Did the Phalangists of the 70’s set the stage for Hezbollah of today?

by Ghassan Karam - This is the 4th installment of the book The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic, by Jonathan Marshall.

by Ghassan Karam

This is the 4th installment of the book The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic, by Jonathan Marshall. The book is published by Stanford Press and is banned in Lebanon. These short summaries are intended to shed some light on what the Lebanese authorities would like to keep away from the public: the probable involvement of many of the Lebanese politicians in the illicit drug trade. This matter ought to be investigated and the concerned clans should be held accountable at a minimum politically. They must not be re elected to a public office since they have done everything to betray the public trust. If the Lebanese public chooses to ignore all of the evidence about the probable involvement of its leaders in criminal activities on a global scale then that is their privilege. But by doing so they would have helped paint a picture of their beliefs, interests and values, values that are inimical to a diverse, democratic and just society.

The following précis of chapter 4 shows the rise of militias, inability of the Lebanese Army and government to hold anyone accountable and a Palestinian wave after wave of migration into Lebanon after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. As the tension grew the parties fought each other and each sought arms at any price including that derived from illicit means. What I find to be fascinating is that the Phalange party was the first to defy the government, to offer protection to the Christians whom it viewed as aggrieved, to establish a state within a state and to deal ruthlessly with whoever dared challenge it. The above begs for two questions to be asked:

(1)    Did the Phalange militia then play a similar kind of a role to what the military wing of Hezbollah is doing today?

(2)    If all of these troubles in Lebanon and even Syria and Jordan can be strongly linked to the Six Day War then isn’t it time to reevaluate the real outcome of that war? Was it the smashing victory that it often is portrayed to be?


The Lebanese civil war had many reasons; chief amongst them was the Christian-Palestinian tension. The intensity of this tension was pulled to the point of breaking by the catastrophic military defeat of the Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Lebanese army refused to engage the Israeli IDF although the Prime minister wanted to.

The territorial losses of the conflict were the Sinai, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. The biggest impact on Lebanon was the loss of East Jerusalem and the West Bank which drove another wave of Palestinian refugees to join those that arrived less than twenty years earlier. The newly arriving Palestinians poured into the poorly equipped camps in and around Beirut and the rest of the country. The wretched conditions of life in the camps became more difficult. These teeming masses presented a challenge to the local authorities and to the Lebanese army in particular who had no interest in getting into a fight with the larger, and vastly better equipped and trained Israelis. The Palestinians however intensified their challenge to the Lebanese government who signed the Cairo accords in 1969 declaring the camps as self governing areas in Lebanon.  This already combustible circumstance was made even worse with the Jordanian operation of Black September in 1970. King Hussein fought the Palestinian commandoes in Jordan and forced them to flee. Most came to the already crowded and debilitated Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

“The Phalangists began to make it their mission to oppose Palestinian commandos” during 1970 according to Winslow. Some of these confrontations were purely drug related although many more were related to the substantial increase in the Palestinian military style operations launched from Lebanese soil. The results were predictable: an Israeli raid on Lebanon on March 1972, another during May of 1972 followed by one in September of the same year in addition to the operation that assassinated PLO officials in Beirut during April 1973. Yet bigger things were to come. The Palestinian operation in Keryat Shemona and Ma’alat triggered an invasion of Lebanese territory in January 1975 which led to a confrontation between the PFLP fighters and the Lebanese Army.

It was in such an atmosphere of powerlessness by the state that the Phalange militia stepped in. The vacuum created by the inability of the government to interfere either against the Israelis, the Palestinian commandos or the Phalange militia encouraged the formation of a multitude of other independent and illegal militias: Chamoun of the NLP had his Tigers, Jumblatt had his Druze militia of the PSP, president Frangieh formed his Marada, Amal had its Shia fighters, The Syrian National Party had its own fighters as did the Nasserites and the Tashnaq party. All of these fighters had to be paid a monthly wage of $200 to $450 per month which was beyond the financial capabilities of these local groups. This potential shortfall was resolved, as is often the case, through foreign patronage and a greater dependence on the Drug trade.

In the same way that the influx of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon was caused primarily by events totally out of the control of Lebanon (the Six Day War and then the Black September operation) the heroin trade was being substantially transformed by events that Lebanon had no control over. Lebanese heroin had the reputation of being the purest in the world and so it was sought after by traffickers from all over the globe. Omar Makkouk, Sami Khourys’ chemist, was supplying Allen-Rud of Miami who was reputed to have about 80 % of US distribution under his command.

These conditions, however, were not to last. President Nixon had waged his “war on Drugs”, convinced Turkey to clamp down on cultivation of poppies and morphine production in addition to the cooperation of President Pompidou in France who also marshaled more French resources to fight drug traffickers. The net result of this was relentless pressure on drug dealers in Marseille and a decline in heroin revenue in Lebanon. This new drug regime made it easier for the Palestinians to get involved by offering their camps for the consummation of drug deals away from the eyes of the Lebanese police.  This new hierarchy led to many confrontations between the Phalange militia and the Palestinian commandos such as the Dikwaneh-Tal-Zatar clashes that aggravated the relationship between the fighters. But yet the militias had to generate adequate revenues to purchase the arms and to pay the wages for their members that numbered in the 1000’s. This conundrum was resolved through illegal ports for drug exports and the illegal imports of all sorts of goods.

The fight to control ports became the trigger for the Lebanese civil war. A firm; Protein; was awarded the right to control fishing at Sidon. But Protein was a Chamoun outfit whose Tigers “earned a reputation for undisputed thugery… (and) its job was aiding the Chamoun family business empire and protecting its smuggling rackets”. This decision led to street demonstrations and the shooting death of Marouf Sa’ad and was reversed. The next day the increased tension between the antagonists worsened as the Phalangists mowed down 27 Palestinians in response to 2 Phalangists that were murdered earlier.

These tragic events led to demonstrations and counter demonstrations and militia rule all across the country. This chaotic set up also encouraged the Israelis to launch two attacks one in May 1975 and the other in August 1975. Obviously both were not opposed by the Lebanese army whose impotence encouraged disintegration of the country into fiefdoms and road bloc executions based on the ID card religious affiliation. Lebanon had become the theater of operations of Gaddafi, GCC, Israel, CIA and all sort of “wing groups … (that) began to arm by night”. Soviet arms poured in from Latakia, Syria as well as Tyre, Sidon and Tripoli. Not to be outdone the right-wing militias purchased arms from Western Europe with funds supplied by the GCC. The Christian militias in particular were looking for further funds and so “in return for drugs European smugglers reportedly provided arms via Zurich, Berne and Hamburg”.

A major figure in these deliveries was Sarkis Soghanlian, a Syrian Armenian, who grew up in Lebanon, served in the French Army and was married to an American in Beirut. You can’t get more cosmopolitan than that. The efforts by Mr. Soghanlian, the largest arms broker in the world, to supply the Lebanese right –wing militias were also augmented by those of Samuel Cummings, Adnan Khashoggi, other CIA operatives and the state of Israel. Weapons from all over the world and of all levels of sophistication were pouring in through the illegal ports. All were paid for either through direct gifts or through illegal activities that were primarily drug based. By September 1975 “The Maronite militias killed one another for control of the port of Beirut… they fought for the hashish trade and for the right to rob … (a) particular bank”. Lebanon had fallen as low as a state could fall.