Lebanese worry as spurt of violence continues
As this spring's green almonds appear on the fruit barrows, most of Lebanon's 3 million residents are concerned that the summer ahead will be a hot one. The incidence of explosions, killings, and kidnappings that set everyone's nerves on edge here is multiplying.
The tension is not just in the south, where israeli and Palestinian supporters battle each other over and through the United Nations detachments. It is also here in Beirut, in the denser political maze of the capital. Some recent incidents:
* A large explosive charge ripped through the auditorium of a Beirut liberal arts college just minutes after students had finished a play rehearsal. Three were injured.
* A civilian computer expert was kidnapped as he returned from his workplace, in rightist-controlled east Beirut, to his home in mainly Muslim west Beirut. Until his release four days later, distraught family members could not even guess which side's gunmen had held him.
* A boy was hit by sniper fire as he played not far from the former crossing point between east and west, in the Sodeco quarter. The Sodeco crossing has been closed since early February, reducing physical communication between the two halves of this busy ciy to a single four-lane highway.
As such incidents become more frequent, the mood here is increasingly compared by battle-weary residents with that obtaining during the buildup to the 1975-76 civil war in Lebanon. That war killed an estimated 60,000 persons, mainly civilians.
This time, the fighting forces on each side are far better organized, and have even more deadly weapons at their disposal.
"On the other side, they are conscripting 15-year-olds, even girls," a Palestinian guerrilla boss accuses the Lebanese right-wing militias. "So of course we have had to mobilize our own youth."
he revealed that some 6,000 Palestinian students have now completed a basic six-month military training program with the main guerrilla group, Al-Fatah.
The most common reason given, on the Palestinian and Muslim side at least, for the present buildup of tension is the national election in Israel on June 30 .
"June will be a hot month," another Palestinian activist warned this reporter. "Mr. Begin [Israel's prime minister] cannot expect to win on his economic or social record. So he'll try to whip his people back up into a state of nationalist fervor. And what better way than a war?"
Whatever the immediate pretexts, the Palestinians see such a war effort as takig the form of a joint offensive by israeli and allied forces in southern Lebanon, and by the right-wing Christian militias in the area around Beirut. This could threaten to trap the Palestinians and theri allies in an enclave against the Mediterranean Sea, so their alliance with Syria, to the east, will be particularly important.
But the Palestinians, who are clearly dominant in their alliance with Lebanese leftists, remain confident they can deal with whatever may happen.
They leak news of the huge arms shipments the right-wing Falangist Party allegedly has stored in the Nahr Al-kalb area north of Beirut. Certainly the Falangists constantly guard the mouth of the gorge, whose strategic value is attested by wall incripions spanning 3 1/2 millennia.
"But no one can destroy the liberation movement we have set in motion," one activist of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said. He disclosed that in addition to some obsolescent Soviet T-34 tanks, the guerrillas now also have "some tens" of BM-21 (Stalin organ) mobile rocket-launchers operating in their zone. "And we will soon have a radar-controlled air defense system," he added.
"Just as the United States will not compromise Israel's right to exist, so the Soviets will not compromise ours," he stated.
The Lebanese national Army is still regrouping after its many splits during the civil war, and is generally considered unequal to confronting either of the major irregular forces existing in the country.
But in the long run, Western diplomats consider the growth of the Army's influen ce a vital factor in restoring stability.