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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Lebanon

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Lebanon, 11 March 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48a7eaf0c.html [accessed 17 April 2014]
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.

Tolerance amid Lebanon's great religious diversity came under heavy strain in 2007 as a result of the July 2006 war between Israel and Lebanese-based Hezbollah militants, deepening regional Sunni-Shia tensions resulting from the Iraqi civil war, and a continuation of the long-standing divide in Lebanese politics pitting advocates of a pro-Western orientation against those favouring a greater alignment with Syria and the Arab world. Lebanon's system of political confessionalism – the allotment of political offices to particular religious groups – continued to act as a catalyst for tension among various groups. At the same time, the divide between pro-Syrian and pro-Western sentiment created deeper divides within Lebanon's minority communities.

In the aftermath of the devastating war with Israel in 2006, Lebanon's recently booming tourist industry was left in tatters, and the country's sharp economic decline contributed to resentment among non-Shia Muslims of Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, increasingly blamed for provoking the war. For its part, in late 2006, Hezbollah withdrew all Shia members of government and launched major protests in Beirut demanding a larger Shia voice in Lebanese affairs, commensurate with its share of the country's population. A backlash among Sunni Arabs, along with some Christians and Druze, further reduced what remained of Hezbollah's standing as a protector of the nation.

In May, the UN Security Council approved establishment of an international tribunal to investigate and prosecute those responsible for a string of assassinations of prominent Lebanese officials and journalists opposed to Syria's years-long influence, beginning with the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Pro-Syrian political factions in the opposition, most notably Hezbollah and Maronite Christian followers of former Maronite militia leader and current Member of Parliament Michel Aoun, viewed the development as one more element in an alleged pro-American, pro-Israeli plot to turn Lebanon against the Arab world.

Lebanon's key divide between advocates of closer relations with the Arab world or the West is mirrored within the Maronite Christian community. Maronite leader Michel Aoun was once an opponent of Syria's influence in the country, but is now one of the most prominent figures in the opposition to the current pro-Western government. Meanwhile prominent anti-Syrian Maronite Christians have faced the threat of political assassination. In November 2006, assassins gunned down Pierre Gemayel, a young MP and son of a former president, who was also active in opposing Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs. Amid allegations of voting irregularities, a pro-Syrian Maronite Christian won a by-election for his seat in parliament in August 2007. A bombing in September 2007 killed another Maronite anti-Syrian MP, Antoine Ghanim, and six others in a mainly Maronite suburb of Beirut. As 2007 progressed, pro-Western and pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon focused their attention and energy on who would succeed current Maronite pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Because the position is reserved for Maronites, the national divide animated divisions within the Maronite community. Leading contenders for the presidency, due to be chosen by parliament, were Michel Aoun and former President Amin Gemayel, the father of murdered MP Pierre Gemayel. A boycott by pro-Syrian factions delayed the vote three times, and Lahoud's term expired in late November. Parliament had failed to identify a successor capable of gaining the necessary two-thirds vote and in early December the office of president remained vacant.

With exception of Palestinians, most, but not all, Sunnis align politically with the pro-Western faction in Lebanon's main political divide, and prominent anti-Syrian Sunnis have been assassinated in recent years – most notably former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A June 2007 blast killed Sunni politician and Syria critic Walid Eido along with nine others.

In the midst of Lebanon's political and sectarian crisis, the festering plight of the country's 250,000–300,000 Palestinian refugees erupted anew during 2007. The Palestinian community, refugees displaced by the 1948 creation of Israel and their descendants, continues to confront severe official discrimination in Lebanon, in part due to fears that integration of this large group of Sunni Muslims would upset the country's precarious sectarian-religious political balance. The growing refugee population has remained shoe-horned into 12 overcrowded camps whose confines have barely been allowed to expand since 1948. Palestinians are not allowed to own property, face tight restrictions on extending their homes, are barred from many professions, and are largely prevented from travel.

The Lebanese government accused Palestinian militants of the Fatah al-Islam faction of bombing two buses in a Christian town in February 2007, killing three; the attack was one day prior to the two-year anniversary of the Hariri assassination. The government also accused the group of several bank robberies throughout early 2007. Following arrests of faction members for one such robbery in May, Fatah al-Islam militants holed up in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp fired on Lebanese soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The army responded with indiscriminate shelling and fighting lasted for the next 15 weeks. An estimated 35,000–40,000 Palestinian civilians fled the camp during the conflict, in which 40 civilians died along with 168 Lebanese soldiers; around 400 militants were captured or killed as the army eventually prevailed. In October the first of the camp's residents were allowed to return, many finding their houses destroyed and some complaining that the army had looted their property.

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