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May 2007

Lebanon

Lebanon

Lebanon, located in the Middle East, is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and Syria to the east. Lebanon is the historical home of the Phoenicians, Semitic traders whose maritime culture flourished there for more than 2,000 years (c. 2700-450 B.C.). Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the five Ottoman provinces that had comprised present-day Lebanon were mandated to France by the League of Nations. The country gained independence in 1943, and French troops were withdrawn in 1946.

The 1975-90 civil war seriously damaged Lebanon's economic infrastructure, cut national output by half, and all but ended Lebanon's position as a Middle Eastern transshipment center and banking hub. Under the Ta'if Accord - the blueprint for national reconciliation - the Lebanese established a more equitable political system, particularly by giving Muslims a greater voice in the political process while institutionalizing sectarian divisions in the government. Peace enabled the central government to restore control in Beirut, begin collecting taxes, and regain access to key port and government facilities. Economic recovery was helped by a financially sound banking system and resilient small- and medium-scale manufacturers, with family remittances, banking services, manufactured and farm exports, and international aid as the main sources of foreign exchange. Lebanon's economy made impressive gains since the launch of "Horizon 2000," the government's $20 billion reconstruction program in 1993.

Syria continued a military presence in Lebanon, citing the failure of the Lebanese government to implement all of the constitutional reforms in the Ta'if Accord. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000. Syria withdrew the remainder of its military forces from Lebanon in April 2005. In May-June 2005, Lebanon held its first legislative elections since the end of the civil war free of foreign interference, handing a majority to the block led by Saad Hariri. Hizballah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in July 2006 leading to a 34-day conflict with Israel.

The population of Lebanon comprises various Christian and Muslim sects as well as Druze. No official census has been taken since 1932, reflecting the political sensitivity in Lebanon over confessional (religious) balance. While there is no consensus over the confessional breakdown of the population for this reason, it is safe to say that the Muslim sects as a whole make up a majority, and that Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Maronites are the three largest groups. About 400,000 Palestinian refugees, some in Lebanon since 1948, are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The war with Israel has temporarily or permanently displaced roughly one-fourth of Lebanon's population, and caused enormous damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure.

CIA World Factbook; U.S. State Department Background Notes, 5/2007; 2/2007