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In Lebanon, Life and a Hatred of Israel Go On

Thursday, February 10, 2000 - LA Times

By JOHN DANISZEWSKI, Times Staff Writer
 

     BEIRUT--This is a country under threat of war? The airport is crowded
with travelers coming into, not leaving, Lebanon. Elegant, bejeweled women
play cards in the luxurious lobby of the Vendome Hotel. Young people party
at the Hard Rock Cafe and stroll nonchalantly on the famous corniche
overlooking the Mediterranean.
     Despite three consecutive nights of Israeli bombing raids and the
destruction of three key power plants in response to growing attacks by
Hezbollah fighters, the Lebanese do not appear to be in a mood to bow to
Israeli demands that their country restrain the Shiite Muslim group.
     The dimmed lights over much of the country notwithstanding, most
Lebanese sound all the more determined to continue on the path of resistance
to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that has lasted more than 20
years, especially with expectations growing that their perseverance is
paying off and that the Israelis will have no option but to withdraw from
their land.
     Warned by Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy on Wednesday that "the
soil of Lebanon will burn" if Hezbollah dares to fire rockets into northern
Israel, Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss was dismissive.
     "The threats we heard . . . are not new. They represent Israeli
terrorism which Lebanon has been subjected to, beginning with occupation and
ending with bombardment and murder," he said in a statement. "In making
these threats, he reminds us of the genocide mentality that characterized
Nazism in Hitler's time."
     Political analyst Tewfik Mishlawi said the Israeli bombings, after two
decades, just don't cut it anymore with most Lebanese.
     "I think it is having less and less effect because maybe they are
getting used to it, or they have become indoctrinated that this is what they
have to face in order to have their land liberated," he said.
     The Lebanese government believes it is on strong moral ground, in part
because Hezbollah has refrained from firing its Katyusha rockets into
northern Israel.
     By not attacking Israel, Hezbollah is viewed here as having abided by
the April 1996 agreement hammered out at the end of Israel's "Operation
Grapes of Wrath." That air, sea and artillery campaign, also launched with
the stated aim of compelling Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah, drove an
estimated 500,000 Lebanese from their homes in the south of the country and
killed 200 people.
     The agreement--which had maintained a modicum of order along the border
for the past four years--obliged both sides to confine their combat to the
occupied zone of Lebanon and to avoid any attacks on civilian areas.
     To the Lebanese, therefore, the Hezbollah assaults that have killed six
Israeli servicemen on Lebanese soil in the last two weeks were fully in
keeping with the rules--while Israel's response of bombing civilian power
stations deep inside Lebanon was a clear violation.
     Israel, however, disputes that it was the first to abrogate the
agreement, accusing Hezbollah of mounting its recent attacks on Israeli
forces from within civilian settlements, which Hezbollah has denied.
     In Washington on Wednesday, President Clinton and Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright blamed Hezbollah for the deteriorating situation.
     "I think it is clear that the [Israeli] bombing is a reaction to the
deaths in two separate instances of Israeli soldiers," Clinton said. "What
we need to do is to stop the violence and start the peace process again, and
we're doing our best to get it started."
     At a separate event in Washington, Albright seemed to justify the
Israeli attacks.
     "Basically, what the Israelis have done is to send a very strong signal
about the fact that they don't want this escalating," she said. "They are
hitting power stations, and I think that they are sending a very strong
signal."
     Mishlawi, the analyst, suggested that even if Israel takes another
course and mounts a stronger bombing campaign, it is unlikely to deter the
Lebanese majority from supporting Hezbollah.
     "The people have been convinced by their leaders that there is no going
back, there is no submission to Israeli demands," he said, although they
know that it means enduring "darkness, infrastructure destruction and all
sorts of things."
     "People are not very happy about that, but they are gradually realizing
that this is the price to pay," said Mishlawi, who publishes the Middle East
Reporter newsletter from Beirut. As a result, "the Hezbollah operations are
getting wider and wider sympathy and support."
     The immediate effect of the bombings has been to severely reduce
electrical supplies at a time when Lebanon was just getting back to normal
from earlier Israeli strikes, both last summer and in 1996.
     Power was cut off completely to some areas around Tripoli and Baalbek,
while in Beirut many neighborhoods are getting electricity only a few hours
a day as authorities try to ration supply.
     Some residents said they saw the timing of the raids--the same week in
which Beirut had scheduled a shopping festival designed to restore some of
its prewar allure as an international travel destination--as highly suspect.
     "They always choose just the right time to do it," said Rula Nasir, a
British teacher now living in Lebanon.
     Despite the outward bravado shown by many Lebanese in the face of the
bombings, Nasir said she senses that her Lebanese students are very nervous,
even terrified, because they see Israel as unpredictable and vindictive.
     But that just makes the Lebanese more defiant, said her colleague Irfan
Rahman, also British. "They just hate the Israelis more and more every
time," he said.
     Along Hamra Street, the main avenue of downtown Beirut, it was business
as usual Wednesday night, with some shops, bars and restaurants open until
midnight.
     Rafak Rizik, proprietor of the Roi de Frites sandwich shop, said he
could keep operating normally because he had a generator.
     "No one is afraid," the white-haired man asserted from behind his cash
register. "We lived in a 17-year civil war, so this is nothing."
     Judging from newspaper commentary Wednesday, some people are viewing
the latest round of conflict with Israel as a necessary catalyst to get the
real game going: resumed negotiations between Syria and Israel for a
comprehensive Israeli withdrawal both from Lebanon and the occupied Golan
Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.
     "It is clear that neither Syria nor Israel wants to halt the
negotiations," Mahmoud Souaid wrote in Beirut's Al Mustaqbal daily. "Both
sides will take care not to let the mutual acts of pressure go beyond the
sphere of controlled calculations."
     He even suggested that Syrian President Hafez Assad might do what the
Israelis are demanding--rein in Hezbollah--when it suits his purposes to
bring the Israelis back to the negotiating table.
     "The resistance doesn't operate in a vacuum. Its political
calculations--and actions on the battlefield--have to take into account
[Syria's] current political needs," Souaid said.
 

  Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Washington contributed to this
report.
 

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times