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Lebanon Table of Contents



There are no navigable rivers in Lebanon, but there is some coastal shipping. Before 1975 the port of Beirut was a major entrepôt for the Middle East, especially for goods bound for Damascus and Amman. In 1974 approximately 3.4 million tons of goods were unloaded at the Beirut docks, 668,000 tons were loaded, and 932,000 tons of transit goods were handled. When the Civil War began, however, the port became a major battleground. Battles also took place there in subsequent clashes between 1978 and 1987.Despite strenuous efforts to restore the port to full working order, by 1987 it had yet to regain anything like its former prominence.

Between the start of the Civil War in 1975 until 1983, the port's best year was 1980, when some 2.7 million tons of cargo were unloaded, 248,056 tons were loaded, and 209,080 tons were handled in transit. The Israeli siege of Beirut led to a drastic drop in port activity in 1982, when goods handled fell to less than two-thirds of the 1980 level.

The shipping industry did not fare well in 1983, the last full year in which the central government could claim to control both halves of the national capital. Although cargo unloaded recovered somewhat to about 2.5 millions tons, cargo loaded was only 105,640 tons, and transit cargo dwindled to a mere 87,415 tons.

The port was closed for five months following the division of the city in February 1984, resulting in lost revenues of around US$30 million. The closure was the longest in the port's history. When the port reopened in July, the Jumayyil government tried to improve conditions by taking over the port's fifth basin, previously controlled by the LF, and closing another LF-controlled illegal port at Ad Dubayyah. These gains were purely temporary, however. In 1986 the LF regained control of the fifth basin, which the government allowed to be run by a new company owed partly by the LF. The government also allowed the company to run the illegal port at Ad Dubayyah and the official port of Juniyah. The establishment of the new company was really little more than legalization of an essentially illegal operation since the LF already controlled the ports and was denying the government customs revenues.

Illegal, or unofficial, ports--those not under the control of the government--developed in the 1970s. By the 1980s, they had become Lebanon's principal purveyors of imports. These ports, mainly controlled by the principal militia groups, were used for a wide variety of imports, ranging from basic necessities to military supplies from Israel and Libya. As of 1987, as many as twenty illegal ports, mostly controlled by militias, were in operation.

The volume of goods discharged at the illegal ports cannot be measured exactly. Nevertheless, two prominent Lebanese economists, Marwan Iskandar and Elias Baroudi, noted in a 1983 analysis of Lebanese port activity that the 19-percent drop in cargo unloaded at the legal Beirut port in 1981 did not necessarily reflect a drop in total imports--a large proportion of imports came through illegal ports. Observers believed an extremely effective central government would be needed to transfer or return revenues from the ports to the national treasury.

With rival militias flanking the port of Beirut and periodically forcing its closure, Lebanon's other ports might have been expected to pick up some of the slack (see table 5, Appendix A). Traffic at Tripoli did rise steadily from 1975 to 1979 but declined thereafter. It suffered from fighting in 1983 between Palestinian and Syrian forces in the northern section of the port of Tripoli and because of the increasing effectiveness of Lebanon's illegal ports. In late 1985, however, after Syrian forces had imposed calm, traffic at Tripoli grew to 50,000 tons per month by January 1986.

Lebanon's other traditional ports at Tyre and Sidon also have had troubled histories. Tyre suffered during the Civil War, during the Israeli invasions of 1978 and 1982, and during other Israeli military actions. Sidon was similarly afflicted, escaping only the 1978 assault. Both ports have also witnessed some internal conflict. After Israel's 1984 pullout from much of Lebanon, however, Tyre appeared to enjoy a revival of its local economy. Although Sidon suffered from further Shia-Palestinian conflict, it recovered modestly, and its export trade increased in early 1987.

Israel has persistently intervened in Lebanese maritime affairs. Its actions ranged from dispatching gunboats to positions off Beirut, a fairly common occurrence, to closing ports under Israeli control, such as Tyre and Sidon in 1984. From time to time, Israeli forces searched ships bound to or from Lebanese ports. In 1984, late 1986, and early 1987, Israel also stopped several ships ferrying passengers between Larnaca in Cyprus and Juniyah, the principal port of the Maronite heartland. Israel claimed that the ships were being used to infiltrate Palestinian guerrillas into Lebanon and warned that the Larnaca-Juniyah link would be closed altogether if the vessels continued to carry Palestinian fighters.

Data as of December 1987

Country Listing

Lebanon Table of Contents