he Army communique was matter-of-fact: Israeli troops on patrol in southern Lebanon had discovered the hiding place of two "terrorists" in a house near Sidon and killed them both. There were no Israeli casualties.
One of the "terrorists," the communique added, was the Tyre region commander for Fatah, the leading Palestinian guerrilla group, and had participated in training and preparations for a number of operations against Israel including the coastal road assault of 1978 in which more than 30 Israelis were killed.
He was identified as Azmeh Seghaiyer, whom I had known since 1975 in the early days of the Lebanese civil war. In repeated contacts with Azmeh during the past seven years--in those Dodge City days and most recently in Tyre a few weeks before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon--I always thought of him as an honorable military officer in the closest thing the Palestinians had to an army.
That laconic announcement of his death dramatized the gap a correspondent crosses when he leaves the world of Beirut--where Azmeh was someone widely looked up to--for the world of Jerusalem--where he was part of what Prime Minister Menachem Begin calls "the terrorist scourge" that must be liquidated to keep Israel safe.
Somewhere in that gap, perhaps, lies the answer to the question of how you can admire a man even when he is part of deeds you cannot admire--the coastal raid, for example, or Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's bombardment of civilian neighborhoods in Beirut, or, for that matter, U.S. bombing raids over North Vietnam carried out by your high school classmate.
ONE EARLY MEMORY of Azmeh was the day his Fatah commando team had won control of several Beirut streets from Christian Phalange militia and turned them over to Lebanese Moslems. A young Fatah guerrilla soon reported back that the Moslems were looting shops in the hard-won territory.
"Stop them," Azmeh commanded, leaning on the cane that helped him overcome the effects of a leg injury and eventually became a fad among youths trying to emulate him.
"But how?" asked the young guerrilla.
"Tell them you are a soldier," Azmeh screamed, putting his face so close to the youth's that their noses almost touched. "Soldier, soldier, soldier," he shouted in his guttural Arabic, so strongly that spittle sprayed out into the young guerrilla's face.
The youth sobbed and ran out of the room, not daring to wipe his cheeks until he reached the streeet.
HERE IN ISRAEL, there seems to be something evil about someone who would fight in the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In his speech to the Israeli parliament last week, Begin called the guerrillas "lowly murderers." But in Beirut it seems as natural for Palestinian youths to join Fatah or the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, another PLO group, as it does here for Israeli youths to be drafted into the Army.
When Israeli government officials repeat, as they have for the past two weeks, that "all PLO members, without exception," must leave Beirut, they seem to see terrorists being pushed out of range of Israeli towns and villages. But I wonder about people like Zakarieh Abdulrahim, who when I saw him two months ago was glad about his new PLO administrative assignment in Beirut because his children would be in Arabic-language Lebanese schools after several years in Cyprus, where their father ran the PLO office.
Perhaps it is the constant exposure: Israeli radio, television, newspapers and the public in general invariably refer to PLO members as "terrorists." Perhaps it is that most Israelis' only contact with Palestinian guerrillas comes when terror teams infiltrate to attack Israeli targets, often civilian. Whatever the reason, during the past month here I have found an inability or an unwillingness to entertain the idea that Palestinian youths could see membership in the PLO as a patriotic duty that, in their eyes, is just as honorable as membership in the Israeli Army.
THE PERCEPTION HERE SEEMS, to someone with friends on both sides of the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, sadly narrow among a people renowned for intellectual tradition. And it seems as woefully inadequate as the perception among young PLO guerrillas in Beirut that somehow, if they hold firm their Kalashnikov assault rifles, the modern Israeli state will go away and leave the olive groves their grandmothers told them about.
FOR MANY ISRAELIS--Begin paramount among them, judging from his public utterances--Palestinian guerrillas are easily seen as an evil because their attacks on Israel are an extension of decades of persecution that reached a high point of horror in the Nazi slaughters of World War II. The Israeli novelist Amos Oz pointed out in a recent conversation that both sides in the struggle see the other as an extension of the past, Palestinians viewing Israelis as new European colonialists and Israelis viewing Palestinians as new Nazis.
In a speech Sunday to British Jews visiting Jerusalem, Begin repeatedly referred to Palestinian guerrillas as "neo-Nazis," evoking anti-Semitic hatred as a reason men like Azmeh would belong to Fatah and suggesting the PLO was preparing a massive attack on Israel to slaughter Jews once more.
"Some dark plan of taking over the Middle East--not only destroying the state of Israel--for taking over Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the gulf states, the shiekdoms, was prepared somewhere in a room of the Soviet Politburo," Begin said, adding at another point, "One day--perhaps we entered Lebanon at the last moment--they would have attacked us, the Galilee, even more, with their weapons, and they would have killed thousands of our people, civilians, men, women and children."
Conversations with Israelis indicate many of them share Begin's nightmare. In any case they share his resolve to destroy the PLO in Lebanon. A poll published today by the Jerusalem Post newspaper showed an 11 percent jump in the number of Israelis judging him the best suited to be prime minister, from 40.4 percent of those queried before the invasion to 51.5 percent last week.
Against this background, it seems easier to understand why Israelis viewing a sample of captured Palestinian weapons on exhibit at a Tel Aviv fairground would conclude from what they saw that the war in Lebanon had to be launched. The sight of 130-mm cannons, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and heavy mortars seemed to fit in with the vision portrayed by Begin and his quotation from the Talmud--"If a man tries to kill you, you kill him before he can carry out his design."