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The Early Stages of Combat

To many Lebanese, the complex 1975 Civil War can be summarized in only a few words. These words are place-names, such as Ad Damur or Karantina, which evoke traumatic memories of massacres and atrocities and need no further explanation. A narrative of the Civil War is therefore more a translation of this vocabulary of suffering and pain than a chronology of campaigns.

The Sarajevo of the Lebanese Civil War occurred on April 13, 1975, when unidentified gunmen opened fire at a congregation outside a Maronite church in Ayn ar Rummanaha, Christian suburb of Beirut (see fig. 9). In apparent retaliation, members of the Christian Phalange Party (see Glossary) ambushed a bus filled with Palestinians and shot the passengers. These events initiated the escalating cycle of retaliation and revenge that came to characterize Lebanon for the next decade.

The first six months of combat were desultory by subsequent Lebanese standards, with Phalangist and Palestinian forces exchanging small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire from their respective strongholds of Al Ashrafiyah and Tall Zatar. The Phalangist strategy was predicated on forcing the army to intervene on its side. Although over 1,000 people were killed in the early fighting, many Lebanese still viewed the nascent Civil War as a transitory phenomenon that would soon abate, like past security crises. Therefore, when well-organized Muslim militias attacked the downtown Qantari district in late October 1975, causing heavy loss of life and massive property damage, many inhabitants of Beirut realized for the first time that the war was a serious affair. The Muslim side eventually took Qantari and occupied the forty-story Murr Tower, the highest building in Beirut.

On December 6, 1975, "Black Saturday," Phalangists set up roadblocks on city streets, seized an estimated 350 Muslims, and murdered them. Muslims had been easily identifiable because Lebanese identification cards indicated religious affiliation. This was the first major massacre of civilians in the Civil War and started a vicious cycle of revenge and retaliation. From this point on, after combatants of each faction conquered territory from their rivals, they routinely killed civilians.

In late 1975 and early 1976, fierce fighting engulfed Beirut's high-rise hotel district. The hotels changed hands several times, with the Muslims ultimately securing control of the area. The expanded scope and intensity of the combat increased casualties greatly, with over 1,000 killed in the first weeks of the new year.

It was at this juncture that the Army Lebanese disintegrated completely. On January 16, 1976, Minister of Defense Shamun called in the mostly Christian-manned Lebanese Air Force to bomb leftist positions in Ad Damur. In response, Muslim troops rallied to the side of Lieutenant Ahmad Khatib, who split off and declared the creation of the Lebanese Arab Army (see Appendix B). In desperation, Beirut garrison commander Brigadier Aziz Ahdab seized Beirut's radio and television stations on March 11 and announced that the Lebanese Army was stepping in to take over the government and restore order. But Ahdab's move came too late, and he was derisively nicknamed "General Television" by militia leaders, who commanded far more men.

Karantina, a slum district named after the old immigration quarantine area, was the site of the next major episode in the war. Situated so that it controlled Christian access over the Beirut River bridge to the strategic port area, it became a military target. Karantina was populated primarily by poor Kurds and Armenians but was controlled by a PLO detachment. On January 18, 1976, Christian forces conquered Karantina and massacred up to 1,000 civilians.

Two days later, revenge-seeking Palestinians and leftist Muslims attacked the Christian city of Ad Damur, located about 20 kilometers south of Beirut, and murdered between 200 and 500 Christians. The two consecutive massacres induced Muslims residing in Christian-dominated areas to flee to Muslim-held areas, and vice versa. Whereas most Lebanese towns and neighborhoods previously had been integrated, for the first time large-scale population transfers began to divide the country into segregated zones, the first step toward de facto partition.

The Christians were losing the Civil War as the Muslim-leftist side forced them to retreat farther into East Beirut. The Christians felt it imperative to retain control of Beirut's port district and constructed an elaborate barricade defense at Allenby Street. In May 1976, as the Christians tried to stave off the Muslim assault on the port district, the Lebanese Army finally entered the fray. Christian officers and enlisted men from the Al Fayadiyyah barracks outside Beirut came to the aid of their beleaguered coreligionists, bringing armored cars and heavy artillery. The Muslim advance was stopped, and the front at Allenby Street evolved into a no-man's-land, dividing Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut. Vegetation that eventually grew in this abandoned area inspired the name Green Line (see Glossary), and in 1987 it still cut the city in two.

Data as of December 1987

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Lebanon Table of Contents