Battle of the Hotels
|Battle of the Hotels|
|Part of the Lebanese Civil War|
The still badly damaged Holiday Inn Beirut in the hotel district of Beirut, with the Phoenicia InterContinental in front of it on the right in 2009
| Lebanese National Movement
Lebanese Arab Army
| Lebanese Front
|Commanders and leaders|
| Ibrahim Kulaylat
Lt. Ahmed al-Khatib
| Pierre Gemayel
Lebanese Arab Army: ~300
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of the Hotels, also known as the “Hotel front” or “Front des Hôtels” in French, was a subconflict within the 1975-77 phase of the Lebanese Civil War which occurred in the Minet-el-Hosn hotel district of downtown Beirut. This area was one of the first fronts of the war that opened up in 1975.
The battle was the first truly large-scale confrontation between the Christian-conservative Lebanese Front and the Leftist-Muslim Lebanese National Movement (LNM) militias and PLO fighters. The battle was fought for the possession of a small hotel complex adjacent to the gilded Corniche seafront area on the Mediterranean, in the north-western corner of the downtown district of Beirut. It quickly spread to other areas of central Beirut. The often fierce battles that ensued were fought with heavy exchanges of rocket and artillery fire from the various hotel rooftops and rooms. Sniper fire was commonly utilized.
This episode of the civil war resulted in pushing the Christian militias out of the area, in particular the numerous hotels in the vicinity, including the St. Georges, Holiday Inn Beirut, Palm Beach, Normandy, Alcazar, Hilton, Excelsior and Phoenicia Inter-Continental hotels.
Situated between the Jounblatt and Minet el-Hosn quarters, the complex grouped a number of modern hotels, comprising the Holiday Inn, St Georges, Phoenicia Inter-Continental, Melkart, Palm Beach, Excelsior, and the Alcazar, some of them high-rise and not all of which had been completed when the civil war broke out in April 1975. Another tactically valuable multiple-storey building was the yet unfinished 30-story Murr Tower (Arabic: Burj El-Murr) and the Rizk Tower (Arabic: Burj Rizk Achrafieh), Beirut’s tallest buildings at the time which, together with the neighbouring hotels, towered over the residential quarters in adjacent areas, both Christian and Muslim. This district had been spared the effects of the ongoing conflict, and most of the hotels were able to continue functioning normally.
The Battle of the Hotels
The first rounds were exchanged on October 24, 1975, when a detachment of fighters – nicknamed the “Hawks of Zeidani” – from the Al-Murabitoun, the militia of the Independent Nasserite Movement (INM) led by Ibrahim Kulaylat occupied the empty Murr Tower and began firing rockets from the upper floors into the Christian-held neighborhoods below. During the battle, the Al-Murabitoun reportedly committed some 200-300 fighters, even though other sources cite a higher number of 500. The majority of the buildings were usually defended by an even smaller number of fighters, with no more than 60 militiamen participating on any given day.
As a counter-move, Christian fighters of the Phalange Kataeb Regulatory Forces (KRF) militia headed by William Hawi and Bashir Gemayel began to take positions between and around the main hotels, but quickly found themselves at a disadvantage as they were under constant observation and heavy machine gun fire from the Murr Tower. Backed by a small squadron made up of five makeshift armored cars, the Phalangists then moved into three of the hotels – the Holiday Inn, the St Georges Hotel and the Phoenicia Inter-Continental – and a fierce five-day gun-battle between the INM and Phalange ensued.
The situation deteriorated further on October 28, when a shooting incident occurred on the steps of the Parliament House at Nejmeh Square (aka Place de la Étoile in French) in Christian-controlled territory. One car filled with Muslim militiamen from West Beirut managed to reach the Parliament building and after shouting slogans over a loudspeaker against the members of the Assembly, they opened fire on the deputies leaving the building after attending a parliamentary session. Two men were killed, one being a bodyguard of Phalange Leader Pierre Gemayel. He had been standing nearby at that moment, but was not harmed.
Nevertheless, a ceasefire was called upon the belligerents by Prime Minister Rachid Karami on October 29, in order to allow the evacuation of the staff and residents trapped in the hotels, such as the Holiday Inn which held more than 200 people, most of them tourists. The evacuation operation was carried out by a motorized Gendarmerie detachment sent by the Internal Security Forces (ISF), using their Chaimite V200 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), and fighting resumed as soon as the operation had been completed. Another ceasefire was arranged on October 31 to enable the evacuees to return to collect their belongings, if they so wished.
Prime Minister Karami tried to demilitarise the Hotel district, but the Phalangists refused to vacate their positions at the Holiday Inn, St Georges, Phoenicia Inter-Continental and neighbouring buildings until the Muslim militiamen who occupied the Murr Tower had been replaced by ISF Gendarmes. Although Karami did managed to persuade the Al-Murabitoun leader Ibrahim Kulaylat to withdraw his fighters from the Murr Tower; no identical move was ever made by the Phalange militiamen who remained at their positions.
Despite the nominal ceasefire of November 8, hostilities were resumed on the Hotel district as the Al-Murabitoun, with assorted allies and in conjunction with As-Saiqa, attacked the buildings occupied by the Christian militias. In this round of assaults Soviet-made RPG-7 rocket launchers and vehicle-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles were employed in the direct fire support role for the first time in Lebanon.
The operation was led by Ibrahim Kulaylat, the Al-Murabitoun leader, who planned to occupy the district and inflict a crushing defeat on the Phalangist KRF militia that would eventually force them to sue for peace. On December 8-9 there was a seesaw, savage close-quarter battle for the Phoenicia Inter-Continental Hotel, and although the Phalangists were eventually forced out from some of the hotel buildings, they managed to hold-on to their main stronghold at the Holiday Inn.
Kulaylat’s operation failed to deliver the expected results however, and on December 10 it was the Muslims who were trying desperately to hold on at the Alcazar Hotel, even though parts of the building had gone up in flames. Nevertheless, the Muslim militiamen were able to storm and secure the disputed Phoenicia Inter-Continental Hotel, and the next day they mounted another assault against Christian militia’ and ISF Gendarmerie positions. While the Christian militiamen repulsed the attacks on their own positions, the Gendarmes’ avoided confrontation and withdrew to the unfinished Hilton Hotel. Fighting came to a temporary near-halt on December 12 when the exhausted combatants of both sides realised that they had more or less retained their original positions.
Although Prime-Minister Karami had announced another truce two days earlier, it did not became truly effective until December 15 when Syria, As-Saiqa and the PLO put pressure on the LNM political and military leaders to accept the ceasefire proposal. A Syrian delegation led by General Hikmat Chehabi arrived in Beirut on December 18 to mediate peace talks between the warring factions, the day in which 40 or 50 bodies were recovered from the Phoenicia Inter-Continental Hotel.
During the early months of 1976, fighting in the “Hotel front” subsided as the main contenders were distracted elsewhere, but managed to maintain their positions thanks to a Syrian-sponsored ceasefire called earlier on January 22. However, the Hotel district flared up again on March 17, the day when the LNM-PLO joint forces, backed by the Lebanese Arab Army (LAA) – a predominantely Muslim splinter faction of the official Lebanese Army led by the dissident Sunni Lieutenant Ahmed al-Khatib – launched an all-out offensive against rightist positions in central Beirut.
On March 21, a major assault by special Palestinian PLO ‘Commando’ units using armored vehicles lent by Lt. Khatib’s LAA and supported by the leftist-Muslim militias finally managed to dislodge the Phalange from the Holiday Inn. However, the leftist militiamen who had been handed the hotel by the Palestinians for propaganda purposes got so carried away celebrating that the Phalangists were able to sneak back in at dawn the next day.
The Palestinians therefore had to do the job all over again, and on March 22, leftist-Muslim LNM forces backed by PLO guerrillas mounted a counter-attack in downtown Beirut, determined to eliminate any remaining Phalangist presence west of the Martyrs' Square. Over the next two days and amid intense shelling, the Phalange were gradually pushed back to their defensive positions at Martyrs’ Square and Rue Allenby, after a costly battle that resulted in 150 dead and 300 wounded.
By March 23, the new front was established on the axis Starco-Hilton, while Phalangist militiamen faced assaults launched from the Riad El Solh Square and the Nejmeh Square towards the Port area and the Rue de Damas. That same day, the Al-Murabitoun recaptured the Holiday Inn from the Phalangists, which meant that LNM militias now dominated most of the strategic points around central Beirut.
Although the Christians had virtually lost the control of the Hotel district, it was not quite the end of the fighting in downtown Beirut. As the weeks went by, it was becoming painfully apparent to the Lebanese Front leadership that they were at risk of losing the war as the LNM-PLO-LAA alliance forced them to retreat farther into East Beirut. To counter this threat, the Lebanese Front finally agreed to form a ‘Unified Command’ for the Christian rightist militias headed by Pierre Gemayel, who issued an appeal to his supporters to rally to the defense of the Christian areas. Thus by March 26, the Kataeb Regulatory Forces alone were able to mobilize some 18,000 fighters to defend the eastern sector of the Lebanese Capital and the upper Matn.
The new Christian Command felt it imperative to retain control of Beirut’s port district and began raising an elaborate defence barricade at Rue Allenby. As the allied 'Lebanese Front’ militia forces tried to stave off the Muslim-Leftist-Palestinian assault on the port district, units of the predominantly Christian Army of Free Lebanon (AFL) – another ex-Lebanese Army dissident faction led by the right-wing Maronite Colonel Antoine Barakat – now entered the fray. Officers and enlisted men from the AFL’s Fayadieh barracks in south-east Beirut came to the aid of their beleaguered co-religionists, bringing with them much-needed armored vehicles and heavy artillery. The LNM-PLO advance was finally stopped on March 31 at Rue Allenby and after Syria threatened to cut the arms shipments to the Muslim factions, both the LNM and Lebanese Front leaders agreed to a ceasefire, which came in to effect on April 2.
In the end, the battle of the hotels and assorted conflicts provided valuable, if costly, lessons to all sides. The Lebanese Front had grossly underestimated the military strength and organizational capabilities displayed by the Leftist-Muslim LNM coalition and their Palestinian PLO allies in Lebanon, as well as the political and logistical support they would receive from some Arab countries.
In Arts and Popular Culture
In Die Fälschung (1981) (English title: Circle of Deceit), Volker Schlöndorff makes an ambiguous use of the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel, one of the hotels involved in the battle. Characters seem to be lodging in the hotel while it has already been damaged by the war. In fact, the outside scenes were shot on location, while the interior scenes were done at Casino du Liban.
Lebanese visual artist and illustrator Lamia Ziadé exhibited in 2008 Hotel’s War, an installation of wool and fabric childlike models of buildings that makes a reference to the Battle of the Hotels.
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