Israel is beginning to close the gash it put into Lebanon. Buildings that were damaged beyond repair are being shoved into rubble by bulldozers. The highways are opened, the people are returning to their homes and in the city of Tyre, home to the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, a carnival ferris wheel spins, ice cream is sold and a recorded voice from a minaret calls the faithful to prayer. There is, to hear some tell it, much to be thankful for.
There is, of course, devastation galore. Homes and buildings are gone forever. Debris is everywhere. The blackened hulks of cars sit dead on the road and the homeless camp out in deserted buildings, dazed looks on their faces. The war came up the coast road, from the Israeli border on the south to Beirut on the north, and everywhere it went it took buildings and walls, orchids and schools, and, of course, many lives.
But just how many lives is still a matter of dispute. It could be that among the missing of this war are some or many of the dead originally claimed by the PLO and Lebanese authorities. What you can see with your eye is that there has been no carpet bombing and little indiscriminate destruction. What there is is more than enough. Still, these things are hard to judge and the eye can see only so far. The destruction of West Beirut lies beyond the haze and some of the former PLO camps are still off limits to the press. One, Ein Hilwe, was, in the words of The Jerusalem Post, "totally reduced to rubble" after the Israelis dropped leaflets warning the residents to flee. Just how many stayed is anyone's guess. Already some of the damage is gone. Mounds of rubble mark the places where buildings stood and it is impossible from looking at them to tell if they were schools or houses or high-rises--or, for that matter, how many people might have been in them. By now the bodies are buried and the wounded have made their way to hospitals and from there to their homes.
But at Dr. Hammoud's hospital in Sidon, a seven story, starkly modern building, the administrator, Salim Mamlouk, provided approximately the same figures for dead and wounded that the Israelis did. Mamlouk speaks precisely. There were not more than 500 dead in the entire area, he said. The Israelis said 300, but neither figure is awfully high. The fighting was fierce here and parts of the town no longer exist, but the killing was not, it seems, indiscriminate.
In Tyre, the story was much the same. There, the local agricultural officer, Ibrahin Farhuri, entertained the Israelis with endless cups of coffee and tales of the PLO occupation. His home is still without electricity, his television set had taken a possible mortal shrapnel wound to the speaker and the walls of his home have been chipped and pockmarked by bullets. He had the high honor of hosting a firefight, but he is cheerful about it all--friendly to the Israelis, optimistic about the future.
We travel with an Israeli escort officer and so absolute candor is probably not possible. Still, there are things you can see with your eyes. One thing is that the Lebanese are friendly towards the Israelis. They wave to them, smile at them, sometimes offer them free food. Israeli soldiers walk among the Lebanese either alone or in twos. There seems to be no tension. Maybe this is the prudent behavior of people who have lived through eight years of civil war, and underneath their emotions tell a different story. It is impossible to tell. In the end, it is probably silly as well as futile to play the numbers game. The Israelis are not the world's most evil people, nor are they saints. The Lebanese countryside is witness to the fact that war was conducted here and the swath of destruction that runs up the coast to Beirut is evidence enough that many civilians died--some by bombs, some by artillery, some by small arms fire and some, like in Tyre, because they took refuge in a building next to a gas tank.
But while the world debates the numbers of dead, the war continues. Daily, bombs and artillery rain on Beirut. Daily, the Israelis lose more and more men. Every day Lebanon bleeds some more from a fight that is not its own. Just how many died will always be disputed. Probably it is more than the Israelis say, clearly fewer than the PLO claim, but certainly, if you question the wisdom and the extent of the war, many more than had to. At any rate the Middle East rewards patience. Pick a number--and wait.