Beirut — Average Lebanese have no idea what is behind the latest upsurge in violence or what is in store for them and their country. The past 12 days have seen ferocious battles here. Five car-bomb blasts have killed more than 250 people and injured at least 750. On Wednesday, Beirut was largely immobilized for a third straight day. Few people ventured into the streets.
Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Rashid Karami, and President Amin Gemayel have all seen the violence as part of an Israeli-inspired campaign to disrupt Syrian-sponsored reconciliation moves in Lebanon.
Blaming Israel for everything is simple and logical, but not the only explanation in town. Some Christian circles argue equally convincingly that the outside hands involved in stirring up the trouble belong to Syria, which wants to conclude a security pact that the Lebanese government has always resisted.
``Syria sets the fires and then acts as fireman,'' said one Christian. ``It needs turmoil to get the Lebanese to agree to give it what it wants. It need only set off a car bomb here and there, and we smart Lebanese are persuaded to start killing one another.''
These sources point to the current proposal -- that Syrian military observers be deployed throughout Beirut as truce observers -- as evidence that Syria is slowly working its way into Lebanon's fabric in a way that may eventually mean vassalage for the country.
``We'll be lucky if we're left with our Lebanese passports,'' said another Christian.
The debate is equally divided on the motives of the local forces. Christians accuse Muslims of provoking the violence in order to force the Christians into agreeing to their reform demands. This brings the retort that the Christians are escalating the violent situation in order to avoid coming to terms in a settlement that would require them to give up some of their traditional privileges.
On Wednesday, local radio stations constantly interrupted their programs to give news flashes of where the latest salvos of rockets and shells were landing. Towns in the mountain and coastal areas to east and north of the capital also came under bombardment as Christian forces exchanged volleys of fire with Druze and Muslim militias.
Beirut's airport was the target of sustained artillery bombardment, leading authorities to suspend flights. Shells hit one airliner of the national carrier, Middle East Airlines, and caused fires in the terminal building.
Reports from Lebanon's second-largest city, the northern port of Tripoli, said that it too was virtually immobilized by tension following the car bomb explosion there Tuesday, in which at least 45 people were killed.
Like the four earlier outrages in Beirut over the previous week -- two in the Christian eastern quarters, and two more on Monday in Muslim west Beirut -- the Tripoli bombing appeared deliberately calculated to cause maximum casualties and to spark sectarian violence.
In the Tripoli incident, a small bomb was first detonated near the homes of two prominent Sunni Muslim clerics attached to local Muslim fundamentalist militias. The explosion naturally drew a crowd, and it was then that the second, much bigger car bomb was set off.
In Beirut, Monday's two car bombs in Muslim neighborhoods triggered a massive escalation of artillery exchanges which continued late Wednesday, engulfing the city and surrounding areas. Twelve cease-fires were agreed on in contacts between the factions, but they failed to dim the violence more than momentarily. None of the four Beirut car bombings had any apparent military or political targets, and Lebanese of all persuasions saw them as designed to cause maximum casualties and inflame passions, which t hey did.
The battles have been accompanied by increasingly warlike threats. The Christian Lebanese Forces militia accused the Shiite Amal movement Tuesday of complete responsibility for the escalation, saying it had planned it for weeks, with the aim of imposing its hegemony over the Muslim camp amd subjugating the Christians. The militia warned Amal and its Druze allies that ``war would be met by war.''
The Christian militia instituted full mobilization of its forces Wednesday and set its ``popular committees'' to work clearing bomb shelters and organizing food stores.
The precautions came after the Amal leader, Nabih Berri, had twice threatened to abandon all thought of compromise with the Christians and opt instead for a military solution to the Lebanese crisis.
``The beginning of the end is in sight,'' he said late Tuesday, ``and all nationalist and honorable forces should take up position behind the only option for a solution -- a military resolution, and the liberation of Lebanon from Israel's agents.''