Briefing from Beirut

The morning was steamy, the sky a cloudless, washed-out blue of midsummer. Haze obscured the usually pleasant view of Lebanon's coastal mountain range.

After a night of explosions and fires last summer, one of the many cease-fires in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon had provided a morning of quiet. This seemed a good time for another journalist and me to hire a taxi and drive into southern Lebanon.

Our route was to take us around the perimeter of west Beirut, which at that time was still under control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Two weeks earlier, the Israeli Army had encircled the city.

We would continue along the narrow, fertile Lebanese coast, through Sidon, up into the market town of Nabatiyeh, past towering Beaufort Castle, into Marjayoun on the Lebanon-Israel border, and finally out to the village of Hasbiyah on the western skirt of Mt. Hermon. Our aim was to examine the territory under Israeli control and try to determine if the Israeli Army was building up for a final assault on west Beirut. We also wanted to talk with Lebanese and Palestinians along the way to determine how they were bearing up after four weeks of occupation.

Our ability to travel freely throughout Lebanon made this situation rare in the history of journalism: One reporter could cover both sides of this war.

One could hire a cab, drive to Israeli headquarters just outside Beirut, talk to officers about intentions and strategy, and perhaps watch as Israeli artillery and jets bombed west Beirut. Then one could hop in the taxi, drive down into the city, produce the appropriate press passes, and be at PLO headquarters in less than an hour, asking what had just been destroyed and what PLO intentions and strategy were now.

Instead of trusting either side to tell him what was going on, a journalist could see for himself. Doing so was doubly necessary after the second week of the war, for by then most of the usually reliable Western diplomatic sources had slipped out of west Beirut.

For our trip south on that midsummer Saturday, my colleague and I needed three press passes: At PLO checkpoints, a PLO pass was necessary; a Lebanese government pass was useful in negotiating the ''green line'' crossing between west and east Beirut. A Phalange (Maronite Christian) pass was necessary at checkpoints in east Beirut.

The Israeli Army took over from Beirut south. At this point in the war Israel did not want journalists traveling throughout southern Lebanon without an Israeli Army ''escort officer.'' Knowing that such a situation might not yield totally uninhibited interviews from the natives - and knowing, too, that many areas would be declared out of bounds ''for your own safety'' - we decided not to reveal that we were journalists.

We drove through each checkpoint without incident, a friendly, businesslike manner being better than the proper press passes (which were barely examined anyway).

The Israeli buildup around Beirut was continuing but was far from the massive size needed for an all-out assault. Mostly, there were cannons and ammunition moving into the hills around the capital. This meant that the siege was being tightened and would get nastier.

The city of Sidon was pulling itself together, shops were reopening. But the Palestinian refugee neighborhoods were devastated beyond anything I had ever seen: acre after acre of rubble; women and children homeless; men hauled away to Israeli prison camps. Israel's plan, it seemed, was to destroy these camps. Where would these many-times-over refugees live now?

At the sprawling Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company terminal just south of Sidon, the Israelis were clearing land and constructing what looked like a major operations center. This was evidence that Israel's occupation of Lebanon was designed to be more than just temporary.

Another important observation: Throughout southern Lebanon, soldiers of the Phalange and those of the pro-Israeli militia of Saad Haddad, the renegade Lebanon Army major, were on patrol. This confirmed reports of open collaboration with the Israelis and seemed to foreshadow Israeli dominance of Lebanon through these surrogates.

Nabitiyeh, Beaufort Castle, and Marjayoun were peaceful, and for the first time in many years all were accessible to the traveler. The populace in southern Lebanon was wary but seemed genuinely glad that the PLO's power had been broken and that peace, even under Israeli auspices, had been restored after a decade of upheaval.

All of this was material for news stories.

South and east we drove, through villages of Greek Orthodox, Druze, Shiite, Maronite Lebanese. Finally, we reached the town of Hasbiyah. Israelis at a checkpoint let us pass.

We interviewed several prominent townspeople. At the home of one hospitable resident we lunched on cheese, warm flat pita bread, split green olives, and glazed oranges.

The interviews and the journey back to Beirut went without incident, and the Israeli soldiers who may have suspected that we were unescorted journalists still let us pass with nothing but an admonition to drive carefully.

Friendliness and normal courtesy never ceased at the individual level, even though nations and causes clashed in war. The people of the Middle East are exceptionally friendly, warm, generous, and good-humored. This is as true of Palestinians as of Lebanese and Israelis.

Even after a day of intense Israeli bombardment from jets made in America, after cluster bombs clearly marked with the name of their Midwestern manufacture fell, even though it was a foregone conclusion that American military aid to Israel would continue, come what may - still there was virtually no anti-Americanisn manifest in Lebanon.

The US Embassy got off very lightly. One prominent American in Beriut was Kidnapped (David Dodge, acting president of American University of Beirut; his whereabouts are still unknown). American journalists went into Palestinian camps and to PLO headquarters - places frequently hit by American bombs - and suffered little more than an occasional harsh word about US policy, usually followed by an offer of hot beverages.

This rather mild reaction from the war-struck populace of Lebanon stems, I believe, from the high degree of political awareness most Middle Easterners have and also from a traditional respect for journalists in that area of the world.

Literacy is quite high, this being the land of The Book, whether Torah, Gospel, or Koran. Thus the peoples of the Middle East - and of the entire Mediterranean basin - all read. And they love to read their highly political, quiet intelligently written newspapers. Even during the worst days of last summer's war, Beirut's respected independent newspaper al-Nahar interrupted publication only after its Hamra Street Office took direct hits from Israeli artillery shells. A dozen other newspapers continued to publish.

The magic Arabic word sahafim (journalist) was usually enough to explain any journalistic comings and goings in the war zone. Almost all Palestinian soldiers understood that the American press was trying to see the conflict objectively, that not all Americans agreed with what Israel was doing, and that the workings of American foreign policy were ponderous, but not necessarily ill-intentioned.

The strongest reaction I ever encountered came at a PLO checkpoint when an Israeli assault in west Beirut seemed imminent. A gun-toting guerrilla saw my passport and matter-of-factly stated: ''America no good.'' But after waving me on he added , ''Take it easy.''

This was far from the chilling ''total war'' of collective nightmares. Though bitter and cruel, the war in Lebanon was limited. In most cases it seemed the Israelis were trying to avoid causing civilian casualties. But Israel was besieging a city where guerrillas hid among the urban population; and the PLO could do little else, since the Israeli Army had rolled up the southern Lebanese countryside and forced the PLO back into Beirut in the first two weeks of the war.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this was the constant life-goes-on attitude in Lebanon. West Beirut, of course, was pummeled by the Israeli Army and thousands were killed, injured, or made homeless. But much of the rest of Lebanon continued as it had for the past decade, the Lebanese and Palestinian entrepreneurs eagerly doing business on the street just as soon as it was safe.

One could walk uphill from the Hotel Alexandre, in east Beirut, just a few blocks from the green line, and dine at Wakim's Lebanese restaurant. The war would be raging just half a mile away, explosions audible throughout the meal. But the cuisine would be superb - crudites, Lebanese tabuleh shish tawkm (chicken shish kebab), or minced lamb shwarmam . Le Retro and le Vieux Quartier restaurants served great French cuisine, often including fresh seafood.

Many boutiques in east Beirut would open for business just as long as the shells were not flying their way. For sale were the most fashionable French jeans, perfumes, and jewelry. And every Saturday, no matter what the situation was on the other side of the city, the east Beirut Lebanese would crowd the road to the beach and go to the discos and casinos.

Even in west Beirut, where life was much more grim, many merchants kept doing business. Fruit and vegetable stands always seemed freshly stocked, though prices shot up. Pharmacies and small markets tried to open each day. And when the electricity was on, people went to the movies on Hamra Street. During the month-long siege the Israeli Army imposed on west Beirut, food spplies became critical only in the war-torn Palestinian and Lebanese neighborhoods, south of downtown Beirut. Entrepreneurs such as Yusef Nazal, owner of the Commodore Hotel , somehow managed to stay supplied with food and drink. The Commodore's emergency electricity generators made the hotel's telex machines the most reliable in the city.

Though it bordered on frivolity, perhaps most symbolic of the ''carry-on'' spirit was the arcade owner on Hamra Street who ran an emergency generator during the sustained blackout of west Beirut so that he could keep his pinball machines and Space Invader games operational - giving west Beirutis at least a modicum of recreation.

From watching TV news of the Middle East, one can get the impression that it is an exceedingly violent place. And it is true that Middle Eastern powers seem to continually resort to war or force to settle disputes.

Still, despit all the violence, there is very little crime against persons in the Middle East. Muggings, rapes, robberies, are rare. Almost all violence in the Middle East is inspired by either ideology or family feud. Religious and political parties in places like Lebanon arm themselves; instead of clashing at the ballot box these ideologies often clash on the street. Similarly, the greatly extended families of Lebanon (families which usually control political parties also) will fight, say, to avenge the killing of a distant relative.

If on bones up on politics in the Middle East he is usually able to stay out of harm's way. There is no substitute for descretion and reliable information during a war.

Certain rules of thumb helped, too. The first was to keep one's eyes open. If a journalist was headed into an area that might have been dangerous, the danger would rarely come out of the blue. If it was a militarily sensitive area, then access to it would be difficult anyway. If an Israeli advance was in progress, there would be plenty of warning as the volume of shelling and bombing intensified.

When there were no children on the street, that could mean trouble. The children loved being outdoors, but were watched over by worried parents. A taxi driver might be brave, but because he was also a businessman, he would not do anything so foolhardy that he would not be around in the evening to collect his exorbitant fee.

Ever hospitable and curious, villagers would offer refreshment and want to talk about ''the situation.'' One could determine from them if the road to the next village was safe. And the Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, Phalangist, Syrian, and United Nations soldiers were good about warning journalists when some fight was about to occur.

A transistor radio would keep one in touch with events in other parts of the country. And the two French-language newspapers (L'Orient-Le Jour and Le Reveil) and the English-language press digest Middle East Reporter provided valuable background.

With these resources, I never felt in great danger. But one could not be sure just which spot in the Beirut area was always safe, for the war was fought in a confusing urban setting with confrontation lines frequently changing. Generally speaking, the two main hotels used by journalists, the Commodore in west Beirut and the Alexandre in east Beirut, were considered safe. But the Commodore was hit once by an Israeli shell, and the Alexandre sustained heavy damage to its facade from a package bomb left in the parking lot.

At the Commodore, a journalist was really inside besieged west Beirut. He experienced the Israeli bombing nearby, often talked with PLO officials, and perhaps felt just as much endangered by the Israeli onslaught as they did.

At the Alexandre, a journalist could watch much of the important fighting from the roof of the building. The Alexandre was just a few blocks from the National Museum, which became one of the axes through which the Israeli Army encroached on west Beirut. Israeli and Phalange officers frequented the Alexandre, and I think journalists felt just a little guilty being on the side of town with the besiegers.

Many journalists such as me split our time between the two hotels. Both seemed safe enough. But had the Israeli-PLO fight persisted, these hotels would undoubtedly have become frequent targets.

The war had grown old by late August, and most everyone in Lebanon was weary. But still the standoff continued - the PLO holed up in west Beirut, the Israelis pounding the city.

After a day of relentless bombing by Israeli jets, a cease-fire (the last in this phase of the war) had been declared. The mornings were still steamy and no clouds had softened the sun-washed sky.

But the respite provided an opportunity to ask PLO officials whether they intended to leave. So I walked across the devastated green line and hired a cab to take me to PLO headquarters in the fakhani neighborhood. The area was crowded with burned and collapsed buildings; telephone wires were dangling over streets that sparkled with broken glass. The street on which PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi worked was deserted, except for Mr. Labadi in a bright blue shirt and a gaggle of reporters. Lately, the street had been so devoid of any other activity that reporters had taken to calling it ''Labadi Street.''

The question, phrased and rephrased by the journalists, was ''Would the PLO stay or go?''Mr. Labadi said the PLO wanted to go, but he wondered: What would happen to Palestinian families once the PLO fighters had left? What would happen to the Muslim-leftist allies of the PLO in west Beirut? Would the Israeli Army be kept out of west Beirut?

These were important considerations. But west Beirut had suffered so much that the PLO seemed determined to leave the city and spare it further destruction. Just a week later, PLO guerrillas were boarding ships bound for other Arab countries. And shortly thereafter each of Mr. Labadi's concerns seemed to have been tragically justified.

Propped against the wall of Mr. Labadi's office was a collection of the types of shells and bombs that had been loosed against west Beirut by the Israeli military. And that was all the news there was: the devastation of war, Mr. Labadi subdued and worried.

On the way back across the green line a young Palestinian soldier examined my papers. We stood in a partly destroyed building through which a trickle of people traveled between west and east Beirut. The end seemed so near: Either there would be an all-out Israeli attack or the PLO was going to leave the city by sea.

''American. Journalist. Yes, yes. Welcome,'' the guerrilla sentry said. ''Your pass is expired. Go to Mahmoud Labadi next week for a new pass.''

He smiled and shifted his machine gun to his other arm. ''Ma salaam,''m he said. ''Go in peace.''

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