Steps ordered by President Reagan to put Beirut International Airport out of action in the aftermath of the American hostage crisis have been met here with dismay and indignation.
Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami complained that despite assurances to the contrary, the United States was resorting to retaliation against Lebanon "which is all hijacked, as Mr. Reagan himself knows." Karami tried to absolve the administration of the airport -- Lebanon's only one and a major link to the outside world -- of responsibility for its use last month by the hijackers of a TWA airliner, which landed at the airport three times.
"Of what is Lebanon guilty, that it is treated in this manner?" Karami asked after U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew formally relayed the American decision. Earlier Karami, who is also foreign minister, instructed Lebanon's ambassador to Washington, Abdallah Bouhabib, to make an official complaint.
Lebanese Christian leaders who had condemned the hijacking joined Karami, a Moslem, in expressing public outrage at Reagan's orders for legal and diplomatic steps to shut down Beirut's airport.
Meanwhile the Islamic Jihad organization, which has claimed responsibility for several major terrorist attacks on U.S. targets here, warned in a statement delivered to a Beirut-based western news agency that it would strike again if the United States retaliates.
"We will be a nightmare that pursues them wherever they may be and will strike at their interests in the region and throughout the world," the statement by the secretive organization said. "Since Moslems are one nation and one hand against others, we cannot stand idle toward the American threats to our oppressed people. We therefore proclaim that our fighters, who passionately love martyrdom, have prepared themselves and are ready to send an eloquent message at the appropriate time."
The U.S. action to isolate the airport here, according to U.S. officials, includes immediate termination of the remaining once-a-week flight to New York from Beirut by Lebanon's Middle East Airlines as well as those flights of U.S. and Lebanese cargo carriers that use the Beirut airport. Washington is attempting to get other countries to take similar steps.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said Tuesday that she favored an international ban on flights to and from Beirut as long as its airport provided a base for possible terrorist activity, Reuter reported.
The reaction of Lebanese from all walks of life to the U.S. move was marked by disappointment and consternation. "We are surprised at the American attitude, which seeks to harm Lebanon and take vengeance on the Lebanese," Karami said.
Education Minister Selim Hoss, a former prime minister, called the U.S. decision "deplorable because it will affect everybody in Lebanon. It is indiscriminate in its effect."
Finance Minister Camille Chamoun, a Christian and former president of Lebanon, called on Washington to "reconsider the measure and not carry it out," saying that "today Lebanon is in desperate need of a friend's assistance and this friend should be Mr. Reagan."
Khaled Saab, deputy director of Beirut's airport, who has spent many sleepless nights trying to reason with irate hijackers in recent years, said Lebanon was not the only place with these problems.
"International law prevents anyone from closing airports to stop a plane landing, especially when you know there is no fuel on board and the passengers are in danger," Saab told Reuter today in justifying the airport's approval of the plea of the pilot of the hijacked TWA plane to be allowed to touch down in Beirut.
Since early last year, conditions at Beirut's airport have deteriorated. Its security chief, Col. Yassin Sweid, has stayed at home for months, to protest the infiltration of armed Druze and Shiite militiamen. Equipment in the control tower is badly in need of maintenance.
The warning from Islamic Jihad, a front organization for anti-U.S. activity bent on ending American influence in Lebanon, described the hijacking as a "great victory for the oppressed and a clear submission by America and Israel to the demand of the fighting hijackers, which was the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel's Atlit jail."
It cautioned that Washington would also be held responsible for any Israeli reprisal attacks.
Shiite Amal leader Nabih Berri, whose negotiations helped end the 17-day ordeal, said the Americans were freed under U.S. and Syrian guarantees that there would be no reprisals and that Israel would release 735 Lebanese prisoners.
Israel will release about 300 of the prisoners Wednesday or Thursday and the remaining 435 in the near future, Israel Radio said Tuesday, according to Reuter. All were seized in southern Lebanon during the past two years and transferred to Israel last April without charges, a move criticized in the United Nations and by Washington as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin denied that the release of the 300 was linked to the hijacking. He said Israel had planned to free the 300 before the hijacking.
Islamic Jihad's attacks have included suicide bombings that destroyed two U.S. Embassy buildings and U.S. and French military installations here and the bombing of an Israeli intelligence headquarters in Tyre.
The group claims to hold seven Americans and two French diplomats. It has been impossible, however, for journalists to establish the authenticity of calls or statements attributed to Islamic Jihad.