shot and killed. After the mass was concluded, another group carried out a drive-by shooting on the congregation, killing four people including three bodyguards of the head of the Phalangist party, Pierre Gemayel. These shooters were driving cars that were covered–you might say suspiciously so–in bumper stickers linking them to a PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, so the PLO was blamed for the shooting. Almost immediately, armed checkpoints started going up all around Beirut, manned by Palestinians in the west and Maronites in the east.
At some point in the afternoon, a bus carrying Palestinians (some fighters, some civilians including women and children) passed through Ain al-Rammaneh on its way to the refugee camp at Sabra. It’s highly unlikely that anybody on the bus even knew about the attacks earlier in the day, let alone that they had any plans of attacking any Maronites on their way back to the camp (particularly not with children in tow). Nonetheless, a group of Phalangists, led by Pierre Gemayel’s son Bashir, opened fire on the bus and killed 27 people inside. The bus is still on exhibit today:
The Bus Massacre led to a three day killing spree, by Phalangists on one side and PLO and LNM fighters on the other, throughout Beirut, killing over 300 people, and things snowballed from there. Efforts by the Lebanese government to clamp down on the violence were met with complete disregard by the factions–Gemayel simply refused to turn over the men who had fired on the bus, for example. The PLO pulled out of the fighting in June only to jump back in the following year, and eventually the conflict came to involve Israel, Syria, and Iran, and led to the creation of Hezbollah in 1985. The continued fragility of Lebanese politics is in no small measure due to the fact that the country has yet to fully reckon with the war and its aftermath.