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The latest fighting in Lebanon

By Joseph C. Harsch / July 28, 1981



On June 3 Israeli gunboats shelled that part of the coast of Lebanon which lies between Sidon and Beirut while Israeli bombers hit inland. Both sea and air operations were aimed at places used by Palestinian militia units in the fighting which has been endemic between Israelis and Palestinians for years.

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Then there was a lull on that part of the Arab-Israel front. There were a few minor brushes, but no serious Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Lebanon, or by Palestinian forces against Israel. But on June 7 Israeli aircraft did attack , and knock out, Iraq's nearly finished nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

That attack jolted the outside world. The United STates joined in condemning Israel for the attack. The Soviets increased the number of their ships in the eastern Mediterranean. The State Department in Washington was particularly anxious to head off if possible any more fighting before the Israeli election on June 30. Strong words were used to the Israelis. Secretary of State Alexander Haig personally asked UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim to speak to PLO leader Yasser Arafat and express the hope that his people would refrain from any offensive action against Israel or Israelis until after June 30, and longer if possible. Mr. Arafat agreed.

Thus in effect there was a truce on the Lebanon front from June 4. And it was observed by both sides until July 10. So the latest round of violence dates from July 10 when the Israelis bombed PLO places in Lebanon from Sidon to Nabatiya. On July 12 ISraeli warships shelled coastal points from Naameh to Damur. On July 14 their bombers hit PLO targets around Nabatiya and Damur. Casualty reports at the time put the number of Arabs killed by those three forays at 36. Many more were reported wounded.

The Palestinians retaliated on July 15 with rockets which hit several Israeli towns just over the Lebanon-Israel frontier. Israelis reported 3 killed and 25 wounded.

On the following day, July 16, the Israelis mounted a two-hour bombing attack which ranged far and wide over southern Lebanon during which, for the first time , bridges were deliberately knocked out thus isolating substantial civilian centers from their normal sources of supply. The number of planes engaged, the duration of the attacks, and the spread of targets -- including refugee camps -- marked another step-up in violence.

A bigger step-up came the next day, July 17, when for the first time Israeli planes bombed a densely populated part of Beirut. There were further bomb attacks on the bridges and supply lines to the south. Lebanese authorities estimated the number of casualties from the bombing of Beirut itself at 400 killed and 800 wounded.

In other words, here is a case where there can be no room for doubt about who was on the offensive.The Palestinians observed the truce which Washington had requested until after a third heavy Israeli attack upon them.Nor is there any doubt about who was being hurt the most. The Israelis had the big guns and used them. The Palestinians replied with what little they had, which in this case was a rocket launching battery in and around an ancient Crusader fortress -- Beaufort Castle. (Not much is left of that relic now.) The Palestinians had no aircraft or gunboats.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin claimed that the Israeli operations were defensive. Israeli officials said they would continue the operations as long as the Palestinians had military positions in Lebanon south of Beirut. They said they wanted Lebanon to move the Palestinians north of the line from Beirut to Damascus. The Lebanese government would probably like to do that in order to reduce the troubles in the southern part of their country. But they have neither the money nor the power to conduct any such shifting of the Palestinians from one place to another.

At a rough estimate Israelis were killing about 100 Lebanese and Palestinians fro every Israeli killed. Physical destruction was immensely greater on the Lebanese side of the border. The Palestinians think the Israelis want to kill them all off. They call it genocide. The Israeli claim they had to do it to prevent an accumulation of weapons in the hands of the Palestinians.

President Reagan asked for and got a cease-fire. Will Mr. Be gin resume his offensive at the first opportunity?