Lebanon remembers what war feels like.

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 20 2006 12:09 PM

Dispatch From Beirut

Why the current attacks are worse than the siege of 1982.

There is a rule I've learned over the years living through Lebanon's multiple wars: The optimistic predictions of anxious civilians are always wrong. A few days ago, people in my mostly Christian East Beirut neighborhood were sure that Israel would not extend its bombing campaign to include them. Yesterday morning, in two separate attacks, Israeli aircraft rocketed trucks a few hundred meters from where I live.

The trucks looked like they were carrying missiles. In fact, they carried equipment used to pump water out of the ground before developing a piece of property. As one wag put it after the attack, "At least the owner of the land won't have to spend money digging foundations for a new building."

Since the outbreak of the latest violence, optimism and pessimism have clashed continuously, with the latter gaining ground. The Israeli offensive looks like it will continue unabated for at least another week or so, before the grinding process of negotiations begins. The second phase may be more grueling, if less wantonly destructive, than the first. Why? Because Hezbollah, and behind it Iran, will block any process that might neutralize the party—let alone lead to its disarmament, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

For the Lebanese, this will mean more suffering. Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, said yesterday that 500,000 people have been displaced, and most schools, public facilities, convents, and other refuges are overflowing with refugees. The Israelis have not—or not yet—bombed the electricity grid serving Beirut and the areas north of it, so there is still running water. However, they have begun to attack large trucks, on the grounds that they might be carrying Hezbollah rockets. As a result, truck drivers are terrified of taking to the roads, making the movement of medical and other emergency supplies all the more laborious.

I lived through Israel's appalling siege of West Beirut in the summer of 1982, and this latest round is more bearable but also much more alarming. Bearable, because in most parts of the country the lights are still on, there is water, and one can still find fresh food, gasoline, and can even sleep. During the West Beirut siege, the inhabitants had virtually none of this, even as the Israelis bombed the city at will.

But this time, the attacks are also more alarming, because they are not limited, as they were then, to a sector of the capital. All of Lebanon is a target; all access roads, airports, and ports have been blocked or are in constant danger of being attacked, and a much larger swath of civilians are in danger. According to eyewitnesses in southern Lebanon, including journalist friends of mine, the destruction of villages is the worst they've ever seen—both intense and systematic—and it's not Hezbollah that is usually on the receiving end of the ordnance, it is civilians. Much the same is taking place away from the cameras in the northern Beqaa Valley, another majority-Shiite area. As for the Hezbollah stronghold in the Haret Hreik quarter of Beirut's southern suburbs, it has been reduced to dust. While this may have made it a legitimate objective, the suburbs have probably the highest concentration of inhabitants in Beirut, and virtually everybody has fled.

In the safer areas of the capital, life goes on but at a much reduced tempo. In my neighborhood, most stores and businesses have remained shut for days, and those businesses that do open tend to give up at around noon. A waiter at a cafe across the street from my apartment building is pleased to tell me, "We never close." And though they do close, at midnight, these days that is daring enough to qualify as "never."

Throughout this past week, foreigners have been leaving Lebanon in droves, on ships, buses, and helicopters chartered by their governments. July and August are the high points of the tourist season, and thousands of visitors, Lebanese expatriates and tourists alike, were trapped by the Israeli operation. This is not their war, but how can one not feel bad for those Lebanese who have to watch the exodus, particularly those who have lost everything. The evacuation confirms the direness of their predicament and may mean, once completed, that international attention shifts elsewhere.

The politics of a settlement are complicated. Israel initially said its attacks were an effort to secure the release of its two kidnapped soldiers and to disarm Hezbollah. The latter objective, as even Israeli officials now recognize, is not achievable. No state will try seizing the party's arms by force, nor is that feasible at this stage, and Hezbollah will not surrender them willingly. That's why the Israeli strategy at first hand appears to be much simpler: to impose an abysmally high blood tax on the Lebanese in general, and Shiites in particular, so Hezbollah will not again think of kidnapping its soldiers or bombarding its territory.

But where does that lead? The United Nations and European officials have suggested there is a need to deploy an international peacekeeping force along the Lebanese-Israeli border. A 2,000-man force known as UNIFIL has been present on the ground since 1978, and its expansion would be a logical step. But this plan will go nowhere if Hezbollah retains its weapons and can fire its rockets against Israel while hiding behind the international peacekeepers. Prime Minister Siniora, and probably much of the international community, is said to want a much more solid arrangement that involves Hezbollah's demilitarization.

Nothing yet compels the party to accept. Its fighting capacity seems largely intact, despite Israeli claims to the contrary. Many Lebanese are fed up with Hezbollah but know it holds the guns. Between Hezbollah and the Israelis, people say, one thing is certain: Lebanon is in for prolonged instability. Then they mention the rock in their stomach.

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