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State of the World's Minorities 2007 - Lebanon

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 4 March 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2007 - Lebanon, 4 March 2007, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In late 2006, identity politics and sectarian tensions were rising in Lebanon following political assassinations and the fall-out from the July war between Hezbollah and Israel that resulted in over 1,000 civilian deaths, the displacement of over 1 million Lebanese, and the widespread destruction of the country's infrastructure, especially in the south.

Lebanon's Islamic majority is sharply divided into Sunni and Shia groupings that have usually been on opposite sides of political divides, leaving the country without an effective majority. Lebanon's minority groups also display internal political divisions. Lebanon's largest group is Shia Muslims, making up 32 per cent of the population, which has generally felt more drawn to Arab traditions and ties, and thus more open to influence and support from Syria and Iran. Maronite Christians (16 per cent) and Sunni Muslims (18 per cent) have long dominated Lebanese government and maintained closer relationships with former colonizer France and other Western countries. Smaller minority groups are Palestinians (10 per cent), Druze (7 per cent), Greek Orthodox (5 per cent), Greek Catholic (5 per cent), Armenians (3 per cent), Alawis (3 per cent) and Kurds (1 per cent).

Following its 1975–90 sectarian civil war, Lebanon returned to a modified form of political confessionalism, whereby government positions are apportioned among the main religious groups of the country. This system has led to under-representation of smaller minorities in government, with the Druze community in particular chafing at its limitations.

Palestinian refugees have been particularly marginalized in Lebanon. About half of the country's 400,000 Palestinians live in the south and half of them live in camps. Palestinians are denied citizenship and, although restrictions were loosened in June 2005, they remain barred from many professions and relegated to manual labour.

The country's ethnic and religious groups live largely segregated throughout the country. Shia, concentrated in the south, felt neglected by successive Maronite-Sunni governments in Beirut, and formed Hezbollah with Iranian and Syrian backing in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Following the February 2005 assassination of the Sunni former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Sunni, Christian and Druze opponents of broad Syrian influence in Lebanon took to the streets to launch the March 2005 'Cedar Revolution', while Hezbollah and the Shia community demonstrated in support of Syria. Hezbollah complained bitterly when anti-Syrian forces won control of parliament two months later and, with the support of the UN Security Council, prodded Syria to end its 30-year military occupation.

In July 2006, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers along the border, sparking a fierce Israeli military assault on Lebanon. While the brunt of the attack came in the Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon, from where the organization had long fired rockets indiscriminately into northern Israel, it extended to most parts of Lebanon. Lebanon was cut off from the outside world through a naval blockade and the bombing of runways at Beirut airport and strategic road infrastructure throughout the country, ostensibly to prevent Hezbollah's re-supply from Syria. The bombings, and an Israeli ground invasion, continued until 14 August, as did Hezbollah rocket fire into Israel. Human rights organizations blamed both sides for the indiscriminate nature of their attacks, which killed over 1,000 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians. The United Nations estimated that, as of 1 November 2006, 150,000–200,000 Lebanese remained displaced as a result of the conflict.

The already vulnerable Palestinian refugee community in southern Lebanon was particularly hard hit by the war. Not only were some of their camps and homes damaged or destroyed by Israeli air raids, but many lost their livelihoods. Israel made broad use of cluster bombs during the war, and hundreds of thousands of unexploded munitions now litter southern Lebanese agricultural fields on which many Palestinian labourers depend for their income.

In September 2006, Refugees International warned that displaced Christians and Sunni Muslims in the majority Shia south were reluctant to return home for fear of discrimination by Hezbollah. Indeed, Hezbollah appeared to be more effective than the government in providing cash assistance to those residents of the south whose homes had been destroyed in the bombing.

During the war, as Israel targeted all parts of Lebanon, destroying its booming tourist season and setting back its economic development by years, many Lebanese of all communities rallied around Hezbollah in their anger. However, shortly after the war, representatives of non-Shia communities were loud in their remonstrations against Hezbollah for having provoked Israel and having brought such destruction to Lebanon.

On 11 November 2006, all Shia members of government resigned, ending its ethnic balance. Subsequent parliamentary approval of an international investigation into the Hariri assassination fuelled Hezbollah demands that the government step down to pave the way for new elections that the organization felt should end Shia under-representation.

The assassination of Industry Minister and Maronite Christian leader Pierre Gemayel on 21 November 2006 resulted in the further sharpening of sectarian tensions. Many Sunni, Druze and Christians, and, internationally, the United States, immediately suspected Syrian involvement, and the UN Security Council approved the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to investigate the Hariri and Gemayel assassinations, as well as other killings of prominent anti-Syrian figures since early 2005. Political leaders and Lebanese citizens alike appeared to be balancing their anger and sense of injustice with wariness about nearing the abyss of war.

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