An Occasion of War: Book Review

An Occasion For War was published by Leila Fawaz in 1994 and it was dedicated to the memory of Albert Hourani who spent most of his life studying the relations between the East and the West and at the same time, trying to explain the socio-political developments taking place in the East.

Although this book has a high historical value since it includes a complete historical account of the 1860 Civil War in Lebanon and the subsequent massacres which took place in Damascus, the author herself states in her preface and introduction that this book has two major goals.

The first goal is to provide the public with a clear and unbiased account of the incidents leading to the Civil War and to the developments of this war. The author claims that raising this subject again is not for the purpose of opening the wounds of history that were believed to be forgotten. Neither does she intend to pass a verdict on the parties who were involved in the atrocities of this war. Her goal is to make the public understand their historical fears and needs which they have not yet understood completely.

The second goal of this book is draw light on one of the most important conflicts residing in the Lebanese political system and which are also found in all other systems of the world. This conflict is between the centralized and non-centralized tendencies in government and state. The author believes that there is a lot of similarity between the war of 1860 and that of 1975, since behind both wars, there was a conflict between the roles of and needs for centralized and decentralized systems of government. The book as a whole comes in 300 pages of content divided into nine chapters, including the introduction and the appendix.

The book can be divided into four parts. In the first part, chapters one and two describe the local, regional and international situations that preceded the outbreak of the war in Mount Lebanon. In this part, the author goes into the details of changes taking place outside and inside Lebanon. The socio-political aspect of these changes is as important as the historical aspect. For example, Fawaz emphasizes the fast changing feudal system in Mount Lebanon and how the rivalry among the various families of the region initiated the religious and political tensions between the different sects and groups. However, she does not forget to mention the fact that “maintaining the autonomy of Mount Lebanon” depended on a network of alliances among its leading Druze and Maronite families” (p. 17) even though these alliances were open to the influences of family rivalries and competition. This structure which was enhanced by the iltizam tax system provided for an informal dynastic emirate in Lebanon which was one of the major factors establishing the autonomy of Lebanon starting the days of Fakhr al-Din II in the seventeenth century.

On the regional level, although Lebanon was developing its unique autonomic characteristics, it was incorporated in the same political system and structure that governed most of Syria, that is, the areas including Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon as they are known today. The balance between the regional belonging of Lebanon to this system and its autonomy were maintained by two important factors. The first is the mutual relations and interests the Lebanese developed with the European economies and powers. The second is the understanding between the clans and religious sects which were also influenced by the presence of European interests in Lebanon.

Fawaz attributes the demise of the Lebanese emirate and the balance of powers in Mount Lebanon to the political maneuvers witnessed in the long rule of Bashir II, especially in the early 1820s when he involved himself in the rivalries of various Druze families, with the aim of weakening these families which to a great extent threatened his own rule. Fawaz claims that sectarianism was first detected in Lebanon when the Christian Bashir II killed the Druze Shaykh Janbalat. The fact that religious enmity was the driving motive behind these acts of violence were the spark that started the fires of sectarianism and whose flames still glaze even today. Bashir II also contributed to another serious problem, namely involving external powers in the affairs of Mount Lebanon, especially when he played his stakes with the Jezzar of Sidon at times and then with the European powers at other times in order to restore his own throne and to destroy his political rivals at home.

Once started, the flames of sectarianism proved to be capable of feeding on any kind of social, political and religious differences in the community of Mount Lebanon. It divided and subdivided the families and provoked them against each other. Even in the cities where co-existence was stronger since it was based on economic interests, sectarianism was turning into the single most important factor upon which cities were divided and classified.

By the end of the 1950s, tension was the predominant characteristic governing the relations between the Druzes and Maronites, although most of this tension usually took the form of individual incidents. On their part, however, the Christians were not prepared because they did not believe that this tension would eventually turn into a full-scale war. The Druzes, on the other hand, and due to their sense of unity developed against the rule of Bashir II in the 1820, were more ready and organized. Thus, shortly before the outbreak of the war, the two sides were armed but it was the sense of unity, organization and readiness for war that differentiated one from the other.

The war itself was never planned to take the ugly turn it did. This is accounted for in the second part which deals with the war in the mountain and then with the massacres in Damascus. The spring of 1860 witnessed increased tension between the Druzes and the Christians, but this was only due to skirmishes between the two sides, rather than to any open possibilities of war. As the Druzes were better organized, their armed bands were capable of imposing more threats on the Christian villages in terms of attacks, looting and destruction. However, aggression by both sides increased more mainly because the Ottoman troops and police failed to intervene. Even under the pressures from European consuls in Beirut and Damascus, the Ottoman Empire did not intervene. Fawaz claims that this was due to an already established agreement in the previous year between the Druze leaders and the Ottoman governors both who aimed at curbing the increasing Christian influence and power in Mount Lebanon. Needless to mention, the skirmishes and the fights were getting out of control as they included the villages in Ksirwan and Wadi Al-Taym. The Druzes had the upper hand in most of these skirmishes particularly as they received uncensored aid from other Druze tribes in Hawran and the anti-Lebanon. With the Christians mounting their retaliatory attacks, the Druzes were finally provoked to launch more destructive campaigns against the Christian villages and towns, to the extents that Hasbayya and Jezzine for example were totally burned down and looted, and their inhabitants forced to seek refuge in the coastal towns or in other villages and Ottoman serails.

The author mentions various examples of how the Ottoman officials were involved in disarming the Christians by convincing them to hand their arms so as to initiate possibilities of peace and to eliminate aggression. It is hard, however, to believe how the Christians may have agreed to do so despite the fact that they had never trusted the Ottomans before. The author also mentions that many of the Christian fugitives were not given refuge in the coastal towns whose populations were mainly Muslim because of the growing fears among the Muslims who suspected the Christians and their intentions all the way through.

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