Phalangists are members of the Lebanese Phalanges Party (Hizb Al-Kata’ib Al-Lubnaniyyah). The Phalanges Party was founded in November 1936 by pharmacist Pierre Gemayel (1905–1984) and four other Christians in the wake of a visit to Germany, where Gemayel was a member of the Lebanese delegation to the infamous 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Gemayel never denied his desire to replicate the youth organizations of Nazi Germany, and the name was taken from Francisco Franco’s (1892–1975) Falange Española, a fascist political party. The Phalanges Party was founded as a response to the rise of “unionist” calls among Muslims and some Christian groups in Lebanon who sought the unity of Lebanon with either Syria or another Arab country as part of a larger Arab nation. Al-Kata’ib means “battalions,” a term that underlined the military purpose of the organization. In 1943 Phalanges leaders broke with Émile Edde (1886–1949), who wanted to preserve French rule in Lebanon, supporting instead the rising tide of popular sentiment that called for immediate independence. This position gave the party national legitimacy.
The party first fielded candidates in the by-election of 1945, but failed to win parliamentary seats until 1958, when the civil war boosted the popularity of the party among Lebanese Christians. As sectarian polarization tore the country apart, the Phalanges emerged as a well-organized party with a militia. Its recruitment and propaganda techniques became more sophisticated, and the party won six parliamentary seats in the 1960 election. It emphasized the ostensible uniqueness of Lebanon and resisted the Arabization of Lebanese culture and foreign policy. A Phalanges ideologue published a manual in 1966 pledging strict dedication to traditional values: God, homeland, and family. According to the manual, the party is also dedicated to democracy, private property, and the free enterprise system, and is opposed to individualism, leftism, and communism. Membership in the party was predominantly Christian, specifically Maronite, and the leadership was tightly in the hands of its founder, Pierre Gemayel.
The Phalanges Party established the most powerful militia in Lebanon as early as the 1950s, and the party attracted followers in the 1960s and 1970s by provoking clashes with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) forces. The clashes increased in the late 1960s when Phalanges armed men would ambush PLO trucks and cars in Kahhalah, a strategic Phalanges city on the Damascus-Beirut highway. The party was the major fighting force of the right-wing coalition during the 1975 civil war and received aid and weapons from Israel while its enemies were receiving aid from the PLO and other Arab countries. The rise of Bashir Gemayel (1947–1982, the son of Pierre) marginalized the party, although Bashir was also a leading member of the party. The civil war had many dimensions, but one of them entailed a PLO-Phalangist conflict. Many of the episodes of the conflict, including the siege of the Tal Az-Za’tar camp (and its destruction) and the Dbayy refugee camp in 1976, were Phalangist campaigns to root out the Palestinian presence in East Beirut.
The year 1982 was a watershed in the history of the party. First, Bashir Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon, but he was assassinated before he took office. After his assassination, militias loyal to the Lebanese Forces (a collation of right-wing militias under the control of the Phalanges) entered the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and massacred hundreds of Palestinian (and some Lebanese) civilians. Bashir’s brother, Amin, became the first Phalangist to assume the presidency of the republic. In 1984 Pierre Gemayel died, and Amin insisted that Pierre’s deputy, Elie Karamah, a Greek Catholic, become the permanent leader of the party. Karamah’s tenure marked the ultimate marginalization of the party in Lebanese politics. In 1986 Georges Sa’adah, a Maronite, was elected to the presidency of the party, and he remained president into the 1990s, despite efforts to unseat him by his opponents and by a splinter faction headed by Karamah and supported by Amin Gemayel. The party boycotted the 1992 parliamentary election and did not win seats in the 1996 election. The Syrian government helped engineer a takeover of the party by a pro-Syrian faction headed by Karim Pakradoni, who served as a minister during the administration of Émile Lahhud. In 2005 Pakradoni all but surrendered the party to Amin Gemayel in recognition of his loss of popular support among Christian voters.
Entelis, John. 1974. Pluralism and Party Transformation in Lebanon: Al-Kata’ib, 1936–1970. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.
Ishtay, Shawkat. 1981. Ash-Shuyu‘iyyun wal-Kata’ib: Dar Al-‘Amal, Tarikh Hizb Al-Kata’ib. 2 vols. Beirut: Dar Al-’Amal.
Naji, Amin. 1966. Falsafat Hizb Al-Kata’ib. Beirut: Al-Kata’ib.
Shruru, Fadl. 1981 . Beruit: Dar Almasirah.
As’ad Abu Khalil