History tells us that early at approximately 09:30 on the morning of the 13th of April, 1975, outside the Church of Notre-Dame de la Delivrance at the predominantly Christian district of Ain el-Rammaneh in East Beirut, there occurred an altercation between half a dozen unidentified armed guerrillas in a passing vehicle performing the customary waving and firing of automatic rifles into the air and a squad of uniformed militiamen belonging to the Phalangist Party Kataeb Regulatory Forces (KRF) militia who were diverting the traffic at the front of the newly consecrated church where a family baptism was taking place. Amongst the congregation was Pierre Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb Party. As the guerrillas refused to be diverted from their route, the nervous Phalangists tried to halt their progress by force and a scuffle quickly ensued, which resulted in the death of the driver of the vehicle following a bullet.

At 10:30 am when the congregation was concentrated outside the front door of the church upon the conclusion of the ceremony, a gang of gunmen approached in two civilian cars suspiciously rigged with posters and bumper stickers belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – a PLO faction – and opened fire on the VIPs present, killing four people.

Among the dead caused by the drive-by shooting were Joseph Abu Assi, a Phalange militant and father of the baptised child. Three bodyguards: Antoine Husseini, Dib Assaf and Selman Ibrahim Abou also died, shot while attempting to return fire on the gunmen. Pierre Gemayel escaped unscathed. The attackers fled the scene under fire by the survivors.

Armed Phalangist KRF and National Liberal Party Tigers militiamen took to the streets, and began to set up roadblocks at Ain el-Rammaneh and other Christian-populated Eastern districts of Beirut, stopping vehicles and checking identities, while in the mainly Muslim Western sectors the Palestinian factions did likewise.

Believing that the perpetrators were Palestinian guerrillas who carried out the attack in retaliation for the earlier driver incident, and outraged by the audacity of the attempt on the life of their historical leader, the Phalangists planned an immediate response.

Shortly after noon, a PLO bus carrying Palestinian Arab Liberation Front (ALF) militants and Lebanese sympathizers returning from a political rally at Tel el-Zaatar held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC) passed through Ain el-Rammaneh on its way to Sabra refugee camp. The bus drove through the narrow street alleys, where there was an armed Phalangist presence due to the earlier incident. Upon seeing it pass, the Phalangist militants opened fire on the bus, killing 27 and wounding 19. The blue touch flame was lit, and events would escalate into the Hotels War, Black Saturday’s identity card killings before culminating in the Tel al-Zaatar massacre.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it? The PFLP started it, and the Phalangists responded. Except none of the tale indicates a PFLP operation because the PFLP did not employ drive-by shootings as a tactic. In fact here is a list of known PFLP operations:

18/08/1969 Bomb at Marks and Spencer’s store in London – allegedly planted by Carlos the Jackal.

29/08/1969 Hijacking of TWA Flight 840, Rome to Athens. Hijacked by Leila Khaled. Plane was diverted to Damascus where upon the evacuation of all passengers and crew it was blown up.

09/11/1969 Time Bomb went off in Berlin’s Jewish Community Centre.

06/09/1970 Hijacking of El Al Flight 219, Amsterdam to New York by Leila Khaled. Part of Dawson’s Field Hijackings. The operation ended in failure when the plane was rerouted to Heathrow. Khaled received strict instructions not to harm passengers. Her partner on this operation, Patrick Argüello ignored these orders and that’s why Israeli sky marshals killed him.

30/12/1973 Carlos botches a shooting at point-blank range of Lord Sieff in his London home. (Sieff was then chairman of Marks and Spencer).

03/08/1974 Car Bomb exploded in Paris near the offices of the Jewish Welfare Organisation for France.

21/12/1975 OPEC Siege, Vienna – another Carlos operation and therefore botched. Carlos was dismissed from the PFLP by Wadie Haddad over these typical Carlos cock-ups.

Notice, no drive-by shootings. If we examine the make-up of the leadership of the PFLP in the 1970s it seems unlikely that, despite having major political differences with Gemayel’s Kataeb, they would want to kill him. The political leader of the PFLP was George Habash (1926-2008), an Orthodox Catholic, as was Wadie Haddad (1927-78) leader of the PFLP’s armed-wing. Their concerns were with the Israeli-Palestinian question following the Six-Day War, not internal Lebanese politics, and amazingly until the early 1980s the PFLP remained neutral in the Lebanese Civil War, despite allegedly having started it.

But there is one other group that had very good reason to attack Pierre Gemayal, and who did have a history of varying their tactics: The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).

The first act of Resistance to the Israeli Invasion of 1982 was carried out by the SSNP when two Israeli soldiers were killed at the Wimpy Cafe on Hamra Street, Beirut, memorably, but inaccurately depicted in the film Waltz With Bashir as a drive-by shooting. In reality it was an opportunistic attack carried out by an individual on foot. Did the director choose to have art imitate life, but at a different moment in Lebanon’s recent bloody history?

Why would the SSNP want to assassinate Pierre Gemayal? Gemayal was the Lebanese Interior Minister during the early 60s when the SSNP launched the failed coup of 1961. The coup resulted in the banning of the party and the imprisonment of its leadership. The SSNP was behind the assassination of Bashir Gemayel (Pierre’s son) in 1982, then President of Lebanon, by party member Habib Shartouni.

Despite Hezbollah officially taking the blame in Lebanon and in the international community, in some quarters the SSNP is widely believed to have been responsible for the spate of bombings of politicians and anti-Syrian journalists in Lebanon from 2005-8, most notably killing PM Rafic Hariri on the 14th of February, 2005 and former Resistance ally and Secretary General of the Lebanese Communist Party, George Hawi in 2008.

Following a botched assassination attempt in April 2012, Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea said: ‘I won’t name potential targets, but I will say that there is one camp in Lebanon that has not been and will not be attacked’. He is talking about Hezbollah, the Iranian and Syrian-backed allies of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, but Hezbollah only attack military i.e., Israeli targets these days, notably the recent debacle near the disputed Lebanese Shebaa Farms still occupied by the Israeli Defence Forces, and cross-border raids on IDF patrols, one of which to Secretary General Nasrallah’s regret, ignited the 33 Day War of Summer 2006.

The lesser known, yet also funded by Syria, SSNP is an equally likely culprit for much of the problems faced in Lebanon, some of which still need to be addressed today.

 

Sources:

Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East, David Hirst, Faber & Faber 2010

Lebanon: The Politics of Frustration – the Failed Coup of 1961, Adel Beshara, Routledge 2005

Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, Robert Fisk, Oxford (3rd Edition) 2001, by Stephen Leece