Lebanon (1946- ), called لبنان (Libnān) in Arabic, is a small Arab country north of Israel and west of Syria along the eastern Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times it was known as Phoenicia. Now it is a weak buffer state between Israel and Syria. And Iran.
Beirut, its capital, is by far the most Western city in the Arab world. It has great food, great nightlife (when not being bombed) and beautiful women. France ruled Lebanon from 1920 to 1946. Many still speak French and have ties to France. Many also know English. Half of Lebanon lives in or near Beirut.
Because Lebanon is both Christian and Muslim, it has one foot in the West and one foot in the Muslim world. But for the same reason it is also a divided land.
Lebanon is badly split by religion:
- 35% Christian
- 25% Maronite
- 60% Muslim
- 35% Shia
- 25% Sunni
- 5% Druze
This is not one of those unfortunate accidents of history: it is the fault of the French.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the French got what is now Syria and Lebanon. Only in those days there was no such thing as Lebanon. Lebanon is something France created in 1920 for the Maronite Christians.
Maronite Christians lived mainly in the mountains. But with France on their side, they overreached themselves: they got not just the mountains, but also the cities along the coast and the farmlands to the east. Both were places where they were outnumbered by Muslims. Such a Lebanon was no longer a Christian country, but one that was half Christian and half Muslim.
Worse still, the French set up the government to give the Christians the upper hand.
All this laid the groundwork for civil war, which came in 1958 and again from 1975 to 1990. Civil war in turn led to Syria and Israel sending in their armies. Israel ruled the south, Syria ruled the rest.
Israel pulled out in 2000 and Syria in 2005. This left Hezbollah in control of the south and a weak and divided government in control of the rest.
When Syria pulled out, the United Nations asked Lebanon to get Hezbollah to lay down its arms. It did not. It could not. The Hezbollah army is much bigger and better than the government’s.
Instead of giving up its weapons, Hezbollah has been building up its stocks of rockets and missiles that Iran has been pouring in. Israel now regards this as a grave threat that must be removed.
And so in 2006 Lebanon found itself in the middle of a war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Israel has struck not only Hezbollah itself, but also every bridge and every port (like Tyre and Sidon) and airport and every road that might bring it supplies. For every Israeli killed by a Hezbollah rocket, ten Lebanese have died – mainly Shia Muslims in the southern suburbs of Beirut, many of them children. How this will ever buy Israel any peace is unclear.