Lebanon is a Middle Eastern state named after a mountain chain running parallel to the Mediterranean coast just north of Israel. The name is derived from lavan in reference to the snow covering its peaks and it has variously been called Levanon in Hebrew, Libnah in Phoenician, Labnanu in Assyrian, and Lablani or Niblani in Hittite. Today there are few if any Jews remaining in Lebanon.
Like most high mountains, Mt. Lebanon was imagined in early times to have been the abode of a god, Baal Lebanon, who is sometimes identified with Hadad. The area was inhabited by a number of different peoples in the prehistoric period. It appears to have been eventually settled by a West-Semitic population, later designated Canaanite and in Hellenistic sources Phoenician. The mountains of the Lebanon, rich in cedars and other coniferous trees, attracted the attention of the rulers of the treeless Nile Valley at an early date. As early as the fourth dynasty, the pharaoh Snefru probably sent to Byblos for cedars, firs, pines, and other trees. For 1,500 years the forests of the Lebanon supplied Egypt with wood for a number of purposes, including shipbuilding and construction of temples, sacred and funerary boats, and doors for palace gates. As the mountains became denuded, more and more harbors were opened by the Egyptians. From the 12th century B.C.E. onward the Assyrians competed with the Egyptians for the wood of Lebanon. Tiglath-Pileser I advanced into the region in order to obtain wood for building temples to the gods Anu and Adad. In 877 B.C.E. Ashurnaṣirpal II took firs and pines from the Lebanon back to Assyria. The devastation caused by Sennacherib among the cedars and firs is described in the Lord’s answer to Hezekiah’s prayer (II Kings 19:23). According to Isaiah, the trees of the Lebanon rejoiced when Sargon of Assyria passed away (14:8).
In general, the Lebanon marks the northern boundary of the Promised Land (Deut. 1:7; 3:25; 11:24; Josh. 1:4; 9:1). Its cedars are praised as the finest of trees (I Kings 5:13) and are contrasted with the bramble in Jotham’s parable (Judg. 9:15). Isaiah praises the cypress, the plane tree, and the larch of the region (60:13). In the Song of Songs and other books of the Bible the wild animals, waters, trees, flowers, wine, and snow of the Lebanon are described in glowing terms. When Solomon built the Temple, he was supplied with cedars from the Lebanon by his ally Hiram, king of Tyre (I Kings 5:15–24), who sent the logs in floats to a harbor near Jaffa (Tell Qasīla; II Chron. 2:15). The same procedure was repeated for the construction of the Second Temple, at which time the forests belonged to the king of Persia (Ezra 3:7). In Hellenistic and Roman times, the Lebanon was divided among the various Phoenician cities then largely Hellenized; it became part of the province of Syria, and from the third century a separate province, Phoenicia (Augusta Libanensis).
In post-biblical times, the forests of the Lebanon continued to be exploited by the Phoenician cities in whose territories they stood for the benefit of the Hellenistic and Roman rulers. In the seventh century (the Byzantine period) the mountaineers of the region adopted the theological views of the emperor Heraclius, becoming Monotheletes; the followers of this sect were called Maronites after their patriarch John Maron. They maintained their religion throughout the Arab domination.
There is scant information about the existence of Jews between the seventh and 15th centuries, but small Jewish communities continued to exist in the area which is now Lebanon. The Arab author al-Balādhuri relates that the Caliph Mu’āwiya settled Jews in Tripoli . The Palestinian academy established its seat in Tyre in 1071. Benjamin of Tudela, in the 12th century, relates that the Jews lived in the same area as the Druze, with whom they traded and engaged in various crafts. In crusader times, the Lebanon was divided between the count of Tripoli and the king of Jerusalem, remaining in the hands of the crusaders almost until the end of the Latin kingdom (1291).
There were also Jews living in the village districts. In the town of Deir al-Qamar in Mount Lebanon, situated halfway between Beirut and Sidon , there was a Jewish community (80 families at the beginning of the 19th century), which engaged in agriculture and the breeding of silkworms as well as commerce, the manufacture of soap, and the extraction of some iron from the surrounding ore deposits. Some Jews also lived in villages within the direct or outlying vicinity of Deir al-Qamar (including Mukhtara, ʿAyn Qanya, ʿAyn Zaḥlata, and others). The common factor which characterized almost every one of these Jewish concentrations was their dependency on the Druze inhabitants, with whom they coexisted on friendly terms. In 1860, as a result of the inter-communal war between the Druze and the Maronites of Lebanon, the Druze gradually abandoned the region of Deir al-Qamar. They were followed by the Jews who settled in Beirut, the town of Aley (southeast of Beirut), and Sidon. In the interior of Lebanon, the only remaining Jewish community was to be found in Ḥāṣbayya, on the slopes of the Hermon, where its presence was already known from the 18th century. Most of the Jews of this town were transferred to Rosh Pinah in 1888 by Baron Rothschild but it was only in 1913 that the last three families left. The relations between the Jews and the dominant Maronite community were at times strained and there were several blood libels. The development of modern Lebanon was accompanied by an increase in the Jewish population, most of which was of Sephardi origin. The Jews arrived in Lebanon, especially to the capital, Beirut, from Greece and Turkey, and they gradually became an important commercial factor.
Following the establishment of Greater Lebanon by the French colonial power in 1920, and the independence of the Lebanese Republic in the mid-1940s, the Jews residing in that country – who were one of its 17 formally recognized religious sects – were considered to be, and regarded themselves as, an integral part of its multiethnic social fabric. Like Lebanon’s other communities, Jews served in the public administration, including the security forces (see below). But they never had their own representative in the Lebanese parliament (there was one member of parliament allocated to Lebanon’s minorities, but he was generally a member of one of the smaller Christian communities). However, the legal, religious, and economic freedoms enjoyed by Lebanon’s Jews, which were unparalleled in the Arab Middle East, were affected by the rising tensions in Palestine and, from 1948, by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In 1923, the number of Jews in Lebanon was estimated at 3,300, and the 1932 population census – the last comprehensive census held in Lebanon – registered 3,588 Jews, of whom 3,060 lived in Beirut and the rest in Sidon and Tripoli. By 1939, the number of Jews in Lebanon increased to about 6,000–7,000, and the 1944 census registered 6,261. In the wake of World War II, several institutional reforms were introduced in the Jewish community in Beirut, and a 15-member elected community council (the Community Council of Beirut), headed by a president, was set up. This body was recognized by the Lebanese government, as well as by the smaller Jewish communities in Sidon and Tripoli.
Although they were influenced by their proximity to Palestine, the Jews in Lebanon did not suffer from the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Not only did the Lebanese government order its security forces to protect the Jewish quarter in Beirut from attacks by pro-Palestinian activists, but political actors such as the Maronite Christian Phalanges, which maintained close ties with the Jewish community (a few Lebanese Jews even joined that organization), also positioned guards there. During the later stages of the 1948 War, when the Israeli army occupied part of South Lebanon, the homes of several members of the small Jewish community in Sidon, numbering 200 persons, were confiscated, and Palestinian refugees were installed in them. But the government in Beirut ordered the local police to protect the Jews in that city and facilitate their return to their homes and property.
The number of Jews in Lebanon, estimated at 5,200 in 1948, rose in 1951 to about 9,000, of which 6,961 were Lebanese citizens and about 2,000 Jewish immigrants from Syria and Iraq . The Lebanese government allowed these immigrants to stay in the country, and some acquired Lebanese citizenship (other refugees, such as the Palestinians, were generally not naturalized). In 1950, the government even permitted Syrian and Iraqi Jews who had found sanctuary in Beirut to cross the border into Israel, under the supervision of the Israeli-Lebanese Mixed Armistice Commission (ILMAC).
Apart from the blowing up of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school in Beirut in 1950, Lebanese Jews remained unharmed in the post-1948 period, although Arab nationalists sometimes forced Jews to donate money for the Palestinian cause. Lebanese opposition parties, and particularly the Socialist Party, which were led by Member of Parliament Emile Boustani (a Maronite Christian), several times demanded that Jewish property be confiscated and that Jews be discharged from government positions. In 1952, following mounting domestic and inter-Arab pressure, the government was compelled to discharge the two Jewish officers who served in the Lebanese army, but a few Jewish officials continued to work for the government. It is noteworthy that the Lebanese authorities did not limit the freedom of movement of Jews, and, except briefly in 1954, they were free to leave and enter the country at any time (the same freedom was enjoyed by Syrian Jews who had settled in Lebanon). Jews were also permitted to sell their property and take money out of the country in unlimited amounts. At no time were there ever limitations on their means of livelihood. Most of the Lebanese Jews were merchants, and a few were officials or artisans.
Until 1958, when Lebanon’s first civil war broke out, the number of Jews in Lebanon remained at a level of about 9,000, making Lebanon the only Arab country in which the Jewish population increased after 1948. Only after 1958 did a large-scale exodus of Jews from Lebanon begin, as a result of the political unrest in the country. Many immigrated to the U.S. and Europe and several hundred went to Israel.
In early 1967 the number of Jews remaining in Lebanon was estimated at about 5,000–6,000, but after the Arab-Israeli war in June, emigration increased and the community was reduced by about a half. By then, nearly all Lebanese Jews were living in Beirut, with a few families remaining in Sidon (the community in Tripoli had ceased to exist before 1947). There were two Jewish banks in Lebanon, the Safra Bank and the Société Bancaire du Liban (formerly Zilkhah Bank). Only after the 1967 War were limitations imposed on non-Lebanese Jews, who were compelled to seek work permits from the authorities and not every applicant’s request was granted. This was one of the reasons for the increase in Jewish emigration. Another reason was the partial paralysis of the Lebanese economy, particularly in the tourist industry, since Christian pilgrims no longer needed to pass through Lebanon in order to visit the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Some of the Jewish emigrants, particularly the young people, went to Israel.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Jewish community in Beirut still maintained a synagogue and other communal institutions, and there were synagogues in Sidon and in the summer resorts of Bhamdoun and Aley. In this period there were still Jewish schools in Beirut and Sidon. Jewish pupils also attended Christian schools, especially high schools, both because no Jewish school contained all high school classes, and because of the preference of Lebanese Jews for studying French. Even in Jewish schools emphasis was placed on the study of French. Arabic was studied to a lesser extent, and Hebrew even less, although the study of Hebrew was not restricted by the authorities. The Jewish and Christian school networks successfully combated illiteracy among the younger generation, but very few studied at institutions of higher learning. Most of the younger generation went into business. By 1970, the community had decreased to about 1,000–1,800.
Maghen Abraham Synagogue
During the early stages of Lebanon’s second civil war (1975–1990), and especially after the paralysis of the state’s institutions in 1975–76 and Israel’s invasion in June 1982, the majority of the country’s Jews emigrated. Those who stayed, particularly in war-torn Beirut, suffered many hardships on account of the violence that waged in and around the Jewish quarter. The Israeli-Palestinian struggle in Lebanon, which reached its pinnacle in the 1982 War, and the struggle between armed Shi’a factions and the Israeli army in South Lebanon in its aftermath, also impinged on the local Jewish community. By 1980 there were only about 200 Jews left in Lebanon, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s their number had dwindled to under 100. In mid-2002 it was reported that 67 Lebanese Jews had immigrated to Israel in the 1990–2001 period. In 2004, the number of Jews remaining in Lebanon was probably not more than a few dozen. One estimate, from 2002, put their number at no more than 24, or at twice that figure, and another, from 2003, at 20. According to a report from 2004, the Jewish community in Lebanon included only a few members, mostly elderly women. All of these Jews lived in Beirut and its vicinity.
Israel was asked by the UN General Assembly to compensate Lebanon with the sum of $856.4 million in damages caused by an oil spill during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. The General Assembly voted yes to a non-binding resolution on December 22, 2014, asking Israel to provide “prompt and adequate compensation” for the oil spill caused by Israeli air force planes bombing oil tanks near a Lebanese power plant. The subsequent spill covered the Mediterranean coastline with over 15,000 gallons of oil.
The Lebanese military erected several tall observation posts along the Israeli border during early 2016, from which they can observe Israeli military installations, portions of the security fence, civilian roads, and many kibbutzim and towns. Israeli civilians living in these areas have expressed concern that these observation towers may fall into the hands of Hezbollah during a future conflict.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned November 4, 2017, during a trip to Saudi Arabia, saying his life was in danger and accusing Iran of causing “devastation and chaos.” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir subsequently described Hezbollah as a “first-class terrorist organization” that should lay down its arms and respect Lebanon’s sovereignty. He accused Hezbollah of destabilizing the region, and said “consultations and coordination between peace-loving countries and Lebanon-loving countries are underway to try to find a way that would restore sovereignty to Lebanon and reduce the negative action which Hezbollah is conducting in Lebanon.”
In early 2018, the IDF began construction of a tens-of-meters high concrete wall along the Lebanon-Israel border, to keep Hezbollah operatives from infiltrating Israeli territory. A representative from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) announced that the organization was closely monitoring the construction to ensure the work stays on the Israeli side of the border to prevent unnecessary tension.
Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 there were contacts held between Zionist leaders and some leaders of Lebanon’s Maronite community. However, from 1943, when Lebanon’s inter-communal settlement – the National Pact – was reached, the bulk of that country’s leaders, from all communities, threw in their lot with the Arab states. Thus, in the 1948 War, Lebanon participated with the other Arab states, although its army adopted a defensive strategy and declined to cross the international border with Palestine. In fact, apart from several skirmishes, its army fought only one battle against the Israeli army, in Malikiyya on June 5–6, 1948.
On March 23, 1949, an Armistice Agreement between Lebanon and Israel was signed at Rosh Ha-Nikrah / Ras al-Nakoura, fixing the former international boundary between Palestine and Lebanon as the armistice line; accordingly, Israel evacuated 14 Lebanese villages that its army had occupied during the latter phases of the fighting. From then on, the Lebanese-Israel border was generally quiet for a period of almost 20 years: there were few serious violations of the Armistice Agreement, farmers from both countries met frequently in a friendly manner, and occasional crossings of the border by individuals were quietly solved by contacts between Israeli and Lebanese army officers, mainly through ILMAC. Israel also allowed Maronite dignitaries from Lebanon to visit their coreligionists in Israel.
This state of affairs was a result not only of Lebanon’s military weakness and the general indifference of the government in Beirut towards South Lebanon, but also of the delicate balance between its communities. While some Christian activists, especially Maronites, had contacts with Israeli officials and agreed to peaceful relations with Israel, they had to take into account the desire of Lebanon’s Muslims for stronger contacts with the Arab world. In addition, nearly all Lebanese remained opposed to any settlement that would not include a solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. In the meantime, most refugees continued to live in camps, which were tightly supervised by the Lebanese security forces, and were not granted Lebanese citizenship.
As a member of the Arab League, Lebanon participated in various Arab summit conferences, political propaganda, and economic campaigns against Israel, but it did not engage in military actions, not even during the 1967 War. In the wake of that conflict, Lebanon claimed that the Armistice Agreement of 1949 remained in force and that ILMAC should continue to be the channel of communication between the two countries. But Israel held the view that the armistice regime had collapsed and Israel’s relations with all its neighbors were based on the cease-fire resolution of June 1967.
In the war’s aftermath, a gradual deterioration of the situation along the Israel-Lebanon border began, when armed Palestinian factions, whose members had previously limited themselves to fund-raising and propaganda in Lebanon, initiated armed attacks across the border. Gradually, thousands of armed Palestinian activists concentrated on the slopes of Mount Hermon, overlooking the north of Israel. On Dec. 26, 1968, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine flew from Beirut to Athens, where they attacked an El Al plane at the city’s international airport. In retaliation, an Israel commando unit destroyed a number of planes at the Beirut international airport, sparking a severe internal crisis in Lebanon.
From that time, the question of whether or not to permit armed Palestinian attacks against Israel from Lebanese territory became a major contentious issue in the country’s political arena: while pan-Arab and Leftist movements, which were supported by the revolutionary Arab states (mainly Egypt and Syria), supported the Palestinian demand for freedom of action throughout the state and across its border, others, including several Maronite-led parties like the Phalanges, opposed it and called upon the government in Beirut to restrain the Palestinians.
By April 1969, the cabinet had to resign because of widespread internal disorder that threatened to deteriorate into full-scale civil war, and Lebanon was thrown into a political crisis that lasted for seven months. Isolated in the inter-Arab arena and strongly censured by Syria, which closed its border with Lebanon, thus effectively sealing it off from the Arab hinterland, the government in Beirut was compelled to accept Nasser’s mediation and, on Nov. 3, 1969, the Cairo Agreement was signed between Lebanon and the PLO. The agreement sought to guarantee both the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Lebanon and the interests of the Palestinian factions: while recognizing the presence and activity of the Palestinians in Lebanon and assigning them special areas and points through which they could penetrate into Israel, it forbade shooting across the border, in order not to involve Lebanon. However, the Palestinians exploited the government’s weakness and established themselves along the entire Lebanese-Israel border, resulting in a sharp rise in the frequency of attacks against Israel from Lebanese territory. Israel retaliated by dispatching armored units into Lebanon’s territory and by shelling Palestinian positions, and the results were a general deterioration of the situation in South Lebanon and the flight of thousands of villagers, mostly Shi’a Muslims, to Beirut.
The volatile situation in Lebanon escalated further in April 1973, following an Israeli commando raid on Beirut that left several PLO leaders dead. Lebanese President Suleiman Frangieh sought to use his army to curtail the Palestinian military power in Lebanon and bring about a substantial revision in the Cairo Agreement. However, despite certain military successes, the Lebanese government was, yet again, forced to yield to all-Arab, and especially Syrian, pressures. Some local groups concluded from this that a confrontation with the Palestinian factions was inevitable, and began to prepare for an all-out conflict.
In April 1975, following a clash between Palestinian activists and Phalange supporters in Beirut, Lebanon’s second, and more vicious, civil war began. The main protagonists in the initial phase of that conflict were the supporters of the existing political and socio-economic order in the state, on the one hand, and those advocating comprehensive reforms, on the other hand. In the course of the struggle, both sides managed to enlist external support: while the former camp was backed by the conservative Arab states, and, at times, by Israel, the latter camp was an ally of the Palestinians and the radical Arab regimes. Syria, for its part, was torn between its ideological commitment to the Lebanese opposition and the PLO, on the one hand, and its support for the existing order in Lebanon and for President Frangieh, its principal local ally, on the other.
On June 1, 1976, following the collapse of the Lebanese state and the threat of its imminent disintegration, the Syrian army marched into Lebanon and joined the pro-government camp in its struggle against the opposition forces and the PLO. Meanwhile, Israel, which approved of the Syrian intervention (its leaders demanded, however, that Syrian troops would not come near its border and that Syrian aircraft would not be employed in Lebanon), forged an alliance with Christian groups operating in the area adjacent to the Israeli-Lebanese border, which became its clients. In the early 1980s, Syrian-Israeli relations began to deteriorate, leading to open confrontation in 1982. By then, Israel had forged an alliance with the Phalanges, and particularly with Bashir Gemayel, the commander of that party’s militia, the Lebanese Forces.
In June 1982, Israeli forces moved into Lebanon to remove the threat of Palestinian attacks on its territory. Isarel also hoped to expel the Palestinian factions from Lebanon and install a pro-Israeli government in Beirut. Israel was successful in attaining its first goal, and, following a siege imposed on Beirut by its army, most PLO fighters exited the city. But its second goal was effectively thwarted when President-elect Bashir Gemayel was assassinated and an agreement signed between Israel and Lebanon on May 17, 1983, under American auspices was effectively undermined by Syria and its local allies.
The massacres perpetrated in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by the Lebanese Forces, Israel’s ally, were a severe blow to Israel’s efforts in Lebanon and ultimately led to the resignation of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. In the 1983–85 period, Israeli troops gradually withdrew from the areas they occupied in Lebanon, but maintained a presence in the border area, where a pro-Israeli militia had been in control since Operation Litani in 1978.
In the 1985–2000 period, Israel and its local proxy, the South Lebanese Army, attempted to hold on to this border area, which they referred to as the “Security Zone,” despite incessant attacks by Lebanese factions, especially the Shi’a Hezbollah movement. However, despite the cost in lives and two large-scale operations launched by its army in Lebanon in 1993 and in 1996, Israel’s efforts there came to naught, and following mounting domestic pressures Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in May 2000. Subsequently, despite several minor clashes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army, particularly in the disputed Shebaa Farms (an area formally part of the Golan Heights but which the Shi’a movement claimed to be Lebanese territory), the Israeli-Lebanese border was more or less calm until the violent clashes of summer 2006.
Following four rounds of voting, the Lebanese parliament elected Michel Aoun as President on October 31, 2016. Aoun had previously served as a General in the Lebanese military and as the Lebanese Prime Minister from September 1988 to October 1990, after which he was exiled to France until 2005. During his inaugural address on October 31, 2016, Aoun promised his people that he would “not spare any efforts to protect Lebanon from Israel and liberate the remainder of our lands.” Aoun is sympathetic to Hezbollah, and his political party signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the group in 2006.
In May 2017, the Lebanese government cancelled screenings of the blockbuster movie Wonder Woman, starring Israeli actress and former IDF soldier Gal Gadot. According to Lebanese officials, a ban on imported products from Israel applies to the film, and a significant media boycott campaign was organized against screenings. Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman in 2016’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice did not receive the same backlash in Lebanon.
Speaking at the annual Herzliya security conference near Tel Aviv in June 2017, Israeli Air Force Major-General Amir Eshel stated that if war were to break out with Hezbollah once again, Israel would open with all our strength from the start. Assuring the audience that Israel contains air power unimaginable in its scope, Eshel bragged that what the air force was able to do quantitatively in the… Lebanon war over the course of 34 days we can do today in 48-60 hours.
The winner of the Miss Lebanon 2017 pageant was stripped of her title in August 2017, just one week after being crowned, when it was reported that she had visited Israel on an academic program during 2016. Amanda Hanna, the Swedish-Lebanese winner of the contest, had posted photos on social media showing her in Israel with friend.
Israel has long hoped the Lebanese army would act against Hezbollah; however, it has been unwilling to do so. Nevertheless, Israel offered to help. “I offered assistance to them four times over the last year, including over the last week, through UNIFIL” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said during a conference on February 2, 2022. “In a targeted manner, we want to support the Lebanese army that suffers from a lack of basic supplies, and which has lost 5,000 of its soldiers recently.”
In 2022, Israel agreed to increase its natural gas exports to Egypt. Some of that gas was expected to be transferred to Lebanon. “There's a big energy crisis in Lebanon,” Energy Minister Karine Elharrar told Israel’s Army Radio.
Nobody can go and inspect the molecules and check whether they originally came from Israel or Egypt.
After the movie Death on the Nile starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot was released in 2022, it was banned in Lebanon and Kuwait because she had served in the IDF. Her film Wonder Woman was also banned.
See also: Jews in Lebanon
L.F. Abel, Géographie de la Palestine, 1 (1933), 340–4; I. Ben Zvi, in: Zion, Me’assef, 2 (1927), 76–79; 4 (1930), 142–54; idem, in: Tarbiz, 3 (1931/32), 436–51; idem, Ereẓ Yisrael ve-Yishuvah (1967), index; S. Landshut, Jewish Communities in the Muslim Countries of the Middle East (1950), 54–56; E. de Vaumas, Le Liban (1954); N. Robinson, in: J. Freid (ed.), Jews in the Modern World, 1 (1962), 50–90; Pauly-Wissowa, S.V.; Press, Ereẓ, S.V. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Z. Schiff and E. Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War (1984); L. Zittrain Eisenberg, My Enemy’s Enemy: Lebanon in the Early Zionist Imagination, 1900–1948 (1994); K.E. Schulze, The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict (2001).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
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