For centuries Lebanon, like all the Arab world, was part of the Ottoman empire, governed from Constantinople. But like another mountainous area of that empire, Kurdistan, it kept itself a bit apart.
The Kurds were converted to Islam but not Arabised; the Maronite Christians of Lebanon’s mountains, originally Aramaic-speaking, were Arabised but not Islamised. From 1638, France, noting the strategic position of Lebanon’s port cities on the Mediterranean, proclaimed itself the protector of the Maronites.
When France and Britain carved up the Arab territories of the collapsed Ottoman empire after World War One, France took Lebanon, governing it as a semi-autonomous area within Syria. As well as the Maronites, Lebanon contained large numbers of Sunni and Shia Muslims, and of Druze (a sort of heretical Muslim). Greek Orthodox Christians, though not very numerous, made up a large proportion of the Beirut bourgeoisie and intelligentsia.
In 1943 France had to concede independence. It bequeathed a constitution which continued a system of “bureaucratically balanced sectarianism” introduced under French rule. The president had to be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and so on.
That “Oriental Good Friday Agreement” did better than the Irish version. It survived a crisis in 1958, when (mostly) Muslims and Druze railed against the Lebanese government in support of Egypt’s Nasser and the revolution of that year in Iraq, and US Marines landed to prop up the government.
But, trying to freeze sectarianism rather than overcome it, it was inherently unstable. It blew apart in 1975. The Druze and Muslims, increasingly confident that they were now the majority in Lebanon, challenged a carve-up which was based on the assumption that Christians were the majority.
The Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon, long downtrodden, very badly treated, and widely reviled, had become increasingly confident, and a significant factor on the Druze/ Muslim side. After the Jordanian government's massacre of Palestinians in 1970 (Black September) the exile leadership of the Palestinian movement was centred in Lebanon.
Small incidents exploded into a multi-sided civil war which continued, on and off, until 1990.
Most of the left internationally — including the forerunners of Solidarity — sided with the Druze and Muslims. They claimed and appeared to be fighting for the revision of a sectarian system into secular democracy. They had the support of the Palestinians. Their organisations presented themselves as left-wing and socialist, while the Maronites' main movement, the Phalange, took its very name from Spanish fascism. On the whole, the Druze and Muslims were poorer, the Maronites richer.
In hindsight, however, it seems unlikely that we were right. Whatever the socialist phrases, all the militias in the civil war were communalist. They changed and swapped alliances without scruple.
A Shia Muslim militia, Amal, emerged in the civil war, though its part was at first minor. It did not claim to be socialist. Hizbollah was a split from it in the early 1980s.
Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976, and kept troops there until 2005, retaining influence, power, and shifting alliances with different Lebanese factions, but not quenching the civil war.
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon. As Israeli soldiers occupied Lebanon and surrounded the big Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, Maronite militias loosely allied with Israel massacred thousands of Palestinians in those camps.
The war and the massacre provoked huge protests in Israel. Ariel Sharon, then Defence Minister, was found “indirectly responsible” for the massacre by an official Israeli inquiry, and forced out of his government position.
The Israeli invasion succeeded in its aim — to drive the Palestine Liberation Organisation out of Lebanon — but, especially in its sequels until Israel finally withdrew from the area of south Lebanon it was still occupying in 2000, generated a much larger and more rancid anti-Israeli movement in Lebanon, namely Hezbollah.
In October 1983, Shia Islamist suicide bombers carried out the deadliest single attack on US forces anywhere in the world since World War 2, killing 241 at the US Marines' barracks in Beirut. The US withdrew the Marines in February 1984.
The Shia Islamists, now organised as Hezbollah, won another gleaming victory in 2000 when they finally forced Israel out of southern Lebanon.
The latest Israeli invasion has won Hizbollah further credit, including outside the Shia Islamist population — though Hizbollah, by its very nature, is even further from being able to be a genuine “Lebanese National Movement” than the Druze/ Sunni Muslim alliance which took that name in the 1975 explosion.