The cacophony of thundering bombs and shells rumbled through the battered streets of West Beirut. Fires raged throughout the Moslem section of the capital, and at least one-third of Israel’s armed might—1,600 tanks and 1,200 armored personnel carriers—massed on the southern outskirts of the city, poised for a final assault on the 10-square-mile Palestinian stronghold. Masking tape in familiar crisscross patterns began appearing on the windows of shops, hotels and homes as residents steeled themselves for a long-dreaded event: the transformation of their city into a bloody battleground. Then, shortly after dusk, the guns suddenly fell silent; an eerie calm spread over Beirut as word spread that U.S. special envoy Philip Habib had announced that a “decisive and lasting” ceasefire had been reached.
Friday’s unexpected ceasefire, which was patched together by Washington, possibly at the insistence of Saudi Arabia, capped a week of confusion in U.S. foreign policy. The ceasefire was achieved only two hours before another equally unheralded development—the resignation of U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig (page 20) — and there were rumors that Saudi threats to Washington had forced both events.
The end of the fighting came during a week in which Red Cross officials in Lebanon raised the death toll from the Israeli invasion to 14,000, with 20,000 wounded. Lebanese political casualties also mounted as Prime Minister Shafik al-Wazzan and two of his ministers resigned. Said al-Wazzan: “I cannot work under this massive military escalation, this blackmail.” The virtual collapse of the nation’s leadership was not the only political setback. The chances of reaching a long-term negotiated settlement were abruptly shattered when Moslem leftist leader Walid Jumblat resigned from the newly formed Council for National Salvation. By the end of the week, as Lebanon began the long process of digging out its dead from the rubble, one question more than any other preoccupied the country: would the peace last? The eleventh-hour ceasefire was the fourth since Israel began its 80-km drive to Beirut, aimed at disarming the PLO, ridding Lebanon of
Syria’s strategic control and ensuring that the country would no longer serve as a base for attacks on the Jewish state. Throughout the week Israeli aircraft and gunboats increased the shelling on the fringes of West Beirut in what many feared was a “softening up” operation before a full-scale assault.
Wheeling low over the city, Israeli aircraft bombarded buildings in the once fashionable district, firing on shopping areas and Palestinian refugee camps. Acre Hospital, located on the fringes of the city, suffered 13 direct hits in a day. An apartment complex favored by visiting diplomats was shelled, although there were no casualties because most occupants had fled aboard two U.S. Navy transports and a British container ship that ferried more than 1,000 evacuees to Cyprus. As bombing continued on the outskirts, residents poured into the refuse-strewn inner city, depleting already rationed water and electricity supplies. In West Beirut they were met by Palestinian gunners who had taken their own precautions by piling up mounds of red earth and low barrels along city streets to cut off major roads through the city.
But Beirut was only one of the battlegrounds. Over the mountains, to the east, Israeli and Syrian jet fighters duelled in aerial dogfights for control of the Beirut-to-Damascus highway. On the ground Israeli tanks advanced along the road as fierce rocket, mortar and artillery fire rained down from Syrian positions.
The hurricane of bombs and shells was calculated to force a split between the estimated 6,000 PLO gunmen and their leftist Lebanese allies trapped in West Beirut. But it was also a perfectly timed signal to the hastily assembled Lebanese Council for National Salvation to act quickly to disarm the PLO and avert an Israeli assault on Beirut. The council, composed of seven leaders of Lebanon’s warring military and religious factions, met earlier in the week with Habib to try to patch together a negotiated compromise suitable to both the PLO and the Israelis.
But any possible solution to the crisis seemed even further away as both the PLO and the Israelis added rhetoric to the roar of artillery. Said Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, who is considered the architect of the Israeli invasion: “We never gave any guarantee
that we would not destroy terrorists anywhere on earth. And Beirut is still the centre of world terrorism.” For his part, PLO leader Yasser Arafat promised: “We are here and we will be here in the future. No one will accept to lay down his arms. Be sure of it.”
While Arafat’s men fought on with their backs to the wall in Beirut, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin came under siege by his American allies in Washington. During a two-day visit Begin got a public measure of support from President Ronald Reagan for Israel’s military adventures. But in a private 50-minute session the president also warned him that the United States expected Israel to support Habib’s peace efforts to produce a political solution to the problem. After the talks, which were characterized as “direct, even blunt,” Begin moved on to Capitol Hill, where he received a second hostile reception. Said the Democrats’ Paul Tsongas, one of 36 senators who joined Begin at a foreign relations committee meeting: “It’s fair to say that in my eight years in Washington I’ve never seen such an angry session with a foreign head of state.”
The reasons for the disapproval were clear: for one thing, Israel plainly went beyond its original military goals and in
the process almost inevitably misled the administration. For another, with its 80-km thrust to Beirut, the number of casualties—although disputed widely by both sides—was tragically high.
At the same time, while many Americans acknowledged the political opportunities that were created by the invasion—chiefly for re-establishment of an independent Lebanese state—there were fears about its impact on U.S. relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab regimes. A defiant Begin gave Reagan assurances that Israel would not occupy Beirut, but that was not sufficient to silence the chorus of criticism on Capitol Hill.
As Begin returned to brief his cabinet on the American reaction and discuss future military moves, Israeli public opinion had also begun to sour. Faced with the longest campaign since the 1948 War of Independence, an increasing number of Israelis was questioning its justification. And when the Israeli death count reached 425 after three weeks of fighting, pressure on Begin’s right-wing government not to send tanks into West Beirut mounted. Members of the Labor opposition led the peace campaign. They were joined by
the smaller left and centre parties outside the ruling coalition.
Said Labor leader Shimon Peres, who was in favor of a ceasefire: “We are totally opposed to an Israeli occupation of Beirut. It was never intended to use the army for political purposes or for those not purely concerned with security. In the past we have never entered an Arab capital. Not because we lacked power, but because we had a certain historic wisdom.”
Peres’ criticism brought angry outbursts from Begin’s supporters. At his call for a ceasefire hundreds of soldiers lit up party headquarters switchboards in protest. In a Jerusalem shopping centre angry right-wingers overturned a table where people were signing peace petitions.
While domestic pressure began to pinch the Israeli complacency, international opposition was also growing. French President François Mitterrand called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the Lebanese crisis. France proposed an immediate 9.6-km Israeli withdrawal and a Palestinian pullback from West Beirut, combined with a UNLebanese peacekeeping force.
The resolution was vetoed by the United States. But the ceasefire in Beirut held, although Israeli planes were once again scrambled to knock out Syrian SAM-7 missiles in the Bekaa Valley. The basis for peace in the Lebanese capital was reported to be similar to Mitterrand’s proposals: a cessation of fighting and a token Israeli withdrawal in exchange for an end to the PLO military presence in Lebanon.
The sudden lifting of the Israeli siege eased the PLO’s bleak position. Barring an unexpected deterioration in the situation, Arafat’s supporters appear to have avoided a final humiliation at Israel’s hands. They may also be able to continue their political fight for a Palestinian homeland. In the long term, the PLO might re-establish its military organization as well, using bases in friendly countries such as Syria, Libya, Kuwait, South Yemen and even Cyprus. A Middle East expression perhaps best summarizes the PLO’s strength: you may not be able to make peace with them, but you cannot make peace without them.
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