A tragedy-numbed nation

ROBIN WRIGHT November 14 1983

A tragedy-numbed nation

ROBIN WRIGHT November 14 1983

A tragedy-numbed nation


The operation was swift, devastating and tragically familiar. While guards fired frantically at the

driver, a car filled with 110 lb. of high explosives burst into the grounds of a two-storey Israeli army building last week in the southern Lebanese port of Tyre. Soldiers managed to kill the driver. Then the vehicle exploded, flattening the yellow L-shaped structure which housed Israeli troops and Lebanese detainees. The toll: at least 60 dead and 32 wounded. The attack on the Israelis tragically mirrored the Oct. 23 bombings of the U.S. and French headquarters of the multinational peacekeeping forces in Beirut. Those blasts claimed 288 lives.

But unlike the peacekeeping forces, the Israelis last week took immediate and forceful revenge. Waves of warplanes soared over the mountains near Mansourieh and Bhamdoum, east of Beirut, bombing Palestinian positions and killing at least 60 people. Declared Defence Minister Moshe Arens, blaming the Syrians for the Tyre bombing: “Lebanon is one big nest, a network of murderers against whom we will strike.”

Still, the PLO appeared to have little—if anything—to do with the suicide attack. Within hours of the blast, a shadowy pro-Iranian group known as the Islamic Jihad Organization claimed responsibility, A largely unknown fac-

tor in Lebanon’s complex conflict, the organization also claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Americans and the French. And President Ronald Reagan said last week that the group is fully sponsored by Iran.

Last week’s bombing had immediate repercussions in Geneva, where nine leaders of Lebanon’s warring Christian and Moslem sects had just concluded the first round of a long-awaited conference on national reconciliation. Delegates to the meeting, who are trying to negotiate an end to eight years of civil strife, refused to comment on the Tyre incident in an effort to prevent a breakdown in the fragile talks. Lebanese

President Amin Gemayel opened the historic meeting by describing it as a “conference of hope.” But the explosive issues facing the delegates suggest that his optimism is premature at best.

The events were part of a pattern of setbacks last week in attempts to resolve the Middle East terror. Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat lost even more of his dwindling control over the PLO as more extremist guerril-

las tightened their hold over the group. At the same time, guerrilla groups in Lebanon renewed their attacks on government forces and Israel and threatened to occupy indefinitely its positions in the southern sector of the war-ravaged nation. Then Reagan announced that he is appointing former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld as his new envoy to the Middle East. Rumsfeld, an efficient, experienced politician, has never been directly involved in the Middle East, and many observers fear that he will be unable to grasp the complexities of the region quickly enough to make any effective contribution in time to prevent a new outbreak of violence.

At the Geneva talks, the central concern is a Moslem demand that the minority Christians share more power by altering the governmental structure established in Lebanon’s 1943 National Convenant. Christian hard-liners, in-

cluding Gemayel’s father and founder of the Christian Phalange party, Pierre Gemayel, have so far refused to consider constitutional reform. The Christians contend that the most important issue is the withdrawal of all foreign forces, including the 40,000 Syrian troops who promote the Moslem cause.

Indeed, the only area in which the delegates made real progress was Lebanon’s controversial security pact with Israel. They agreed to send Ge-

mayel on an international tour to secure the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. That accord defused a major disagreement over the security pact, which Moslem leftists bitterly oppose. The Christians viewed the unanimous approval of Gemayel’s overseas mission as a vote of confidence in the president. For its part, the Israeli government immediately threatened to continue occupying the region of Lebanon south of the Awali River, where its troops are stationed. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir warned that his troops could remain there indefinitely if the Lebanese bowed to Syrian pressure and abrogated the security pact. The Israeli cabinet was expected to consider sealing bridges across the Awali during its Sunday meeting. And Shamir’s warning may have influenced the timing of last week’s tragedy in Tyre: a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad Organization claimed that the bombing was a direct response to his statements.

In Lebanon itself the atrocity at Tyre was the most murderous incident of the week. But widespread fighting broke out in other parts of the country as well. Druze militiamen made nightly attacks on Lebanese Army positions, and in Beirut’s southern suburbs Shi’ite gunmen also battled government forces. As a result, the multinational peace-

keeping force built new fortifications to protect itself. At the same time, the 1,800 U.S. marines in the force declared that they will counterattack if they are fired on. Said Marine spokesman Maj. Robert Jordan: “If a Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian or other person should fire at us, we shall chase him.”

In the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli, a spreading rebellion in the PLO trapped forces loyal to Arafat in two Palestinian camps. Arafat and his mainstream Fatah followers fought without success to turn back militant PLO rebels backed by Syria. The rebels, who have accused Arafat of pursuing an unproductive policy of diplomacy, have called for a return to military operations against Israel. Their advance on Arafat’s 8,000 troops near Tripoli was fierce and relentless. Arafat loyalists fired bazooka rounds and rockets from the hills surrounding the Baddawi and Nahr el-Bared refugee camps. For their part, the rebels mounted tank assaults and rocket barrages on the highland positions—Arafat’s last foothold in the Middle East. Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were caught in the cross fire and they accounted for most of the 200 dead and 500 wounded during two days of fighting.

Meanwhile, in Damascus, Syrian security forces stood by while the PLO rebels staged fierce gun battles in the

streets with Arafat loyalists. When the rebels captured his “Voice of Palestine” radio station in Tripoli, it appeared that Arafat finally may have lost control of the PLO. He sent urgent messages to Arab, Islamic and Third World leaders, pleading with them to try to restrain Syria and help prevent what he called “wide-scale Palestinian massacres.”

In Washington the Reagan administration appeared to be convinced that success in Geneva could result in swift withdrawal of U.S. peacekeeping forces in Beirut and give the president a foreign policy victory. To that end, Richard Fairbanks, U.S. deputy envoy to the Middle East, began delicate negotiations with both the Moslem and Christian factions in Geneva.

But it is unclear whether or not any diplomat can produce a solution to the tragedy in Lebanon. Delegates in Geneva agreed that the simple fact that nine leaders of Lebanon’s warring sects actually sat down together offers some reason for hope. But as the prospect of a permanent partition under foreign forces grows with each passing week, the reconciliation conference has little chance of making any real progress. Commented the Beirut newspaper Al Anwar, the summit is the nation’s “conference of last hope.”