Lebanon's civil war: separating fact from fiction

Lebanon's civil war: separating fact from fiction
Analysis: Up to 250,000 people died in the conflict, according to accepted estimates. However Pierre Akiki, of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, arrived at very different figures in a recent study.
4 min read
13 April, 2015
Loyalties shifted at an alarming rate in Lebanon [Getty]

Lebanon's civil war was not "typical" nor similar to other civil conflicts. It contained a significant religious element, but this does not mean it was like the Troubles in Northern Ireland, or the wars in the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Lebanon bore not the slightest resemblance to the American civil war, nor indeed the English civil war. Lebanon's war brought together many wars into one.

In part it was a Muslim versus Christian war, but it was also a combination of inter-Muslim wars and inter-Christian wars. The Palestinians were in it from the outset, the Syrians came in soon afterwards. The Israeli enemy was never very far away.

The began on the morning of 13 April 1975, with a series of tit-for-tat killings of Maronites and Palestinians in Ain al-Rummana in East Beirut. A scuffle outside the Church of Notre Dame ended with Pierre Gemayel's security detail opening fire and killing a Palestinian fighter.

There is no universally accepted account on what happened next, particularly of who was responsible for the drive-by shooting of Gemayel's Kataib militiamen outside the same church, which provoked the revenge attack on a bus that killed 28 Palestinians.

Even the end of the war provokes controversy, although the last act was surely the Syrian army's assault on the presidential palace at Baabda on 13 October 1990, after which Michel Aoun, the commander-in-chief of the military and prime minister of the transitional government, fled to the French embassy and subsequent exile.

Changing sides

By that time, those involved in the conflict had changed several times. At the outset the Kataib, supported by Camille Chamoun's National Liberal Party Tigers militia, Sulayman Franjieh's Marada Current, the right-wing extremist Guardians of the Cedars, and other smaller parties, were pitted against several Palestinian groups and a coalition of leftist, Nasserist and Baathist militias.

But even this is a simplification. As the war flared in Beirut, some of the smaller Maronite parties disappeared while the major parties clashed. The Kataib fought the Tigers and the Marada in predominantly Christian East Beirut, before they all eventually came together under Bashir (Pierre's son) Gemayel's leadership as the Lebanese Forces (LF), which in turn splintered into warring factions a few years later. The leftist groups formed the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) before the conflict began.

     The Syrians first supported the Maronites, then switched sides to back the LNM and the Palestinians. The Israelis then came to the aid of the LF.

The Syrians first supported the Maronites, then switched sides to back the LNM and the Palestinians. The Israelis then came to the aid of the LF.

By the mid-1980s the LF had splintered into warring factions, while West Beirut saw the Nasserist Murabitun militia, the Shia Amal Movement and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party embroiled in street battles that resulted in Amal seizing control, only for Hizballah to take over after a subsequent intra-Shia conflict.

Counting the dead

Many thousands died over the 15-year of conflict. The Washington-based Lebanon Renaissance Foundation conducted a survey of casualties based on the archives of al-Nahar and al-Safir newspapers.

Its findings are remarkable, suggesting that the death toll has been greatly exaggerated.

Instead of the figures usually cited, which range from 120,000 to 250,000 killed, the foundation's study estimates 48,049 people dead and 101,745 wounded in political violence between 13 April 1975 and 31 December 2006.

Which means that these figures include not only victims of Israeli attacks but also all the assassinations and explosions in Lebanon, the clashes between the Lebanese army and various groups in the 1990s and early 2000s, right up to the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.

Fewer than half of the dead - 23,373 - were Lebanese, and many more Muslim Lebanese died than Christian. A total of 3,792 were Palestinians. About 700 Syrians, more than 1,000 Israelis, and 850 foreigners also died.

These figures are difficult to reconcile with previous estimates. For example, thousands are usually said to have died in clashes between Maronite forces and in the battles for control of West Beirut.

According to UN figures, nearly 5,000 were killed during the Israeli invasion of 1982 and its aftermath. Palestinian casualties, too, are at variance with the usual numbers: about 1,000 at Qarantina, 3,000 at Tal al-Zaatar, anywhere from 300 to 3,300 at Sabra and Shatila, and more than 2,000 in the "war of the camps".

* Pierre Akiki conducted the survey "Casualties of War" in 2014 for the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation.

This is an edited translation of the original Arabic.