The Lebanese flag floating over the palace of Beit ed-Dine.

A Socioeconomic History of Hezbollah: The Breakdown of the State

In the third piece in our new series, Edwin Tran analyses the socioeconomic history of the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah. As Lebanon fell deeper into civil war, the apparatus of the state began to rapidly break down, furthering existing socio-economic imbalances. What was once called the “Switzerland of the East” rapidly became home to devastation and mass refugee migrations, and a state already teetering on the edge was plunged into the paralysis and chaos of war.

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On April 13, 1975, a Maronite consecration ceremony dedicating a new church in Beirut was interrupted by a bus containing armed Palestinians. The timeline of the incident’s opening moments is unclear, however at some point members of the Maronite Kateab (Phalanges Party) Regulatory Forces stationed just outside of the church fired onto the bus with machine guns. Twenty-seven Palestinians were killed in the assault. As a consequence of this engagement, fighting erupted throughout the city as militias and armed civilians took to the streets; by the evening, Lebanon was plunged by violence and sporadic skirmishes throughout the country.

Lebanon religious groups distribution

Fig 1.0 – Religious group distribution in Lebanon

Following this bloody night, Yasser Arafat called for aid from other Arab states, decrying the Maronite actions as being part of a conspiracy to destroy the Palestinian cause. This was met with a declaration from the Lebanese National Movement of Kamal Jumblatt, who demanded the dissolution of the Phalanges and their paramilitary organisations. The tensions and political rivalries that were characteristic of Lebanese politics had finally broken the system and erupted into outright violence. Sectarian resolves, socioeconomic grievances, and a host of other factors that were once dormant had now taken center stage in Lebanon. Where before there had been attempts at reconciliation through reform and diplomacy, such issues would now be resolved through the Lebanese Civil War.

Wartime Paralysis

In the midst of the conflict and the political upheaval that characterised the time, other issues were beginning to burst from inside the internal confines of Lebanon. Within the dissolved alliances and dramatic battles of the civil war were cases of broken homes, devastated infrastructure, and dampening socioeconomic conditions that dramatically worsened as the war progressed. While conflict remained a constant, pervasive figure, societal and economic well-being had simultaneously plunged into a free-fall descent. The eruption of the war coincided with the absolute breakdown of the Lebanese central government. In the wake of this anarchic state, government policies and services that were characteristic of the Chehabist-regime were now abandoned. In its place, various Lebanese militias and paramilitary organisations began to shoulder the weight of governmental functions.

Narratives, memoirs, and accounts of the time highlight the degradation of Lebanon following the dissolution of the state apparatus. Whether it was rural South Lebanon or the urban metropolises of Sidon and Beirut, every place in the country experienced some level of destitution, poverty, and infrastructural destruction. This is especially salient in the account of Lina Mikdadi, a Lebanese-Palestinian who documented her accounts of the war while living in Beirut. In her memoir, Mikdadi noted several changes that were becoming apparent in the Lebanese capital. By 1982, what had once been known by westerners as the “Switzerland of the East,” was now the “noisy, dirty, miserable capital in distress.” In place of the tall of skyscrapers and majestic hotels that once dominated the streets of Beirut, there were now “pitted streets and uprooted sidewalks, the damaged buildings, the posh apartment blocks turned into mass havens for thousands of poor people from other parts of the country who had come to find safety and a roof over their heads.”

These observations of poverty were further reiterated in the recollections of the Palestinian Jean Said Makdisi. One particular incident was that of the St. Simon, “an exclusive beach club whose yellow sands lolled the beautiful people of Beirut.” By 1976, “after one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the remnants of the slum community of Karantina… arrived in truckloads and took refuge there… The place was converted overnight from a luxurious playground to a slum.” While these accounts highlight specific incidents, there was a general trend of infrastructural decline and refugee migrations throughout Lebanon as a whole. These recollections showcase common themes that signified the complete collapse of the state apparatus, like the fact that “half the time there was no electricity,” or the fact that trash collection had become so untenable that many would “every day… [pass] the biggest rubbish dump in the area.”

Widening Gaps

The wholesale destruction of Lebanon highlighted a deep level of socioeconomic inequality that had only widened as a result of the war. While sectarian divides were common points of analysis for pundits, individuals like Lina Mikdadi had viewed the war as a conflict “against the bourgeoisie society.” Such sentiments were still echoed by many participants in the civil war. A 1976 interview by Thames Television with LNM leader Kamal Jumblatt saw allegations directed at the Maronites, claiming that the “Phalanges and others [were] profiting off the presence of the Syrian troops.” Such claims were especially salient when highlighting the differences in infrastructure and quality-of-life between areas held by Maronite factions versus other contemporaries. Jean Said Makdisi noted that by 1982, “there now [was] a difference between East and West Beirut that had never existed before. East Beirut [was] tended to be cleaner and more orderly… [while] West Beirut [became] more chaotic than ever.” While some areas of Beirut were defined by “lopsided ruin and decomposition… marred by layers of scar tissue,” areas held by the Maronites contained “luxurious apartment blocks.” Unlike West Beirut’s sense of destruction and poverty, East Beirut had “no slums or refugee camps… [had] fashionable shops and restaurants… [and] the cinemas were clean and luxurious.” Many were aware of the fact “the east was cleaner, more orderly, pleasanter in a middle-class sort of way, than the west side… [but] the ‘Christian’ area was created by the forcible eviction of those who were not considered acceptable.”

Sectarian divides and socioeconomic grievances were only incensed by the war. Physical demarcations between various parts of Lebanon only helped to highlight the decades of inequality that had impacted the nation. Despite the perceived sectarian tilt of the war, individuals like novelist Leila Osseirane maintained the view that “there was a reason for the fighting: Muslims were not given the same rights as Maronite Christians. Power was in the hands of the Maronites… [and Muslims] had a right to be heard.”

Revisionism and Denial

Maronite leadership seemed unconvinced at the socioeconomic grievances other factions claimed, though it is important to recognize that this was not the prevailing view held by all Maronites. Divisions within the Maronite camp indicated distinct differences in motivations, goals, and in which factions they were aligned to. With such in mind, a 1976 interview with Camille Chamoun saw the ex-president declare the Lebanese conflict as having “never been a civil war,” but being a result of foreign aggression via Palestinian organisations like Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Maronite statements during the 1975-1982 period were, as a whole, often dismissive of these socioeconomic considerations. At the thirty-fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly plenary meeting, Maronite Ambassador Boutros Khawand placed blame on the Palestinians and Israelis for the degradation of society and well-being in Southern Lebanon. Much of his rhetoric was conducted in a rather condescending tone and reflected a disingenuous attempt at stirring up support for Maronite actions. Ambassador Boutros for instance declared, “Southern Lebanon, this unfortunate district so dear to the Lebanese, which continues to suffer from repeated aggression and contradictions that result on its soil from the disruptions that often accompany Palestinian resistance action, appreciates the effort undertaken by the United Nations through the Security Council to deal with its problems, even though that effort has not been so fruitful as we and the Assembly would have wished it to be.”

By placing blame on external factors, Maronite leadership was signalling to the rest of the Lebanese populace that they were unwilling to look closely into the deeper roots of the conflict. Another striking example of this comes in the speech of President Amin Gemayel to the United Nations in 1982. There, at the thirty-seventh plenary meeting, President Gemayel applied a revisionist perspective to the conflict, claiming that “prior to the war, Lebanon was a stable, peaceful and prosperous country. Beirut was the cultural and commercial centre of the Arab world. All of a sudden the democratic edifice that was Lebanon was shattered.” President Gemayel continued with such removed points by declaring that the war had emerged “perhaps because Lebanon was too democratic, too free-and even lax.” These statements to the United Nations were an admission by the Phalanges that they did not care about the five decades of socioeconomic inequalities that defined Southern Lebanon and highlighted to most Lebanese that the Maronites were only interested in maintaining their political and socioeconomic control over the country. Indeed, the statements provided by Maronite leadership only seemed to reiterate the self-perceived superiority they held over their Muslim counterparts.

A Splintered Nation

The dissolution of the central government coupled with the heightened sense of socioeconomic tension between various Lebanese groups culminated together in an especially salient way in Southern Lebanon. The reality of Southern Lebanon was far from the removed position taken by the Phalanges. Indeed, the decades of socioeconomic disparity that had existed in the region was only exacerbated by the onset of war. In the years before the war, Lebanese Shi’ites were supported heavily through government programs and services, even if they were ineffectively implemented. The eruption of the civil war meant that the PLO, who were based in Southern Lebanon, were now the de facto governmental body reigning in the region. While there had been some solidarity amongst the two groups, fundamental changes were beginning to occur, and the Lebanese Civil War helped set in motion the awakening of the Lebanese Shiʿa community.

In the next article, we will focus on the PLO, its actions, and its failings throughout the course of the Lebanese Civil War, and how these factors led to the rise of the Imam Musa al Sadr, which led to the groundwork for the rise of Hezbollah.

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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

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Photo credit: Cover image – Guillaume Piolle / CC BY 3.0 // Demographic map of Lebanon – Sergey Kondrashov