Strange states: Free Lebanon State (1979 – 1984)

The story of the Lebanese Republic has largely been a tragic one.  This small state, wedged between Israel to the south and Syria to the east and north, has been time and time again walked all over by its far more powerful neighbors.  Lebanon’s ethnic and religious diversity has also been a cause of instability, as the country struggled – and still struggles – to establish a strong national identity.  To this day, one of the most serious problems Lebanon faces is factionalism.  In many parts of the country, militias connected with political parties and movements still have far greater control over their own territory and population than does the legal government based in Beirut.

A map of the deployment of UNIFIL peacekeepers throughout southern Lebanon. The highlighted territory roughly corresponds with the formerly Israeli-occupied “South Lebanon Security Belt”, the area in which the Israel-allied Free Lebanon State exerted some control.

Both Israel and Syria have used this factionalism to their advantage by allying with Lebanese militias.  The Lebanese War of the late 1970s and 1980s saw both regular Israeli and Syrian military units operating alongside Lebanese allies.  The leader of one of those Israel-aligned factions, Major Saad Haddad, used this opportunity to his advantage.  Haddad, a prominent Lebanese Christian politician and Lebanese Army officer, had defected to the Israelis in 1975 at the start of the series of conflicts that would rack Lebanon for the next fifteen years.  The militia he formed, the Free Lebanon Army, and his association with an American evangelist radio preacher would give him the support necessary to declare the creation of a new Christian state in the south of Lebanon.

Haddad’s announcement of the establishment of the Free Lebanon State on April 18, 1979 was made on the Voice of Hope radio station.  Voice of Hope had been set up in southern Lebanon that year by one George Otis, a wealthy American businessman turned born-again-Christian.  The goal of the station had apparently been simply to broadcast religious programming to the Christians of southern Lebanon.  However, Maj. Haddad’s forces used the station for his own political purposes as well.1  Upon receiving word of Haddad’s announcement, the legal Lebanese government in Beirut officially expelled him from the Lebanese Army and leveled a charge of treason against him.

None of this meant much to Haddad, who was now in control of large parts of southern Lebanon under the aegis of the Israel Defense Forces.  The newly formed Free Lebanon State, along with the Free Lebanon Army militia, was headquartered in Marjayoun, an inland town in the hills to the east of the Litani River.

Beaufort Castle, a 12th century Crusader castle, stands near Marjayoun. This now-ruined medieval fortress served as a base for the PLO and later for the IDF during the Lebanese War. (Source: David Germain-Robin, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3309425)

While the State was formally declared in 1979 and was officially disestablished after Haddad’s death from cancer in 1984, the de facto loss of control of the Lebanese government over its southern territories occurred before 1979 and continued well beyond the end of the Lebanese War.  The IDF crossed into Lebanon on March 15, 1978, following attacks from across the border made by Fatah, the military wing of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.  The PLO was then headquartered in Lebanon and maintained a presence in the south of the country, a presence that was threatened by the IDF.  Over the course of the operation, the IDF and the Free Lebanon Army waged war upon the PLO forces, which successfully withdrew to the north despite Israeli efforts to cut the Palestinian fighters off at the Litani River with paratrooper units.

Free Lebanon State leader Saad Haddad (right) in discussion with Norwegian UN troops. (Source: By Svein H. Olsen – Photographed by Svein H. Olsen, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=710157)

Israel’s crossing into Lebanon was condemned by the UN General Assembly as an illegal invasion days later, and the IDF soon thereafter slipped back across the border – but not without leaving a “security zone” of territory along the border in the hands of the loyal Free Lebanon Army.   It was in this atmosphere that Saad Haddad was able to declare the creation of a new state.

The Free Lebanon State went unrecognized by every other country in the world, even by Israel, which likely did not want to be accused of supporting a separatist group and thereby trying to pull Lebanon apart.  Nevertheless, the State and the militia that supported it relied completely upon the support of the IDF and the existence of the South Lebanon Security Belt.  This reliance became most evident in 2000, when Israeli forces directed by new Prime Minister Ehud Barak pulled out of Lebanon altogether.2  Upon the Israeli withdrawal, the power of the SLA collapsed, and many of its militiamen accompanied the departing Israelis in order to escape possible reprisals from their fellow Lebanese.

Who would have carried out reprisals against former SLA fighters?  The most likely party would be Hezbollah, a Shi’a Lebanese militia aligned with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Hezbollah was formed during the Lebanese War in the mid-80s with direct Iranian support and became a party to the fighting, both in Beirut and in the south of Lebanon, where much of the country’s Shi’a population resides.  Hezbollah had already made an international name for itself by kidnapping Western journalists in Lebanon throughout the 1980s and early 90s.  By the late 90s, the party had established a strong base of support in the south of the country by setting itself up as the principal resisters to Israeli occupation.  This necessarily made the SLA Enemy Number Two, since they represented the native Lebanese support for Israel in the south.   The Lebanese Communist Party and the leftist Palestinian PFLP, both of which had militia forces in the south, also counted themselves as enemies of the IDF and the SLA.

Souvenir of war: A Tiran-5 tank captured by Shi’a forces in southern Lebanon carrying a cardboard cutout of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Although the Lebanese War and the offshoot conflict in the south of Lebanon are now long over, unrest has never truly left the region.  The friction between the states of the Levant and the different sects and nationalities living there continues to this day, threatening both the territorial integrity of those states and the peace and security of the people living in them.

1 To be fair, George Otis seems to have had political purposes as well – Otis himself had significant Israeli connections, and his company, High Adventure Ministries, espouses the belief that total Israeli control over the territory of the biblical Kingdom of Israel will trigger the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.  The same idea is also held by many politically influential American evangelicals.

2 It is debated whether Israel has actually pulled out of Lebanon altogether. Both the Lebanese government and Hezbollah continue to claim that the ~25 square kilometer Sheba’a Farms in the inland of the country, currently a part of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is historically Lebanese territory. Hezbollah maintains that it is still at war with Israel in part upon the basis of this claim.

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