Now the Israelis hesitate to finish what
they have started in Beirut, and the ghosts of past, failed military adventures in this devastated land begin to chuckle from the wings.
The sounds of artillery rounds exploding on this city evoke the repetitive series of military campaigns that have failed here in the last seven years. At first the Israelis seemed oblivious to that history, but perhaps they are catching on.
This campaign is different of course: The weapons are American, not Soviet; the attackers are Israelis, not Arabs. But the similarities are strong, too, particularly the invader's hubris. Israel shows every sign of becoming bogged down in the same encrusted hatreds and jealousies that have proven so irreconcilable since April, 1975, when this part Christian, part Moslem land split in civil war.
Ever since, with brief respites, violence has been Lebanon's fate. But Lebanese violence, it would seem, is violence that solves nothing; it just adds new victims in what has become the Middle East's favorite killing ground.
Artillery shells smashing into the Palestinian refugee camps and high-rent apartment buildings alike are in fact a sign of Israel's impotence. Before the Israelis, the Syrians, the Palestinians and Lebanese of all persuasions resorted to rockets and mortars, white phosphorus and high explosives. Then as now it was a last resort, an admission of failure.
The very thought that Israel may yet be as thoroughly trapped as the half million Palestinian guerrillas and Lebanese civilians its troops now surround in West Beirut is well nigh startling. Lebanese, like others in the Arab world, have gotten used to Israel's terrible swift sword, and they tend to expect it to succeed. But it has failed before, and may again now.
If Lebanon could be fit into the well-ordered universe, with its simple, straightforward certainties that seems so dear to the Israeli military mind, then this Israeli operation would be assured of success. The problem is that the Moslems of West Beirut, who may hold the key to any new Lebanese solution, live in a much smaller world. Perhaps it is misleading to call it a world at all.
In truth, the West Beirutis, like so many of the residents of this tormented land, have become atomized over the years, and are now amoeba-like in their inability to think -- much less act -- conceptually. The art of compromise that once made this a civilized, prosperous land has long since deserted Lebanon.
But the West Beirutis do survive. Those who stay do so because they are either too poor to leave or are determined to protect apartments they know would be squatted in and robbed if they abandoned them for even a morning. I count myself as a resident of West Beirut, and I have seen three residences in which I have lived or worked destroyed since 1975, two in the past two months.
In earlier military campaigns families were sent to Damascus, Paris or London to wait for the shooting to stop. But no one still here has money for such precautions.
So West Beirut is waiting for the "others" -- the powers, as they used to be called -- to dispose of them as they have so often over past centuries. It is a tradition. Many of Beirut's conquerors vaingloriously carved boasting tablets into the rockface of the banks of the Dog River just to the north of the city.
In the early days of this latest war, the United States appeared to be the only "power" in a position to bring some new order our of Lebanon's crisis. Indeed, America appeared to give full backing to the idea that a restored Lebanon could be the principal byproduct of Israeli success in crushing the PLO. But in the weeks since, Washington has appeared to vascillate, witholding total support from Israel as the realization grew that the destruction of the PLO and of West Beirut could rebound against American interests, particularly with the conservative regimes of the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
Now the Lebanese wait for a sign from the special U.S. envoy, Philip C. Habib, who sits in the hills overlooking West Beirut and struggles to square the Lebanese-Israeli- Palestinian circle. As it is, Habib seems to be both judge and party to Lebanon's latest misfortune, a combination the Lebanese find enormously frustrating.
The idea that Israel can now play the role of savior won't sell well in West Beirut, where the people believe that Israel has had a major hand in their present travail for many, many years. For the Lebanese the record shows the Israelis did their part in helping destroy Lebanon starting well before 1976, when Israel actively aided the Christian militias in an effort to harass the Palestinians and the Syrian occupation force.
The Israelis now seem genuinely surprised that neither the people of Lebanon nor of the Western world have applauded their campaign to root out the "capital of world terrorism," which is their definition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's state-within-a-state status in Lebanon. But in West Beirut the terrorism issue looks very different: West Beirutis consider the Israelis masters of terrorism.
Every schoolchild knows of Deir Yassin, the 1948 massacre of Arab villagers near Jerusalem carried out on the orders of now-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. They also know of now-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's leading role in Unit 101, whose provocative acts against Egypt and Jordan in the 1950s are also a matter of record.
More immediately, West Beirutis are convinced that the Israelis helped plan and execute a series of car-bomb outrages in recent years, and especiallly since their June 6 invasion. Three Lebanese Moslems told a recent news conference that they had planted car bombs in West Beirut at Israeli instigation. Those bombs killed or injured scores of civilians and were apparently designed to back up Israeli propaganda efforts to stampede West Beirutis to leave their sector of the city.
The men, displaying signs of serious beatings, provided detailed confessions. They were taken out and shot on the sites of their handiwork. It was summary justice, arguably self-defeating since the Israelis can deny any involvement in the incident. But West Beirutis neither questioned nor regretted this harsh treatment.
Before the invasion Israel had achieved the capability to encourage uneasiness in Lebanon without any international outcry. And yet, the invasion was no isolated incident, no exception to the rule. For the Lebanese and Palestinians, it was just the latest in a series of Israeli warlike acts.
In the years since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel had habituated the Arab world, the West and its crucial American allies to a rising level of violence in this region. Israel did this so effectively that although every escalation of violence was at first criticized, it was also allowed to buttress the corpus of Israeli policy.
In 1978 the Israelis invaded south Lebanon, but were frustrated by a resolute President Carter and forced to give all up but a border strip. In 1979 Israel's then-minister of defense, Ezer Weizman, arrogated to Israel the right to strike Lebanese targets without any prior Palestinian provocation. Last year the Israelis bombed Beirut and the south, killing hundreds of Lebanese civilians and fewer Palestinian guerrillas.
The United States forced a cease-fire, but within months the Israelis were talking about a full-blown invasion that would force the Syrians out of Lebanon, re-enthrone Christian power in Lebanon and destroy the PLO.
In time the world seemed to accept that the Israelis were quite capable of pulling off this operation. Washington spoke out to try to prevent it, but the Israelis ultimately moved in anyway. Leapfrogging men and armor by helicopter and mounting daring amphibious assaults, they put on a masterful miilitary display, albeit against a vastly inferior military force. But they quickly discovered that the poliptical assumptions had been overly optimistic.
The Christian militia that had previously cooperated with the Israelis held back, refusing to throw in their troops against the Palestinians for fear of compromising whatever slim chances remained of reuniting the country after the invaders left.
Now there have been cases of Israeli troops separating Christians and Moslems, reminders of the role the Syrians played when they first arrived with Arab League blessings in 1976 to police the end of Lebanon's civil war. Now, too, there have been moves encouraged by the Israelis that have reopened some of the deepest wounds inflicted in the civil war, particularly when the Israelis have allowed Chirstians to reenter areas denied them since 1975, producing a predictably bloody settling of accounts.
For the Lebanese all this smacks of the known past. And it smells of trouble, the trouble of another long occupation, a prospect the Israeli military has encouraged by announcing that its troops will be provided with winter quarters. Nor did an Israeli minister's suggestion that the Israelis should police the 25-mile demilitarized zone -- originally intended as a buffer to protect northern Israeli settlements from Palestinian artillery fire -- strike the Lebanese as suggesting any quick Israeli withdrawal.
Perhaps the Israelis' involvement in the Lebanese quagmire will convince them of Mirabeau's diagnosis of the limited utility of arms in the French Revolution: "You can do everything with bayonets except sit on them."