In civilian life, our Israeli army briefing officer is an accountant. He is a portly man with a clipped, British-style moustache and an accent to match. He has briefed American senators and congressmen, politicians of all types and Jane Fonda, too. He first takes us to the map to show us the positions of the Israeli and PLO forces and then out to the rim of a hill where you can see the war. But before going, he puts down his pointer and shrugs. "This takes a Salvador Dali," he says. "The whole thing is surrealistic."
Indeed. Some Belgian politicians are sitting on the hill, eating their lunch. They have come to the war by Israeli tour bus. A Japanese camera crew is nearby, some Scandinavians and some British journalists as well. We are in Baabda, near the presidential palace, a very good place to watch the war being watched.
On the way up to Baabda there had been firing. In the wretched city below, smoke rose from the neighborhood near the airport. First there was a concussive thud and then a puff of white smoke. Then a thud and then another puff. The area is nothing but rubble. One Israeli, summoning up what to him must be the ultimate horror, says it looks like the South Bronx.
From the Baabda hill, you can hear small arms fire, the ratatatat of machine guns. Nearby, Israeli soldiers play volleyball. It is said that the PLO is firing at the Israeli lines. The fire continues for some time and the briefing officer is puzzled. The Israelis should have answered it by now. Then an Israeli tank lumbers up an earthen ramp and returns the fire. Suddenly, all is quiet. The Belgians continue eating. The Japanese resume talking.
The Israelis seem to have things well organized. They have been stung by reports that they killed indiscriminately here in Lebanon, and they want to show the world it is not true. They take me to the cities and sometimes to the former PLO camps and to Lebanese officials who tell the Israeli side of the story. I have met mayors and agriculture officials and hospital administrators. I have talked to young men fresh out of Israeli internment camps, Druze in the mountains with family in Montreal, Shiite Moslems out of the University of Texas and, of course, Israeli soldiers. They all speak for the good name of Israel.
According to some, it does not take long to figure out Lebanon. There are Sunni Moslems and Shiite Moslems and Maronite Christians and Greek Orthodox Christians and the Druze and, until recently, the PLO and they all hate each other. Anything after that is sheer embellishment.
For two days, the war dances around us. There is action up near Beirut and when we get to the eastern front, there is action there, too. Five soldiers had been killed in what the radio said was a PLO ambush. There is sure to be retaliation against the Syrians for permitting it to happen. Everyone blames the Syrians. Everyone says they must be punished. Soon our car is turned around by the army. The time has come to punish the Syrians. By late afternoon, the army and the air force had opened up along the Syrian front. The PLO said 62 persons were killed in the Beirut area alone. Israel said it lost two soldiers.
The Christian forces in East Beirut also have a press operation. They assign two guides. One leads us by jeep to the Green Line separating East from West Beirut.
The Christian militiaman leads us down an alley and then up to the third floor of a gutted apartment house, the interior blackened by fire. He motions us to follow him. We go past what was once a bathroom. He puts his eye to a hole in the wall and then beckons. "Look," he says, "Syrian sniper." I look. Sure enough, a man ith a rifle. I do not bother to look too long. It would not be polite.
The militiaman walks to another room and then scurries across an open space. Here if we peek around the wall we can get a better look at the same sniper. He motions for me to follow and one at a time we all do. Sure enough, it is the same sniper. If he were a concession, he would be rich. Step right up and see a sniper.
The agricultural officer for the district of Tyre, Ibrahim Farhuri, is responsible for 200 villages. He has 80 workers, but no money to pay any of them. He has seven telephones, but none of them work. He has a television set but no electricity, and a refrigerator for the vaccine he needs for an epidemic striking the cattle, but no power for that either. Still, optimism bubbles out of him. He raises his coffee cup and says he looks forward "to a prosperous and bright future."
Salman Farhuri, 22, was picked up in Tyre by the Israelis as a suspected PLO member. He was detained for 22 days, interrogated, given a few whacks, he said, and released. On the whole he said he was treated "okay." He had been fingered by spotters used by the Israelis to identify PLO members. Some of them use the chance to settle old scores and some of them, it seems, don't have any idea of what they are doing. One fingered two Israelis. Farhuri laughed at that, but then said he's getting out of Lebanon.
Wherever the Israeli army camps, people come from nowhere to sell goods. On the eastern front, the big items are Marlboro cigarettes and Johnny Walker Red scotch. Sometimes in what seems like the middle of nowhere -- mountains to the west, Syria to the east and goats all around -- you will come upon a stall selling Marlboros and scotch. In business, location is everything.
Benzion Cohen, a reservist in the Israeli army, shows me his driver's license. It is from Florida. He lives in Miami now but when the war started he rushed to join his unit. Why? I asked. He looked at me as if it was the dumbest question he ever heard. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he said.
The Israeli army is true to its legend. There is no saluting. Enlisted men argue with officers and they all seem to call each other by their first names. They wear their uniforms any which way they want. They have long hair and short hair, beards and no beards. They would drive an American drill sergeant right up the wall.
Cohen's unit is quartered on the eastern front. Not too far away are the Syrians. The troops are being entertained by an army special service unit -- three men, three women. The men have the perfect haircut of entertainers. The women are fresh, nicely made up. All six wear tan slacks and white T-shirts that say "Peace for Galilee" on the front. They have a bus with an amplifier and they are singing. One song is a parody of television commercials. It is supposed to be funny, but the soldiers are hardly cracking up. The troupe finishes its act and then is brought back for an encore. A male singer takes the microphone. He says they will finish with a prayer for peace. The soldiers applaud.
A man at my side translates for me. "Even the best prayer will not return us the dead," he sings. "Therefore sing a song for peace." The soldiers clap to the beat of the music and some of them sing along. The song ends with the word peace -- shalom." The troupe is finished.
A little while later, the barrage began.