Lebanon: flames and the future

Linda Diebel August 23 1982

Lebanon: flames and the future

Linda Diebel August 23 1982

Lebanon: flames and the future


Linda Diebel

For the shell-shocked survivors of West Beirut, there was relief at last. Shortly before sundown on Thursday, Aug. 12, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered an end to that day’s 11-hour aerial bombardment and, with it, the slow extermination of a city once known as the Paris of the Orient. The Israeli cabinet’s decision to cease the daily barrage of bombs came after a dramatic series of transatlantic messages and phone calls, involving statesmen in four countries, which may have ultimately closed this most recent chapter in Lebanon’s fragmented and bloodied history. If the ceasefire holds, it will at least remove the danger of hand-to-hand combat between Israeli and Palestinian forces along the so-called Green Line, which divides Christian East Beirut from the 480,000 people still living precariously in the city’s Moslem sector.

Last week’s air attack—the worst sustained air raids since the June 6 invasion of Lebanon—began at dawn, with waves of Phantom, Kfir and Skyhawk warplanes screaming low over the city. In the presidential palace in suburban Baabda, U.S. special envoy

Philip Habib was still straining to negotiate a plan for the withdrawal of an estimated 7,100 trapped Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas. But the official Lebanese negotiator, Prime Minister Shafik al-Wazzan, considered the attack “clear proof that Israel is determined to destroy the Lebanese capital anyway.”

The prime minister then suspended negotiations while “these thousands of tonnes of explosives are wreaking mass destruction on my city, my capital.” The Lebanese refusal to continue talking sparked the most critical diplomatic flurry in the 19-month administration

of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Alerted by Habib that the peaces talks—which had percolated with reasonable success throughout a week of continuous Israeli air blitzes—were faltering, Reagan exploded. He fired off a5 message to Begin in which, White2 House officials said, he warned that Israeli aggression must stop or Habib would be recalled and relations between the two countries irrevocably breached. It was a watershed in his dealings with the single-minded Begin. Reagan had generally avoided public criticism of the Israelis, preferring instead to try to coax flexibility with repeated assuranees of support. The U.S. administration was worried that stronger action, such as military or economic sanctions, would provoke Israel into a final assault on the devastated city. But when Reagan’s personal plea for a ceasefire was defied for a second time, Washington’s patience ran out.

Reagan tried to bolster his message by telephone but he could not reach the Israeli prime minister, who was at a late afmeeting in the Knesset, he cooled his heels in the Office, the white phone on desk rang. On the line from was King Fahd of Saudi ia. He told the president that the Israelis were

wiping out West Beirut with U.S. hardware and Reagan must see that it stopped.

When Reagan finally contacted Begin, he was fuming. He icily informed the prime minister that he was “shocked” by Israel’s latest onslaught and charged that the attacks had caused “needless destruction and bloodshed.” Before the call, Reagan had learned that an Israeli ceasefire order had been issued and, according to deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes, warned Begin, “It must hold.” Twenty minutes later, Begin called back to assure Reagan that the ceasefire was in effect. After a brief chat, Reagan signed off with, “Shalom, Menachem.”

In Jerusalem Begin had to wrestle with a tempest of his own. Stung by Reagan’s acid message, he had stormed into a cabinet meeting in which Defence Minister Ariel Sharon—the architect of the Israeli invasion of Lebanonwanted cabinet approval for further advances. However, Sharon’s men were already on the move that day. And his cabinet colleagues, some of whom said they had learned of the latest offensive only from news reports, were furious at the unilateral nature of the action.

A cabinet decision to continue air attacks only if they proved “essential” —and then only with the specific approval of Begin and his ministers—was Sharon’s first setback. He defended his position heatedly and, according to Israeli officials, told Begin it was a mistake to bow to U.S. pressure. “When did I ever bow to American pressure?” Begin snapped. As tempers rose, and, with them, Sharon’s insistence to continue what Israelis call “Arik’s War” (after the defence minister’s nickname), Begin yelled, “Let’s get things clear who runs the affairs of state.” Deputy Prime Minister Simha Ehrlich told Sharon he was “not only destroying Beirut but Israel’s image along with it.”

For Begin the sharp attack on Sharon marked a pronounced change from previous policies. A week earlier, the day after Israel’s armored push into West Beirut at three points, similar complaints were raised in cabinet. Begin took the inquiries as a personal insult and strenuously justified the use of military muscle. He said that the decision had been made by Sharon and himself at a private meeting. “Even [founding prime minister] David Ben-Gurion had to make decisions of the same nature on his own,” he declared.

Before the political manoeuvrings,, brought about the ceasefire—and a resumption in Habib’s negotiations— lice reported 128 people dead, 400 in jured and dozens feared buried in rubble of the latest onslaught, killing continued every day last

the tally of dead and injured civilians inching slowly upward.

For the people of West Beirut, the ceasefire—however welcome—came far too late. For them it has become impossible to distinguish the attempt to flush out the Palestinian guerrillas from the appearance of a brutal attempt to liquidate the civilian population. Their confusion is easy to understand. The city reeks of cordite, unburied dead and despair. The continuing blockade of food, power, water and medical supplies, in defiance of a midweek Security Council call backed by the United States, has led to fear of cholera, typhoid epidemics and even plague from the quickly multiplying rat population. Meanwhile, as other refugees straggle out of West Beirut, they add to 75,000 displaced persons in the Bekaa Valley, to the north and east of Beirut, and more than 200,000 refugees south of the Litani River—the human debris of the war.

While the refugee population swelled, however,

Habib made significant breakthroughs on the question of where to send the PLO guerrillas from West Beirut. In a major reversal, Syria announced it was prepared to take in an unlimited number, adding to offers—however tardy— from Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and North and South Yemen. At week’s end the first contingent of PLO fighters was scheduled to leave on Thursday by sea for the Jordanian port of Aqaba.

What now appears to be nearly the final stage in the plan, dubbed D Day for Departure Day by the PLO, is the positioning of a multinational peacekeeping force to supervise the evacuation. A 200-member French party (part of an eventual 2,000-man French, Italian and U.S. contingent) would arrive first. But the Israelis fear that such a force would be used as a screen to allow some PLO members to remain in place. Israel insisted that the bulk of the guerrillas leave before the troops arrive. A senior U.S. diplomat in East Beirut said of the PLO position: “The Palestinians are genuinely afraid of being massacred if they lay down their weapons without somebody to protect them. But they also

want an honorable withdrawal.”

Another point of contention was a PLO demand for a United Nations observer force to monitor the evacuation, a request opposed by Israel. (But the Israelis have succumbed to Arafat’s wish to be the last guerrilla to leave West Beirut.) An additional sensitive area—although not a stumbling block to negotiations—is the Israeli aversion to French troops, whom they fear may sympathize with the PLO (page 18).

For its part, Egypt announced publicly what the PLO claimed all Arab states had told the U.S. negotiating team in private: that acceptance of the

guerrillas has to be linked to a new effort to resolve the future status of the Palestinians and that asylum should not be considered permanent. It is clear, though, that no Arab state really wants the Palestinians, in part for economic reasons, but also because the PLO has wreaked havoc wherever it has been located. Not only that, but the presence of the PLO automatically makes the host country a target for the Israelis—particularly in the cases of Syria and Jordan. At week’s end there were new attempts to arrange an Arab summit, probably this fall, to consider how to

resolve the question once and for all.

Still, they are unlikely to agree on a course of action. Such hawks as Libya and Algeria will seek to limit debate to methods of punishing Israel. The doves, led by Saudi Arabia—which has formulated an eight-point peace plan to replace the Camp David process—will want a recognition of Israel in return for talks about a Palestinian homeland. That kind of inability to deal with the issues, whether militarily or politically, may provide the seed of future violence. The Arab peoples, writes the London Observer’s specialist on the Arab world, Patrick Seale, have been angered and shamed by their powerlessness to stem the Israeli assault on Lebanon. Previously moving toward a Middle East compromise, they “will now question whether peaceful coexistence is possible.” It may take months, he says, before the “full impact of the Beirut carnage on the Arab world is seen, but that in due course there will be a reaction, very probably violent, is in little doubt.”

The Arab dilemma is as old as the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948. Finding a solution to the problem was complicated by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Camp David accords promised “autonomy” to the Palestinians in the area, but Begin and Sharon now seem more interested in annexation.

Israeli leaders have £ made no secret of their I desire to assert Israeli xsovereignty over the occupied Arab territories, leaving the Palestinians to settle elsewhere. Begin’s suggestion for a confederation of Jordan and Israel, say Arab critics, is merely annexation in another form; or a variant of Sharon’s plan to establish a Palestinian state in Jordan by overthrowing King Hussein. One senior Jordanian official said in Amman that there are fears that Israel’s invasion of Lebanon was designed “just to divert attention from the crux of the issue— the de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

Certainly, under Sharon’s aegis, Israel has been steadily increasing the number of its settlements on the West

Bank. And while Begin’s “confederation” might have superseded Sharon’s characteristically direct plan of action, any reprieve may be temporary. As Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir put it in the authoritative U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs: “Israel has made it clear at Camp David and since that it has a claim to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria [the West Bank] and Gaza. In order to keep a door open, however, Israel has deliberately refrained from exercising its rights under this claim.” One solution that is clearly not acceptable to Israel, however, is the establishment of a Palestinian state (page 17).

In southern Lebanon, meanwhile, the j Israeli army is digging in for a rainy winter. A full-scale military government is in operation, easing out the skeletal remains of the Lebanese administration and cooling the original welcome of residents, who were happy to see the PLO evicted. “I think they intend to stay forever,” says Habib Khalifeh, mayor of Gaziyeh, a town just south of Sidon. “I hated the PLO . .. but now the Israelis start to act the same.”

Another Moslem fear is that Israel intends to expand the power of its Lebanese Christian allies in the south (page 20). Under Israeli guns, Bashir Gemayel’s Maronite Phalange party has opened offices there, and armed Maron; ite militiamen from East Beirut now stand alongside Israeli soldiers at checkpoints near Sidon. As the Phalange pushes south, Israel’s strong ally, Christian Maj. Sa’ad Haddad, is extending his territory to the north.

Israeli leaders affirm that their troops will leave Lebanon when other foreign forces, notably the Syrians, withdraw. Still, Lebanese Moslems fear that their interests may be sacrificed to Israel’s need for a pliant northern neighbor. One candidate for the presidency might be Gemayel, although he is at loggerheads with the Israelis over their willingness to allow Palestinian refugees who are not members of the PLO to remain in Lebanon. Haddad would likely be more accommodating, but his sphere of operations is still south of Beirut.

Elections to choose a successor to Lebanese President Elias Sarkis, who has indicated that he will not stay on ! past the end of his term on Sept. 22, are scheduled to take place Aug. 23. If that happens, it will be under the protection of Israeli guns—just as the last election was held under the cover of Syrian guns. Once again, a foreign power would oversee the future of the long fought for strip of the Middle East.

Gilbert Lewthwaite

Eric Silver

Robin Wright