A debate is raging in Israel over what to do about the country's Lebanon "quagmire," but it is from this side of the awful muddle that the extent of the Israeli dilemma comes into sharpest focus.
For a Jerusalem-based journalist making his first visit to West Beirut and his first trip into Lebanon without the constant companionship of an escort officer from the Israeli Army spokesman's office, it is an instructive experience.
In Israel, the debate is mostly about casualties. The sharp rise in the number of attacks on Israeli soldiers, and the deaths and injuries that have resulted, have raised the level of public impatience and the demands for a unilateral Israeli pullback to positions farther south that presumably are more defensible.
Yet in Beirut, it soon becomes clear that no such simple solution is available to the Israelis. They have occupied the southern portion of Lebanon for more than a year. They came as "liberators," and many Lebanese were genuinely happy to be freed from domination by the Palestine Liberation Organization. But now, the Israelis are perceived as just the occupiers, and they are paying the inevitable price.
In northern Lebanon, a PLO official, mostly by nods and winks, suggested that the attacks on the Israelis were the work of Palestinian guerrillas. Yasser Arafat, the embattled PLO chairman who is trying to put down an internal revolt, publicly has said the same.
But some knowledgeable people in Beirut think the PLO's role is an indirect one, perhaps supplying weapons or money.
On one subject there is virtually unanimous agreement--the attacks are being carried out by Lebanese of unknown political affiliation. Whatever assistance the PLO is or is not providing, there seems to be no absence of Lebanese who are willing to try to kill their erstwhile liberators.
This is the heart of the Israeli dilemma. When they speak of a "redeployment" of their forces in Lebanon, they mean a pullback from the Chouf Mountains, where the danger to their soldiers is compounded by the fighting between Lebanese Christians and Druze. But many of the attacks are in the south, an area the Israelis cannot simply abandon now without admitting that the whole war, which has cost the lives of 500 Israeli soldiers, was a failure.
A western diplomat in Beirut said there has been a "sea change" in the Lebanese attitude toward the Israelis in the last month or so. It is perhaps linked to what is feeding the public impatience in Israel--the signing May 17 of the U.S.-sponsored troop withdrawal agreement that seems to be leading nowhere, the dawn of the second year of the war that refuses to end.
It is not difficult to understand how many of the Lebanese must feel. Near the Beirut suburb of Khaldah, where the troop withdrawal accord was signed, there is a notorious Israeli checkpoint where people are said to have waited in line as long as four hours before continuing along the coastal highway.
This has led many people to use another road farther inland despite the greater risk of being caught in an ambush. These are all matters motorists in southern Lebanon must take into consideration--wasted time versus greater risk. Beirut-based journalists, who are not inclined to waste much time at Israeli checkpoints, say their Lebanese drivers will resort to the most insane driving techniques to escape proximity to Israeli Army convoys, the likely targets of an ambush.
On a trip to the south, in addition to the broken front suspension of Beirut radio taxi no. 27, the inconveniences included an Israeli roadblock halting traffic on the coastal highway from Sidon to Tyre. Turning back north, another roadblock barred reentry to Sidon on the main highway. There had been trouble, another attack, the young Israeli soldiers at the roadblock explained.
Whether you are an American journalist, or a Lebanese farmer or merchant, such almost daily occurrences make it difficult to conduct business. The Israelis are fond of referring to their Lebanese neighbors as born merchants and entrepreneurs--"smarter than the Jews," in the words of one laughing Army escort officer during an earlier trip to Lebanon. But business in southern Lebanon is not prospering under the Israeli occupation.
According to workers for volunteer agencies in the area, the economy of Sidon, the main city of the south, is in chaos, the local merchants threatening to close the city entirely if the Israelis do not halt what the Lebanese consider harassment. These same workers say the much-touted "free flow of goods" across the Israeli-Lebanese border, an Israeli objective in the troop withdrawal negotiations, is almost entirely one-way--Israeli products pouring into Lebanon, where they compete with the local variety.
It is difficult to see how this is going to lead to the Israeli goal of "normal relations" with Lebanon or how, if the attacks continue, the Israelis will not feel compelled to impose much more repressive measures to protect their soldiers.
There is already much talk of this in Israel. Since redeployment alone will not solve the Israelis' problem in southern Lebanon, it would almost inevitably be accompanied by increasingly tougher measures against the Lebanese population.
Where this could finally lead the Israelis was summed up by a soldier, the leader of an antiterrorist team in southern Lebanon, in an interview on Israeli radio.
"We would have to find all the terrorists," he said. "We would have to go from house to house to see who might do something to harm our troops as we have done in Gaza--what former defense minister Arik Sharon did in Gaza. We solved the problem. They didn't kill our soldiers there any more."