An Israeli treads carefully in West Beirut, not just because it is still in good measure an enemy camp.
Our national conscience lies buried there somewhere in the debris, bruised or whole, waiting to be dug out and examined. The aspirtions of the Lebanese and Palestinians lie there too -- smashed, liberated or re-oriented. One walks slowly and searches.
West Beirut has survived three months of air raids and shelling astonishingly intact. There is extensive destruction in the Palestinian quarters and in areas where the Syrian army was dug in. But the overwhelming majority of houses I passed in hours of walking through the central area were untouched, except perhaps for broken glass.
Residents are understandably appalled at the damage. But outsiders who have watched West Beirut burning on television for months and shudder under bomb blasts are amazed at how basically sound it still is. Great cities do not die easily.
West Beirut is the heart of the city, not just one of two halves. Here are the modern office buildings through which much of the business of the Arab world passes. Here are the smart shops, luxury hotels overlooking the sea, the caf,e waiters who wear black bow ties and the imperturbable look of public men who have seen it all.
One enters through a new crossing point opened in the barricaded "green line" that had split the city for years. The line is in fact a grey swath of dead and riddled buildings, testifying to years of grinding civil war. There are no guards from contending militias now at the crossing points and the Lebanese police, after years of impotence, are reasserting themselves with vigor at the clogged intersections of West Beirut.
Rarely have traffic police been so warmly welcomed by the general population, including drivers, for they represent the return of the rule of law -- the one commodity Beirut has seen little of for years.
At "Cola Square," in the Palestinian area where, according to the driver, George Habash had his offices, one sees what that television footage was about. High-rise apartment buildings stand grey and gutted. A bulldozer has begun to clear the debris blocking the street. I get out of the taxi and address a group of Palestinians. Only one speaks any English. He does not trust president-elect Bashir Gemayel (since assassinated) but he hopes that he will be able to live peacefully under his regime. Doesn't he want to return to Palestine? "Oh, yes, I do. But I know I can't. So I want to live here in peace. So I want to live here in peace. I love Lebanon."
Says the driver, a Moslem but no friend of the Palestinians, "The Palestinians are quiet now, like puppies. Before they were like lions." He laughs at the thought. "I used to think Israel did bad things to the Arabs. Now I think Israel is god. If they didn't fight the Palestinians, the Palestinians would have been here a very long time."
As comforting as such sentiments might sound to an Israeli, the time has not yet come to wear an "I love Israel" T-shirt in West Beirut. Thousands of people died there from Israeli explosives in the past three months -- Israel says 3,000, Lebanese authorities says more than 7,000 -- and the population has spent months cowering in shelters.
Some of the Lebanese accepted this as a painful but necessary cauterization that would rid them of the Palestinian problem. Many others, however, have little patience -- at the moment, at least -- for hearing why it was all necessary. In addition, Palestinians and their leftist allies still make up a substantial part of the population.
The physical scars of the bombing will probably be eradicated in good part within a year. The extent of the psychological-political scars, however, is impossible to measure.