On this day in 1976, forces from the Christian Lebanese Front militia and Phalangists overran a Muslim slum in East Beirut and began the Karantina Massacre. 1,500 civilians – Muslims from Syria, Kurdistan and Palestine – were killed in a stunning display of sectarian violence. The massacre was an early event in the Lebanese Civil War which resulted in reprisals against Beirut’s Christian population. The war would continue for nearly 16 years, finally ending in the fall of 1990. Throughout the decades of fighting, roughly 150,000 people lost their lives and 76,000 remain displaced by the fighting as of 2020.
The Lebanese Civil War began in 1975 as Arab and Christian nationalism collided. Lebanon had been a multi-ethnic state with large numbers of Sunni and Shia Muslims co-existing with Maronite Christians, an arrangement fairly typical of Middle Eastern states prior to colonization. However, French influence after the 1920 Mandate resulted in a Christian hegemony over a Muslim majority population, and the ensuing tensions lived on well into the 1970s. Like most battlegrounds of the Cold War, Lebanon became an arena for clashes between much larger powers: Syria, Israel, the US, the Soviet Union and several other global players all had a hand in equipping and training various fighting groups. Arab pan-nationalist groups like the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) generally found support amongst other Arab nations; Christian groups like the Phalangists (phalanx) of the Kataeb Party received some support from the West. Lebanon’s war – and massacres like the one at Karantina – are a tragic example of what happens when great powers divide a population along sectarian lines.