Israel closes the ring in Beirut

LINDA MCQUAIG June 28 1982

Israel closes the ring in Beirut

LINDA MCQUAIG June 28 1982

Israel closes the ring in Beirut


In Sidon, on Lebanon’s coast, 200 corpses were found buried beneath the rubble of bombed buildings. In nearby Tyre not a single building remained intact. And by the end of last week, fears of yet further Israeli attacks sent streams of refugees pouring out of besieged West Beirut. But even as the toll of homeless and wounded mounted, the Israeli navy blocked an emergency Red Cross ship, carrying 465 tonnes of relief supplies, from landing on the Lebanese coast—a move that angered Red Cross officials in Beirut. As the besieged Palestine Liberation Organization rejected a call to surrender their arms and Israeli troops massed on the outskirts of Beirut, there seemed little hope of averting a final showdown in Beirut.

As Israel’s lightning thrust into Lebanon moved into its second week, the full extent of Jerusalem’s aims became increasingly clear. With most of the south of Lebanon and the coast below Beirut under Israel’s control, Israeli forces swept into the key Beirut suburb of Baabda.

Not only did this place Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers virtually at the front door of Lebanese President Elias Sarkis’ palace, but it gave them control of the crucial highway linking Damascus and Beirut. The drive also trapped 5,000 Palestinian guerrillas in western Beirut, where they had neither a supply route in nor an escape route out.

grip in the Moslem section of the divided capital.

As his men piled up mounds of red earth to slow a possible tank advance, PLO leader Yasser Arafat vowed to fight to the last man. But the Israelis failed to move, perhaps because they feared suffering heavy casualties in the inevitable fierce street battles that would accompany an assault. A more powerful reason, however, may have been fear of alienating U.S. public opinion and losing U.S. support.

For its part, Syria withdrew almost

Blocked on all sides by Israeli forces—the navy to the west, troops to the south and Israelisupporting Christian Falangists to the north—the Palestinians and their leftist Moslem supporters were trapped in a tight

completely from the conflict. Despite a few isolated clashes involving its troops, Damascus seemed content to let the PLO and Lebanon’s already battered cities absorb most of the pounding from Israeli guns.

The devastation they inflicted was evident everywhere. In the coastal towns, the destruction was particularly

severe. Thousands of residents who fled when Israeli leaflets advised them of an imminent attack returned, after subsisting for several days with little food or water, to find their towns in ruins. In the Palestinian stronghold of Tyre, not a building remained intact. Estimates of the number of homeless ranged up to 600,000, and several hundred thousand more people were believed to be in need of nourishment or medical care. Early last week the Israeli army blocked the United Nations’ peace-keeping force from providing relief convoys. And the

heavy Israeli shelling around Beirut’s international airport prevented a Boeing 747 from Switzerland, carrying almost 50 tonnes of medical supplies, from landing.

The Israelis insisted that their military operations were directed strictly against guerrillas, but civilian casualties were also high. In the city of Sidon, Lebanese relief officials discovered 90 corpses—men, women and children grouped together in families—buried beneath a bombed school and an apartment building. The Israelis disputed the total number of civilian casualties in the town— their estimate was 400 dead, the Lebanese said 500. Still, it was evident that guerrillas had not been the only victims of Israel’s saturation bombing. Fears of just how high the civilian toll might be were increased by the occupying force’s refusal to let journalists investigate the damage freely. While Israeli troops readily escorted reporters through selected Christian areas, where some civilians said they were pleased by the invasion, Jerusalem completely barred the press from visiting a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts.

Those who survived faced a new danger: the round-up of suspected PLO activists. One Norwegian nurse at the Palestinian Red Crescent Hospital in Sidon reported that her husband, a § Norwegian social worker, had I been arrested along with almost 5 all the doctors at the hospital, I including a Canadian. That acg tion, she said, left one doctor to g care for 58 patients, some of t whom were badly injured. There were other indications of the arbitrary nature of the Israeli dragnet. In Sidon, thousands of young men were forced to file past an Israeli jeep while three hooded occupants nodded or shook their heads. Those who received a nod from their unknown accusers were taken away for interrogation, while horrified relatives looked on helplessly.

In Beirut, where street violence has been commonplace since the Lebanese civil war erupted between Moslems and Christians in 1975, the situation has grown dramatically worse in the past two weeks. In the prosperous Christian

section of East Beirut life goes on much as before, but the Moslem western end of the city, where the Palestinians were concentrated, has become a virtual ghost town. Refugees crowd into abandoned buildings, dozens of heavily armed militiamen roam the streets and huge piles of uncollected garbage rot in the hot sun. At the same time, hospitals are desperately overcrowded after the heavy Israeli bombardment of the refugee camps on the city’s southern outskirts. The wounded lie on stretchers in corridors and in neighboring buildings, while hospital personnel are afraid to risk leaving their homes to go to work.

As the Israeli army intensively pursued the goals set by Defence Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Mena-

chem Begin—who spent much of the week explaining them at the UN and in Washington—opinion at home was divided. While many supported the invasion, others felt little enthusiasm for a war that, unlike its predecessors, was being waged in a country that posed no immediate threat of a conventional military attack. Israeli sociologist Janet Aviad, who leads the group Peace Now, branded the invasion as “imperialism.” In newspaper advertisements the group asked: “For what are our people being killed? Is our existence hanging in the balance?”

But if the war sparked some dissent within Israel, there was little attempt by other nations to force a stop to the

invasion. The Soviets called for an Israeli withdrawal. The UN Security Council, several European countries and a number of Arab states supported Moscow’s position. In Saudi Arabia, King Fahd, who succeeded to the throne earlier this month after the death of his brother, King Khalid, advised visiting U.S. Vice-President George Bush that if Israel did not pull out the Arab states would act. But he failed to be specific. And while there were rumors of a repeat of the 1973 oil embargo, oil experts doubt that one could be successful in view of the current glut.

The key power in any attempt to bring about an Israeli withdrawal—the United States—showed little willingness to exercise its leverage. U.S. special

envoy Philip Habib continued discussions with the main parties, including the Syrians. But President Ronald Reagan proceeded with plans to meet Begin, leaving the impression that it was basically business as usual between the two allies. And Secretary of State Alexander Haig told reporters that when the two leaders met, the Lebanon invasion would simply be “one of the major agenda items.”

Some reports now indicate that the United States actually gave its approval before the attack began June 6. Although the Reagan administration originally joined the rest of the UN Security Council in demanding an unconditional withdrawal, it quickly adopted the Is-

raeli position that any troop pull-out should be conditional on the withdrawal of other outside forces, notably those of the PLO and Syria. The United States appeared to pressure Israel not to invade Beirut, but it did not publicly disapprove of the Israeli occupation. On the contrary, Haig told a TV audience that the Lebanon “tragedy” had given the United States an opportunity to correct the unstable situation in Lebanon.

In New York last week, Begin maintained that Israel does not want an inch of Lebanese soil. He also said that Israeli troops plan to pull back as soon as Israel feels secure—without setting a firm date. But with his troops in place outside the Lebanese presidential pal-

aee, the Israeli leader apparently plans to have a say in reorganizing Lebanon’s government before his forces leave. He would also like to see the Christian right strengthened at the expense of Lebanon’s Moslems, who make up roughly 60 per cent of the population and are more sympathetic to the Palestinians. Just where the 600,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon will fit into the new structure is not clear. But when and if the Israelis do pull out, they are likely to leave behind a strengthened government willing to hold the Palestinians on a very tight rein.


with Michael Posner in Washington, Eric Silver in Jerusalem and Robin Wright in Beirut.