The car bomb, the most undiscriminating weapon in the arsenal of modern urban war, claimed a score more victims in the Middle East last week as the region remained trapped in its cycle of violence. In separate blasts in West Beirut and Jerusalem, 20 civilians were killed and 100 more injured. As well, the diplomatic reverberations in the wake of the bombing of Syrian gun positions in Lebanon by U.S. aircraft continued to echo in the Arab world. There were charges that the United States was no longer an impartial member of the multinational peacekeeping force stationed in Lebanon but an active ally of Israel. Because of fears of losing status as honest brokers, there was domestic pressure on governments in London and Rome to withdraw their contingents from the multinational force.
Criticism of the U.S. role came after waves of U.S. war planes struck the
Syrian positions in the central mountains early on Dec. 4. Two U.S. planes were downed, one pilot was killed and another taken prisoner. Fourteen hours after the attack, Druze gunners bombarded U.S. Marine positions at Beirut airport, and one shell killed eight marines.
Throughout the week the Marines came under fire, taking at least one more casualty. The dawn air attack also came in for strong criticism in the United States and Israel. Critics charged that the raid was poorly planned, the pilots were inexperienced and their A-6 and A-7 subsonic planes outdated. A senior U.S. navy officer denounced the claims as “nonsense.” But he acknowl-
edged that the strength of the Syrian resistance had surprised the Pentagon. However, U.S. authorities left unanswered the question of why a risky air bombardment was chosen when U.S. warships, including the giant battleship New Jersey, could have shelled Syrian positions.
In Washington, President Ronald Reagan mounted a political defence of the bombing, which he said was a response to an “unprovoked attack” by Syria on two U.S. reconnaissance planes the day before. “We do not seek hostilities there,” said Reagan. “Our mission remains what it was—to stabilize the situation in Beirut until all the foreign forces can be withdrawn and until the government of Lebanon can take over the authority of its own territory.”
But that did not quell doubts about Washington’s neutrality. Said the Soviet news agency, TASS: “Even a politically blind person can see that not a stem remains of the fig leaf of ‘peace mission’ with which these forces were so carefully adorned.” Syria, which has 40,000 troops in northern and eastern Lebanon, also insisted that Washington was acting belligerently. “It is a cause for astonishment and wonder,” Syrian United Nations representative Dia Allah el-Fattal said, “that the United States delegation interprets its acts of aggression as self-defence.”
For most of the Arab world, the United States had already plainly displayed its pro-Israeli stance on Nov. 29 when it signed a strategic co-operation treaty with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on his visit to Washington. That signing soured relations between
Washington and Cairo and prompted Reagan to write a rare conciliatory letter to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian leader had called the treaty “a disaster,” and Reagan’s letter failed to appease him. Cairo newspapers continued to charge that Reagan was siding with Israel against the Arabs because of next year’s presidential elections.
Indeed, Reagan’s authorization of the air attack was an issue in the Democratic presi-
dential race. Even before the October suicide bombing, which killed 239 U.S. servicemen, there were demands that the Marines be recalled. And last week the Democrats sought to capitalize on the growing public doubts. “We should do everything possible to get out of Lebanon,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson. Conservative Democratic Senator John Glenn condemned the escalating U.S. rhetoric, and Senator Gary Hart called for a reassessment of U.S. military involvement. Only Democratic front-runner Walter Mondale supported the administration line.
Reagan also got belated reassurances that Italy, France and Britain would
not pull out of the multinational force despite domestic pressures to do so. Last week British troops, who have so far suffered no casualties, were caught in the cross fire after the U.S. air raid, and their headquarters was damaged by mortar fire. That led to demands from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, and even some Conservative MPs, that Britain’s token 100-member force should return home by Christmas. However, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stoutly resisted the criticism. She said that the Lebanese “would be very upset, even dismayed,” if Britain pulled out. For his part, Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, while agreeing
not to withdraw his country’s 2,200 soldiers, called for UN forces to partly replace the multinational presence.
While the diplomatic debate raged, in Beirut last week there was widespread anger at the bomb blast that killed 16 civilians and injured 43 others in a Moslem neighborhood in West Beirut. Police said that an unidentified man parked a Fiat packed with explosives on Rawas Street, in a poor and densely populated quarter, killing people bound for work and children on their way to school. There were no military targets nearby, and the group that claimed responsibility, the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners,
was previously unknown.
While the rubble still smouldered in Beirut, a 300-lb. bomb exploded in a bus in Jerusalem, killing four occupants and wounding 46. Said photographer Eli Hershkovitz: “Passengers were sitting in their seats frozen with shock, blood pouring down their faces.”
Rival factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization claimed to have carried out the attack, but said that it had been intended for a military vehicle. A spokesman for the Syrian-backed dissidents fighting to wrest control of the PLO from Chairman Yasser Arafat said that followers of their leader, Col. Saeed Musa, had planted the bomb.
However, Arafat supporters in Cyprus said that their “Martyr Halim” group was responsible. Still, Israeli observers believed that Arafat had sanctioned the bombing to bolster his own credibility as a warrior and implacable enemy of Israel. But many Arafat supporters on the occupied West Bank repudiated the attack. In a pro-Arafat newspaper in East Jerusalem, several prominent Palestinians called for an end to attacks on civilians. “Violence against civilians, carried out by either side, is counterproductive to a just solution to the Palestinian problem,” it said.
For his part, Shamir promised revenge. “We will reach out and strike
them in every way until this abominable evil disappears,” he said. Israeli gunboats
shelled Arafat’s positions in Tripoli, but Shamir said that Israel will not block the planned evacuation of Arafat and his 4,000 supporters from the northern Lebanese port, where they have been under siege by the PLO rebels since Nov. 3. Current plans call for Arafat’s forces to be taken to Tunisia or North Yemen aboard Greek ships bearing the UN flag starting this week. In the wake of the Jerusalem bombing, however, Shamir demanded that the UN withdraw its sponsorship of the evacuation, a request dez nied by Secretary-Gen£ eral Javier Pérez de ? Cuéllar.
1 This week attention 5 will likely turn back to
2 the diplomatic front. 1 U.S. Special Envoy
Donald Rumsfeld is to
visit Syria “very soon,” according to sources inWashington. Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, under increasing pressure to broaden the base of his government and reunite his splintered country, travels to London. As well, at the Pentagon there was talk of redeploying U.S. Marines either to the safety of Israeli-controlled southern Lebanon or to warships patrolling off Beirut. But with Christmas less than a month away, negotiators were working to a demanding deadline—and apparently against history—if there is to be peace in the Middle East this season.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.