Beirut Redux

July 24, 2006

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    Since the Carter Administration, Landrum Bolling was one of the informal, "nonofficial" links entrusted with delivering messages between the White House, the State Department and top Palestinian leaders. Photo:

Almost exactly 24 years ago, at the beginning of August 1982, I was trapped in West Beirut trying (successfully, thank God) to avoid getting killed by the Israeli military or Yasser Arafat's PLO fighters who were intent on killing each other.

I had been staying at the Hotel Ambassadeur in Christian East Beirut, which was under the control of Sharon's troops and their Christian Falange puppet-allies. At least in that part of Beirut, the Arab-Israeli war of that year was over and the Israelis had won.

However, although the Israelis were dropping bombs from the air, lobbing shells from their gunboats off the coast, and blasting away from their tanks on the surrounding hills, something like 7,000 PLO fighters and their automatic rifles were holed up in various parts of West Beirut, refusing to give up. And the Israelis, for all their overwhelming military power, were unwilling to pay the cost of digging them out block by block.

During a daytime lull in the shooting I got this crazy idea that I would cross over the lines and go see if I could talk some sense to Arafat, get him to make some statement, give some signal that he would cut a deal to put a stop to the murderous madness.

I got through to Arafat's headquarters on the phone. Right away, I was told, a car would be sent to the "Museum Crossing" to pick me up.

With my traveling companion and co-conspirator, Merle Thorpe, a Washington lawyer much interested in the Middle East, we took a taxi to the corner of the Lebanese National Museum and walked up the street toward a high dirt wall that blocked the way. Soon a driver emerged from behind the mound of dirt and beckoned us into West Beirut.

We wound our way through the wreckage from weeks of siege warfare to the Fakani district, the stronghold of the PLO. It was the strangest ride I ever took. Absolute silence. No soul to be seen. No car moved. Burnt-out vehicular skeletons cluttered the streets. Crumbling buildings hung limp next to high rises that seemed untouched, but empty.

In a doorway across from Arafat's headquarters, an aide waited for us. He signaled us to follow him quickly down a stairwell from the ground floor while the sounds of explosion reverberated through the silent streets.

But soon he rushed us to a "safer place" in a sub-sub basement bunker where we waited most of the afternoon.

Finally, as the shelling apparently ended, we were driven to a seaside apartment house in an area not greatly damaged, a few miles northeast of the Beirut International Airport, long shut down by Israeli attack

There, from the fifth-floor balcony of an Arab Christian family I had known for several years, we watched the Israeli planes, American fighter-bombers, make their bombing runs over the Bur el Barajni Palestinian refugee camp.

Gracefully they drifted in from over the Mediterranean and carried out their assignments, never to know who or what they had hit. Nor could I know; nor did I want to know.

It was not possible to get back that night to the safety of our Israeli-protected hotel in East Beirut, so we stayed at the Bristol, the elegant old hotel up the hill from the American University in Beirut (AUB) campus.

At 4 a.m. we were awakened by the sound of shelling. A bit later all guests in the hotel, including a couple of journalists and a future prime minister of Lebanon, all 12 of us, huddled in the basement café while white-jacketed waiters served us coffee and croissants from silver trays.

Eventually, a hospital a mere block away was hit by a shell. And the roof of our hotel was set on fire. We evacuated. That night we slept on the floor of the computer room of the American University Medical School Hospital. And glad to.

After that fateful day, President Reagan telephoned Prime Minister Begin and told him to stop his Air Force from bombing refugee camps.

And he did. After more fateful days, American intermediaries got moving on the arranging of a cease-fire that stopped the killing in and the destruction of the city of Beirut.

A quarter of a century later, we are talking again about the atrocities of killing hundreds of innocent civilians, about hundreds of thousands of people driven from their homes, about the destruction, all over again, of a beautiful city.

This time American officials are refusing to support the idea of a cease fire until the Israelis can "finish off the terrorists once and for all."

That is exactly the same argument Sharon put forward to justify the war he waged in Lebanon, with disastrous results, a quarter of a century ago, He greatly strengthened terrorism then and greatly intensified Arab hatred of Israel.

And that is exactly what is happening again -- now. The support of Hamas and Hezbollah has been made stronger than ever before.

And never have Israel and the United States been so widely hated, around the world, as they are today.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Palladium-Item.