Beirut: the writing on the wall

Michael Posner October 11 1982

Beirut: the writing on the wall

Michael Posner October 11 1982

Beirut: the writing on the wall


Michael Posner

Surrounded by security agents, Amin Gemayel strode across Beirut’s fabled Green Line last week, declaring Moslem and Christian sectors united. For the first time in seven years, the new Lebanese president noted, Beirut was an open city. Still, Gemayel’s journey was more an expression of hope than a symbol of reality. The Green Line is as much a psychological and political barrier as it is a geographical one.

Indeed, evidence last week suggested that national reconciliation for Lebanon remains a distant, elusive goal. In Beirut it was discovered that hundreds of Palestinians from the Shatila camp have been rounded up by the Lebanese army since the massacres and taken away for interrogation. A 58-year-old man, freed after 10 days in the Badara military barracks in east Beirut, said that the detainees were herded together—as many as 50 to a room—with little food, nowhere to sleep and no toilets. Ostensibly, the government was searching for illegal Kurds, Iraqis and Syrians. But some officials believe its real motive is to terrify Lebanon’s 500,000 resident Palestinians so badly that they will leave the country. Their fears were heightened when relief workers revealed that Christian militiamen had razed about a quarter of the

Mieh Mieh Palestinian camp near Sidon in August. Said one Western diplomat: “The handwriting is on the wall. The Lebanese want them out.”

Western diplomats in Beirut said that they were making quiet inquiries about the detentions. And Saeb Salam, the former prime minister, said that he

would raise the issue with Gemayel. But with a peacekeeping force from the United States, France and Italy trying to unite and strengthen the Lebanese army, the sponsoring governments were unwilling to criticize the actions publicly and risk eroding the country’s nascent confidence in the military. A public rebuke would also set back Gemayel’s efforts to control fractious militias.

Washington was also preoccupied with the question of how long its 1,200 Marines would remain in Lebanon. At a press conference President Reagan said that the force would remain until all foreign troops—Syrian, Palestinian and Israeli—were removed. One day later the White House announced a clarification: the Marines would stay until the Lebanese government asked them to leave. U.S. officials expressed optimism that an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign forces can be reached soon. But a swift pullout by Syrian, Palestinian and Israeli occupation troops would leave the Lebanese army neither ready nor able to keep the peace. As a result, the multinational force might be committed to stay at least through the winter.

The president told Congress last week that there is no expectation of the Marines becoming involved in hostilities. But many Americans claim that the risk rises with the length of the troops’

stay. At the very least, the Senate foreign relations committee will want Reagan to concede the possibility of combat before Congress grants an extension of the troops’ stay beyond 90 days—as it must under the War Powers Act.

Meanwhile, most of the administration’s diplomatic guns were targeted on New York, where Secretary of State George Shultz addressed the UN General Assembly and held meetings with Arab foreign ministers, including Syria’s Abdel Halim Khaddam. The war in Lebanon has provided Washington with a new entrée to Damascus and with the hope of weaning it from its current pro-Soviet stance. Shultz stressed Reagan’s recent Middle Eastern peace initiative. The Palestinians, he said, had an undeniable claim to “a place,” but their rights could only be attained by granting to Israel “the right to exist in peace and security.” The Israelis, however, remain firm in their opposition.

In Israel itself, feelings still ran high over the Beirut massacres, and 1,000 army officers and enlisted men petitioned Defence Minister Ariel Sharon not to send them to Lebanon. But Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government managed to defuse some public anger by appointing a commission of inquiry, headed by Supreme Court President Yitzhak Kahan. It will have the power to subpoena cabinet ministers and senior army officers. While many Israelis believe that the controversial Sharon may be toppled by the investigation, recent polls show that about 70 per cent of the people are still satisfied with the prime minister’s performance, and 60 per cent with Sharon’s.

Begin himself wrote to Senator Alan Cranston (D.-Calif.), dismissing charges of Israeli complicity in the massacre. “To assume humanity in others is no sin,” he said. “What is morally untenable and sinful is the a priori assumption that a disciplined military unit will behave like beasts.”

The new Lebanese government is also investigating the slaughter, but much less visibly. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Phalange officers loyal to the late Bashir Gemayel had planned to enter the camps even before his assassination. The reports pinpointed Elie Hobeika, the militia’s intelligence chief, as the architect of the raid and they said that it was designed to terrorize the Palestinians without killing them. Hobeika is also in charge of the official investigation. And that overlap offered little solace to those who hoped that the revulsion triggered by the massacres might finally provoke peace in the ravaged



Robin Wright

in Beirut and

Sari Gilbert

in Rome.