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Lebanon, a nation that once proudly called itself the
Switzerland of the Middle East, is today a country in name
only. Its government controls little more than half of the
nation's capital, Beirut. Its once-vibrant economy is a
shambles. and its society is fragmented - so fragmented,
some believe, that it may be impossible to re-create a
unified state responsive to the needs of all its varied
Lebanon lies on the eastern shore of the Mediterranea n
Sea, in that part of southwestern Asia known as the Middle
East. Because of its location - at the crossroads of Asia,
Europe, and Africa - Lebanon has been the center of
commerce and trade for thousands of years. it has also been
on the route of numerous conquering armies.
With an area of 4,015 square miles, Lebanon is one of the
smallest countries in the Middle East. it is smaller than
every state in the United States except Delaware, Rhode
Island, and Connecticut. Lebanon is sandwiched between
Syria in the north and east and Israel in the south. the
maximum distance from the nation's northern border to the
southern one is only 130 miles. and the maximum distance
from the Mediterranean Sea to the Lebanon-Syria border is
50 miles. In the south, along the border with Israel,
Lebanon's eastern border is only 20 miles from the sea.
Although a tiny land, Lebanon boasts a great diversity in
its landscape which makes it one of the most picturesque
countries in the world. the coast line is br oken by many
bays and inlets of varying size. At some points, the
mountains wade silently right into the sea - then climb
suddenly tier on tier away from the Mediterranean to the
sky. Because of the limitation of flat agricultural land,
all but the steepest hillsides have been patiently and
neatly terraced and planted with garlands of twisted
grapevines. the mountains lend a great variety of hues -
pale pink, rosy red, forest green or deep purple - to the
landscape. Depending on the time of day, they never appear
the same twice, and from time to time whipped white clouds
hide all except their snow-capped peaks. Even on the
darkest night, the lights of the villages perched on the
mountains shine in small clusters as a reminder of their
presence. On c loser view, the mountains become a jumble of
giant gorges, many of them over a thousand feet deep, with
rocky cliffs, steep ravines and awesome valleys. These
unassailable bastions have offered a secure hideaway,
throughout history, for hermits and persecuted groups
seeking refuge.
Lebanon has four distinct geographical regions: a narrow -
but fertile - coastal plain; two roughly parallel mountain
ranges that run the full length of the country - the
Lebanon, which rises in the west to an alpine hei ght of
11,000 feet while the eastern range, the anti-Lebanon, is
crowned magestically by the snow-capped Mount Hermon at
9,232 feet. the two chains of mountains shelter between
them a well-cultivated plateau extending seventy miles in
length and fifteen miles in width. This tableland is called
the Bekaa. This is a fertile strip of land 110 miles long
and six to ten miles wide. Zahle, the third largest city in
the country, is in the valley. the country's two most
important rivers, the Litani and the Orontes, rise in the
northern Bekaa near Baalbek, a city that dates to Roman
times. the Litani flows southwest through the Bekaa Valley
and then empties into the Mediterranean Sea north of Tyre.
Its waters are used for irrigation, so it becomes a mere tr
ickle by the time it gets to the sea. the Orontes rises not
far from the Litani, but it flows northward between the two
mountain ranges, wending its way into Syria. Beyond the
Bekaa and the anti-Lebanon mountains, the Syrian desert
only stretches east f or about 800 miles to the valley of
the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This geography has been a
determining factor for millenia in keeping Lebanon turned
toward the West.
the landscape cannot be described without mentioning the
most celebrated tree o f Lebanon, the cedar. Called by
 the Lebanese "Cedar of the Lord," this famed tree retains
somewhat of a sacred aura this day. it has become the
 symbol of Lebanon and appears in the center of the flag,
on the coins, and often on postage stamps. Since an cient
times the cedar constituted a valuable export which
provided King Solomon with timber for the construction of
his Temple, the Phoenicians with wood for their seafaring
galleys , the Egyptians with lumber for their palaces.
Unhappily only a few grov es of these stately trees have
survived the ax of the builder, the seeker of fuel, or the
hunger of goats. Cedars generally grow on the highest
mountain tops so it is not surprising to find an ancient
grove of 450 trees nestled under the highest peak. Th is
grove, the only remaining large one, may be seen as small
dark specks on the bare face of the mountain side from a
distance of many miles. A few of the existing trees may be
1,000 years old, and it is estimated that twenty of them
have grown for more than 400 years. the largest measure
about twelve feet in circumference, eighty feet in height
and their branches spread an unbelievable 100 feet.
the olive, another tree closely associated with Lebanon, is
extensively cultivated, and old gnarled oli ve groves cover
many of the lower hills and valleys. For centuries olives
have been a staple in the diet while their oil has taken
the place of butter among the peasants who still firmly
believe in the medicinal benefits of warm olive oil applied
to stra ins, sprains and earaches. the diversity of soil
and the elevation produce a great variety of other trees
including oaks, pines, junipers, firs, cyprus, sycamore,
fig, banana, acacia and date palm. Orange, lemon, apple and
other fruit trees have been ra ised commercially in recent
years. Besides supplying the local market with a great
variety of delicious fresh fruit, the harvest is exported
to neighboring countries and provides Lebanon with a main
source of income.
the narrow plain along the Medit erranean coast is the most
densely populated part of Lebanon. Here and there the
Lebanon Mountains push down to the sea, and thus there is
no coastal plain. In other spots the plain is so narrow
that there is barely enough room for a road. However, in a
number of places the coastal plain is wide enough to
accommodate population centers, and it is here, between the
foothills of the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, that
two of Lebanon's most important cities - Beirut and
Tripoli- are located. Be irut - Lebanon's capital, largest
city, and major port - is located at about the midpoint of
the country's coastline. Today, much of Beirut lies in
ruins. it has been a battlefield on which the contending
forces of have warred to see who could cause the greatest
destruction. But before 1975, when the civil war erupted,
Beirut was the nation's cultural and commercial heart and
on of the most beautiful and prosperous cities in the
Middle East. Lebanon's second largest city, Tripoli, is
also on the c oast, some 40 miles north of Beirut. Because
most of the people in this city are Sunni Moslems, it had,
until 1983, escaped the destruction brought to Beirut by
the Moslem- Christian fighting. But in late 1983, warring
factions of the Palestine Liberati on Organization fought
their battles in and around Tripoli. Hundreds of Lebanese
were killed, buildings were destroyed, and oil-storage
tanks were set ablaze. A large part of Tripoli's population
fled the battle area, but returned in December 1983 after
the PLO forces loyal to Yasir Arafat were evacuated.
Other important cities on the coastal plain are Juniye,
Sidon, and Tyre. Sidon and Tyre are south of Beirut and
have been occupied by Israeli troops since the Israeli
invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
In 1984, the population was estimated at 3,480,000 Lebanese
(these are estimated because no poll has been officially
taken since 1932). Almost all of these people, whether they
are Christian or Moslem, are Arabs, and Lebanon is an Arab
country. Mo st of the people can speak French or English or
both, but Arabic is the national language. However, the
national unity that usually comes from a common language
and heritage has eluded the Lebanese people. In many ways,
the country is less a nation than a collection of fuedal-
like baronies based on religious lines. Each religious
community has its own leaders and its own fighting force,
or militia. it is reminiscent of China during the early
years of the twentieth century, when that nation had a weak
central goverment and was ruled by various warlords
scattered throughout the country, each seeking political
and economic dominance.
the Moslems, who now constitute more than half the
population, are divided into three major sects: the
Shiites, the S unnis, and the Druse. the Christians include
the Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Orthodox
and Catholic Armenians, and Protestants. But neither the
Christians nor the Moslems are truly unified; throughout
their history Moslem and Christian se cts have fought for
political and economic gain.
the Moslems, who in 1932 were in the minority, now make up
56 percent of the population in Lebanon. the Shiites,
 the poorest of the Moslem sects, number about 1 million.
They are concentrated in West Beirut and in the city's
southern suburbs, as well as in southern Lebanon in and
around Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley.
the Sunnis number about 600,000 and are concentrated in
West Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, and Akkar, in the northernmost
part of the count ry. Rashid Karami, a former Lebanese
prime minister, is the leader of the Sunnis in Tripoli and
the most influential Sunni in the country. the militia,
Morbitun, a force of 5,000 well-trained fighters, is
stationed in West Beirut, Tripoli, and other Su nni areas.
the Druse, a secretive Moslem sect, number about 350,000,
but their influence is greater than these numbers would
indicate. the Druse live primarily in the Shuf mountains
and in other areas to the south and east of Beirut. They
now have close ties to Syria, where there is a large Druse
community. the Syrians have supplied the Druse with a large
assortment of weapons, including artillery and tanks. the
Druse militia numbers about 4,000 men and has joined forces
with the Shiite militia i n and around West Beirut to
battle the Christian-dominated Lebanese army and the
Christian militias.
Another major Moslem force in the country - and a constant
threat to it - are the 500,000 Palestinian refugees and the
remnants of the PLO. Their le ader, Yassir Arafat, and
thousands of his troops were forced out of Beirut by the
Israelis in 1982 and out of Tripoli by Syrian-backed PLO
dissidents in 1983. the dissident PLO forces no longer
recognize Arafat as their leader because of his lack of
mili tancy in the fight with Israel. the Syrians, in
addition to controlling these dissident members of the PLO,
also control the 3,500-man Palistine Liberation Army.
the Christians, who in 1932 made up a majority of the
Lebanese population, are now only about 44 percent of the
population. the largest Christian sect - and thus far the
dominant one in the nation's political and economic life -
are the Maronites. They number about 580,000 and make up 38
percent of the Christian population and 17 percent of the
national population.
the Phalange party, headed by Pierre Gemayel, is the most
important Maronite political group. the Phalangist militia
is the largest of the Christian militias. it controls East
Beirut, the area along the coast just north of the capital,
and some areas in southern and central Lebanon. This
militia has been heavily armed by the Israelis.
Each of these peoples has played an important role in
Lebanese history. Moslems and Christians have lived in
harmony for long period s of time, but they have frequently
engaged in bitter warfare, much as we are seeing today.
For nearly a decade this hapless nation has suffered
continuous civil war among its various religious and ethnic
groups. it has been invaded twice by Israel, which now
controls all of southern Lebanon, and it has been occupied
by Syria, which controls most of eastern and northern
Lebanon. Nearly 500,000 Palestinians - refugees from the
Arab-Israeli wars - live in Lebanon, where they have formed
a "state with in a state." and a succession of peacekeeping
forces - Arab, United Nations, and Western - have not only
failed to establish peace, but have exacerbated the already
horrific situation.
Why haven't the Lebanese people been able to put aside
their sec tarian differences to work toward a stable
government that represents all of the people? the complete
answer to this question lies deep within the unique history
of Lebanon. In 1943, the year that France, which ruled
Lebanon as a League of Nations manda te, reluctantly gave
the nation its independance. As independence approached,
the nation's two most populous and powerful sects, the
Maronites and the Sunnis, formulated what is known as the
National Pact - an unwritten agreement that spelled out the
cou ntry's political makeup as well as its general
orientation in foreign affairs.
the National Pact allocated political power to Lebanon's
religious sects on the basis of population. the census in
1932 showed that the Christians had the majority with j ust
over 50 percent of the population. As a result, it was
agreed that the President of Lebanon would always be a
Maronite Christian and the prime minister would always be a
Sunni Moslem. Other important positions were given to other
sects. the Preside nt of the Chamber of Deputies, for
example, would always be a Shiite Moslem and the defense
minister would be a Druse. In addition, the Christians were
to have six seats in Parliment for every five seats held by
Moslems. This system guaranteed the Maron ite Christians
control of Lebanon.
This system worked well enough for fifteen years. From 1943
until 1958 the nation's economy boomed and Beirut was
transformed into the showcase city of the Mediterranean.
the government seemed stable enough, but th ere were
problems boiling beneath the surface and in the mid-1950s
the system began to come apart. For one thing, the Moslems,
especially the poorer Shiites, had a substantially higher
birthrate than the Christians; many people believed that
the Shiites had surpassed the Maronites in population. But
the Christians would not allow a new census to be taken,
for this would have meant a reallocation of the nation's
political power, with the Moslem sects gaining at the
expense of the Christians. With their hopes for political
gains dampened, the Shiites became disenchanted.
Why is this once prosperous nation on the verge of total
collapse? There are a number of reasons, but the primary
one is that the Lebanese people belong to at least fifteen
differe nt religious sects and their loyalty to these sects
is greater than their loyalty to a united Lebanon. Had the
people's sense of nationhood been stronger, they would not
have suffered the destruction of the past decade. 


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