Lebanese hopes of national reconciliation dealt heavy blow

Lebanon finds itself plunged back into its seven-year-old nightmare with the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel and the Israeli push into west Beirut.

Despite the deep mistrust and even hate many Lebanese - especially Muslims - harbored for the youthful militia leader, Mr. Gemayel's delicate tiptoeing on the path of national reconcilation had planted a seed of hope for the country.

He had many enemies even among his Christian community.

However, in the weeks after the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syrian evacuation from the capital, there was an inkling of confidence.

The Lebanese Army had slowly taken over west Beirut, including the areas occupied by the Israelis Wednesday, winning its first test of strength against armed leftists groups.

The Army was to have taken over from Gemayel's own militia in east Beirut Wednesday, but his death and the resulting confusing void postponed not only that but also other steps toward restoring normality.

The crossings between Muslim west and Christian east had been cleared of land mines and sandbags. The newspapers front-paged photographs of one junction clogged by an astonishing nighttime traffic jam. The road hadn't been open more than a few hours in four years.

Residents flooded back to west Beirut, even to ruined homes. Glaziers and concrete salesmen had business enough to keep their wallets fat for some time.

Gemayel had a historic meeting with the leader of the Muslim coalition, Former Prime Minister Saeb Salam, last weekend. Muslim leaders said afterward it put them on a middle road between ''opposition and loyalty.''

Moreover, the Muslims rebuked and virtually disowned former President Suleiman Franjieh and former Prime Minister Rashid Karami for their outright rejection of the new regime.

Just hours before the lawyer and father of two was killed in an enormous bomb blast, one of his pre-election advisers echoed what Gemayel's Phalange party and other advisers were saying.

''The first priority is to reunify. . . . First the President must behave as a president of all Lebanon and not as the president of the Phalange party. On Sept. 23 his investiture speech will put those problems into very clear political vocabulary,'' Ibrahim Najjar said.

''The first task is to reconcile most political factions,'' the lawyer stressed.

Now Gemayel will never have the chance to change the reputation he earned as a bloodthirsty warlord because he commanded his militia and personally fought in some of the nastiest battles of the civil war.

There is no natural successor to the strong-willed Gemayel. His older brother Amin is a possibility, but he lacks the iron determination of Bashir and the staunch devotion of the Phalange party.

President Elias Sarkis, whose term expires Sept. 23, can call for a new election before then or appoint a council of ministers headed by a Maronite Catholic to rule until elections are held.

A constitutional change would be needed to extend Sarkis' term.

Some political sources close to the government suggested a possible Army takeover to fill the vacuum and suppress total collapse.

But any attempt to get government back on the path may be scuttled by Israel's march into west Beirut.

Israel said its move was ''to prevent possible severe occurrences and in order to ensure quiet.''

However, the areas they rolled into with tanks and armored personnel carriers were perfectly quiet - until the Israelis came. The Lebanese Army had secured the neighborhoods and Palestinian refugee camps - just as Israel had demanded.

The Lebanese had understood American envoy Philip Habib's agreement to mean that the Israelis would pull back from Beirut's suburbs after the PLO and Syria left the city. Instead they moved in and began house-to-house searches and shelling of the camps.

Before leaving, the PLO had demanded guarantees that its civilians in Beirut would be safe from attack. It requested these assurances from the Americans and Lebanese.

An estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Palestinian civilians had returned to the camps and surrounding ''spillover'' areas during the last few weeks of calm. Fearing Gemayel's government would deal very harshly with them as squatters in west Beirut proper, many of them went back to mere piles of rubble.

John Defrates, acting director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said this week that at least 20,000 people in these camps have no roofs over their heads because of Israeli bombing attacks. He estimated ''quite a number'' more were homeless on the outskirts of the camps, where many multiple family dwellings were badly damaged or destroyed.

Some armed men remained behind, but they did not appear heavily armed and had begun to acquiesce to the regular army.

With the Israeli drive Wednesday, they were aided by ill- equipped and not very competent Lebanese leftist militia groups.

Gemayel's government had intended to break the camp populations into very small groups and resettle them to ensure they did not become a dominant force again.

Even Muslims in west Beirut were pleased to see the Army dismantle illegal houses and shops in a reassertion of Lebanese sovereign authority.

However, the chances for that authority riding out the tidal wave of Gemayel's assassination were narrowed enormously by Israel's action Wednesday

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.