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Tags: lebanon | bachir gemayel | arafat | hezbollah

Remembering Lebanon's Bachir Gemayel

Bachir Gemayel
Lebanon President-elect Bachir Gemayel in August, 1982, a month before he was killed. (Dominique Faget/AFP via Getty Images)

John Gizzi By Wednesday, 14 September 2022 11:01 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Forty years ago, on Sept. 14, 1982, the story of Lebanon was brutally upended.

Bachir Gemayel, elected as the Middle Eastern nation's youngest-ever president at 34, and already in take-charge mode, was killed in an explosion that also took the lives of 25 supporters gathered at the headquarters of his Kataeb (Christian) Party.

"Better looking than Jesus Christ," is how American journalist Barbara Newman gushed over the young dynamo who seemed the right person to finally end Lebanon's turmoil with Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians.

Like John F. Kennedy, Gemayel is remembered today as a charismatic leader who brought hope and optimism to his country only to be cut down in the prime of his life.

Shortly after winning election in August 1982 and before taking office, two-fisted former militia boss Gemayel ordered the Lebanese Army to enter West Beirut and demanded Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization leave Lebanon.

Gemayel was seen by President Ronald Reagan and CIA Director William Casey, who called the Lebanese president-elect "a nice Catholic boy," as a pivotal leader for eventual peace throughout the Middle East.

But it was not to be. As a surely shaken Reagan wrote in his diary after receiving confirmation Gemayel was dead: "The Israelis moved into [West] Beirut following assassination of Bachir and fight between leftist Muslims and Lebanese Army. Things changed.

"In Beirut, Haddad's Christian Phalangist militia entered a Palestinian refugee camp and massacred men, women, and children. The Israelis did nothing to prevent or halt it. [Secretary of State] George [Schultz] and I met and agreed upon a blunt statement which he delivered to the Israeli ambassador."

"It is a sad day," concluded the 40th president, "and one which may very well set our peace effort back."

It did. With previous agreements from Israel and others broken after Gemayel's assassination, Reagan would enhance the presence of U.S. Marines in Lebanon. A year later, on Oct. 23, 1983, 301 U.S. Marines were killed in a suicide bombing — "perhaps the saddest day of my life," wrote Reagan.

In 1984, undercover CIA operative William Buckley was kidnapped in Beirut by Muslim militants. He was brutally tortured, and executed and the information gained from him by kidnappers inarguably set back U.S. efforts throughout the Middle East.

For Lebanon, it seemed downhill from the death of Gemayel.

Today, Lebanon's government is in a stranglehold by Hezbollah, the militant Islam group with close ties to Iran's Ayatollah. Syria, which first sent troops into Lebanon in 1976, has never really relaxed its grip on the nation of 6 million (plus an estimated 1 million refugees).

Veteran journalist and author Llewellyn King, recalling his first visits to Lebanon years ago, dubbed it "a treasure of a country. Its seaside capital, Beirut, was a sparkling jewel, rivaling Monaco in its incandescence." Today, the Lebanese economy is in shambles and the nation, in King's words, "bankrupt, corrupt, violence-riven, starving, and hopeless."

Would it have been different, many Lebanese ponder today, had Gemayel lived and governed for the six-year term granted Lebanese presidents?

The youngest of six children, son of Kataeb Party founder and political powerbroker Pierre Gemayel, Bachir seemed born to a political career as much as JFK and George W. Bush. Earning undergraduate and law degrees from St. Joseph University (Beirut) and the Center for American and International Law (Dallas), the young Gemayel spent much of his student years in Phalange-related groups.

While an undergraduate, Gemayel received paramilitary training and was soon junior commander of a militia unit that would become the Lebanese Forces (LF). The growing Palestinian movement in Lebanon fueled the feelings of the fiery young man. In 1969, Gemayel was kidnapped, imprisoned at the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp, severely beaten and released 8 hours later.

Increasingly militant and incensed that his own party would even consider approving Syria's entrance into Lebanon, Gemayel — who just turned 30 in 1978 — led an ever-growing unit of fighters in the notorious "Hundred Days" in which the LF successfully fought off Syrian shelling of East Beirut. Two years later, in what Gemayel called "the unification of the rifle," he had forced the rival National Liberals militia into a single unit in which their fighters wore the LF badge instead of that of their former militia.

Aware of his controversial reputation as he began his bid for the presidency, Gemayel sought out former Lebanese Foreign Minister Charles Malik for help with the international community. Malik's son, retired Associate Prof. Habib Malik of the Lebanese American University, told Newsmax that "my father was instrumental in discerning Bashir's capabilities as a leader and in helping him to catapult him to the top by transforming him in the eyes of Washington from an armed thug to their preferred presidential candidate. This also attests to Bachir's quality of choosing a wise mentor and listening to his counsel — rare among young Christian Lebanese leaders or leaders-to-be."

"10, 452 Square Kilometers!" was Gemayel's ringing slogan, a reference to the size of his country and his vision of it to be free of foreign influence and thus able to focus on promoting modern industry, technology, and agriculture, using Lebanon as the platform of the Middle East for all services and innovation.

"Bachir Gemayel was a patriot who matured as a strong political leader," said Edward Gabriel, a Lebanese-American businessman and former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, "He believed in a Lebanon that was sovereign and supported the dignity of the Lebanese."

"Indulging in the 'what ifs?' of history is notoriously like imaginary wild goose chases," Malik told Newsmax. The impact of a "President Bachir Gemayel" from 1982-88 on Lebanon today — and whether after sitting out the required term he would have returned for another six-year-term as president from 1994-2000 — can only be the subject of conjecture. What is certain is that in his brief moment on the world stage, Gemayel looked, sounded and acted like a leader of consequence. And on the 40th anniversary of his tragic death, he will be remembered throughout Lebanon, mourned, and loved by many.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

© 2023 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

Forty years ago, on Sept. 14, 1982, the story of Lebanon was brutally changed and, many believe, for the worse.
lebanon, bachir gemayel, arafat, hezbollah
Wednesday, 14 September 2022 11:01 AM
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