Beirut Under Fire
The Israeli war against the Palestinians began with sustained aerial bombardment raids on West Beirut, Friday, June 4, 1982. I had just left the Arab University area and was on my way to my hotel near the American University of Beirut when the city was rocked with the sounds of the bombing and the crash of anti-aircraft guns. The bombing raids lasted four hours during which time the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila were attacked, Gaza Hospital was hit, the airport and the main road leading to it were damaged and the Municipal Sports Stadium was left full of gaping holes and with huge slabs of concrete Hanging down at all angles. When the carnage ended at least 100 were dead and another 200 severely wounded. Not all of the bodies had been dug out of the rubble around the stadium.
Saturday I returned to the Arab University area to see for myself what Destruction had occurred and while I was there the bombardment began again, this time all around me. I was taken to the emergency room of Gaza Hospital for safety. During the three hours I spent there I witnessed casualty after casualty being brought in for emergency treatment, including two bus-loads of school children that had been directly hit with Israeli bombs. Gaza is the main Palestinian emergency hospital-if possible, casualties of all types are brought here for treatment. Yet I observed not a single military individual among the dead and wounded-only old men, women and children. That afternoon 130 died and 250 more were injured.
The following day, Sunday, June 6, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon began. I remained in West Beirut until Monday, June 14, when I was evacuated to Cyprus via an Italian boat. During those ten days I had many opportunities to witness first-hand the carnage and destruction that was visited on Beirut. The following represents one of my impressions of that terrible week.
In the days after the initial bombardments and the onslaught of the Israeli troops into Southern Lebanon, a realization dawned, and deepened as time passed. The Palestinians are utterly and completely alone. Palestinian civilians throughout Lebanon, their refugee camps, their institutions, and the very core of their social organization, sustained wave after wave of bombing raids and a ruthless invading force that swept through Lebanon and rapidly encircled Beirut. According to the Red Cross, at the end of the first week some 600,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were left homeless, without food, water, shelter or medical supplies. Sixteen thousand were seriously wounded and 10,000 were killed. The vast majority of these were civilians-the number of Palestinian troops killed was estimated to be approximately 2,000.
My personal contacts with Palestinians before and during the invasion and constant bombardment revealed an element of character both amazing and admirable. They possess an indefatigability of spirit, the absence of despair and in its stead a determination to resist this aggression, to resist all aggression and oppression, and to view the horrible events that grew more torturous daily, as simply one more battle that would be fought and overcome. There was a strong sense among the Palestinians that no matter how devastating this situation (or any other), the will of the people would not break and Palestinian nationalism would not be crushed. One man told me: "We survived 'Black September' (Jordan 1970) and became stronger after that experience. We will survive this, and even if it takes 100 years we will never give up the struggle to have a homeland."
This remarkable spirit comes from the fact that the PLO is not merely a collection of guerrilla fighters who know nothing but guns, rockets, and antiaircraft weapons. Rather the PLO represents an idea, it embodies a spirit, and at the same time it is the institutional expression of Palestinian nationalism. No amount of military assault will ever destroy that idea or break that spirit, even if the physical institutions are destroyed, as the Israelis are bent on doing. Military assault will have the reverse effect its perpetrators desire: it will strengthen the will of those whose hearts and minds are committed to this idea.
The institutions of the PLO include the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS), SAMED (a system of factories producing furniture, clothing, food, toys, etc.), Cultural Bureaus (which produce films, books, support artists, poets and writers, etc.), educational facilities from the nurseries and kindergartens through the new 'Open University', and extensive social welfare services provided to all Palestinian families. These institutions together with their practical functions are dedicated to the development of the spirit and idea of Palestinian nationalism. They define and confirm Palestinian identity. Military might cannot crush that identity or the spirit and idea of Palestinian nationalism. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the Palestinian people, and the greatest flaw in Israeli calculations.
Living through this situation, particularly the aerial and sea bombardment that began at 4:30 a.m. each morning and continued on into the evening hours, had extreme psychosomatic effects on me. I experienced anorexia, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, the inability to read or write a coherent paragraph, persistent uterine bleeding and a constant feeling of nervousness and tension. If one week of this could produce such effects in me, the people whose families, homes, businesses, communities, and personal lives were being destroyed must have been undergoing severe psychological and physical distress. Moreover, the Palestinians have been subjected to frequent, spontaneous bombing raids over the years-for example the Israeli bombing of the Fakhani residential district of Beirut on July 17, 1981 in which over 300 civilians were killed. They are also subjected to the daily sonic booms of Israeli jets overflying the city.
I kept thinking of the very large (70 bed) PRCS pediatric hospital in Beirut which I visited. There seemed to be an exceptionally large number of incubators for premature babies. When I asked about this the doctor in attendance told me that because of the constant stress with which people live it is very difficult for women to carry babies to term and therefore many premature births occur. He further said that one of the strong commitments of the hospital was to the survival and viability of these babies and that no effort was spared in this regard. One can only imagine the many other psychosomatic problems that may be directly related to living in such precarious circumstances.
I left Beirut as a guest of the graciousness of the Italian government which provided a boat that carried foreign nationals from the port of Junieh to Cyprus. The US government did nothing for any US citizen during this period. They gave us no information and no advice. We were told that we were on our own, we could stay if we chose or leave if we chose. However, since there were no routes of departure available until Italian and French ships arrived, the 'choice' was rather meaningless!
From the time I left my hotel room in West Beirut, crossed the "green line" into East Beirut, entered the compound where the foreigners were congregating, boarded the boat, disembarked from the boat, entered Cyprus, left Cyprus, entered Greece, left Greece, and entered the United States, I had had to show my passport no less than twenty times. My passport-the document that says I am a citizen of a legitimate territorial nation-state-was my salvation. It made my escape from Lebanon possible: it made me welcome wherever I went. Without it I could not have taken even the first step of crossing from West to East Beirut.
Palestinians have no passports. They have no passports because they have no country. And without a homeland, without a legal national identity, one does not, for all intents and purposes, exist. Without a passport, without citizenship in a country of one's own, there are no options, there are no choices. One is simply a "refugee" without recognition in the international community.
I remember vividly one Palestinian man telling me of his experience in travelling from Saudi Arabia through Jordan returning to Lebanon. He had, he related, all the proper travel documents and papers that each country required. Indeed, he was travelling in a semi-official capacity. Yet on reaching the Jordanian border from Saudi Arabia he was detained for thirty-six hours. The explanation that was finally given him was that there were no bureaucratic procedures for processing Palestinians.
In West Beirut itself as the first week of bombing raids and fighting wore on, and as the Israelis pressed physically closer to the city, concern became fear and fear became panic. Most of West Beirut was without electricity from Monday on (except for two hours daily-usually in the middle of the night), due to the Israeli bombing of a large electric power plant just south of the city. People scrambled in stores for lanterns, heavy-duty flash-lights and other similar supplies. Beginning early in the week people began to stock supplies of bottled water as the concern with an already precarious potable water system began to escalate. By the end of the week there was near hysteria about the availability of clean water. The concern was magnified because of the influx of displaced people from Southern Lebanon who were putting an extra strain on the system. Garbage went uncollected all week, and when I left it was piled high in every street and presented a clear health hazard. Throughout the week food supplies became increasingly scarce. In the hotel where I stayed there was no juice, no Lebanese bread, not even lemon for tea. By mid-week there were long breadlines in the streets, canned goods became scarce, and people worried about the supply of gasoline.
When the Syrian peace-keeping force left its traditional outposts, the Palestinians engaged in a war for their survival-abandoned their usual civic-order functions and the city became increasingly anarchic. Every street-corner became occupied by some group or other, wielding machine-guns and demanding identification from all who passed. The various armed factions took up old feuds and gun-fire in the streets was frequent and random. I often felt that I was taking my life in my hands just walking three blocks to a local restaurant. By Sunday that very popular restaurant was closed and I wondered where or when I might have another meal. As it turned out, the following morning I left on the Italian boat, so the problem was resolved for me. Yet I know that for the citizens of West Beirut the problems of water, food, sanitation and survival have only become worse.
The lack of medical and surgical supplies was a further momentous problem. Many of the hospitals in Southern Lebanon, with limited capacity to begin with, were badly damaged from the bombing. Thus war casualties were brought to Beirut, and facilities there were strained beyond imagination. International Red Cross ships, carrying desperately needed supplies, were waiting at Cyprus; however, the Israelis prohibited them from entering Junieh or any other Lebanese port. Israel denied this, but every journalist in Beirut was aware of it, and the BBC discussed it several times. The Israelis also denied that there were serious numbers of casualties. By the time I left, the International Red Cross had stated unequivocally that there were at the very least 15,000 casualties waiting to be treated.
A final problem were the refugees from the South and from bombed-out areas within the city who were looking for shelter. Many homeless Lebanese and Palestinians were simply taking over or "occupying" apartment buildings that remained standing. For the residents already living there, this posed untold difficulties. By the time I left the city, the panic in West Beirut was palpable.
A final impression, by no means least significant, is the enormous extent of distortion that is occurring in the American media (particularly television) relative to the reality of what has been happening. I will discuss several specific incidents that I know of personally, but perhaps the most distressing situation relative to the media coverage of this war is the fact that virtually all the news coming out of Lebanon is Israeli censored.
Since coming home I have seen scenes of Israeli ambulances driving into Lebanon to care for the injured-bringing medicines, supplies and doctors! I have seen pictures of Lebanese children and adults throwing flowers at smiling Israeli soldiers who have "liberated" them from the "terrorist Palestinians." No commentator that I have heard has discussed the Israeli prohibition on International Red Cross ships. Moreover, this public relations blitz of Israeli humanitarianism can only sicken anyone who has been in Lebanon and has witnessed the wanton devastation and carnage that Israel has wreaked on the Lebanese and Palestinian people and on the cities and countryside of Lebanon. As for those throwing flowers, they represent a very small minority of the Lebanese people, the extreme right-wing Phalangist group whom the Israelis have been courting for years. It is not unreasonable to speculate also that Phalangist enthusiasm for Israel's invasion and occupation resides less in any great affection for the Israelis than in the fact that the Phalangists see the present situation as an opportunity ripe for their installation (with Israeli help) as a major power factor on the Lebanese scene. The remainder of the Lebanese, right, left, and center, Christian and Muslim, have been appalled at Israel's invasion and occupation of their country, and are without exception opposed to this Israeli aggression.
On the second day of the Israeli bombing of Beirut (June 5), I spent three hours in the emergency room of Gaza Hospital as a shelter from the onslaught of the attack. Many civilian casualties were brought in, but by far the most horrible were children, whose two buses on the way home from a United Nations school had received direct hits from Israeli air attacks. (Israel always claims pinpoint accuracy for its bombing of purely military targets. One must then question Israeli claims or accuracy: or one must ask in what way are school buses military threats? Israel's credibility becomes strained at each turn.) One-by-one the bodies of the children were carried in-faces blasted beyond recognition, arms and legs torn off-at least fourteen dead, many more seriously wounded. Parents and families were hysterical, screaming with pain and incomprehension. Yet while the American media portrays with great empathy the death of every Israeli man, woman, and child, and the grief of their families, no report was carried in the American media of this incident.
Several aspects of the first brief Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire bear comment. The cease-fire was called for noon Beirut time; however, for the two hours preceding that time Israel kept up an intense aerial and sea bombardment of Beirut more wanton, indiscriminate and concentrated than all the previous days put together. They pounded the Palestinian camps of Sabra, Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh, as well as densely populated residential areas near the center of the city to which many of the Palestinian civilians had been evacuated. Dozens of apartment buildings were destroyed and many people buried in the rubble. Bombs fell in Ras Beirut, several blocks from the American University and in the fashionable commercial Hamra district. To my knowledge, this intense effort to hit everything possible before the cease-fire, went unreported, particularly the extent of residential targets.
Israel stated that under its terms for a cease-fire every Palestinian gun had to be quieted, but they would continue to carry out "mopping-up operations" against Palestinians in territories which they occupied. Which media report questioned the meaning and legitimacy of such a condition for a cease-fire? Was it really expected that Palestinians would sit by quietly while Israelis continued their searches to capture and/or kill any Palestinian resistance fighter they could uncover? No report that I heard seemed to find this an "unusual" situation, but when the cease-fire broke down as was inevitable under such conditions, Palestinians were accused of bearing the responsibility.
The Israelis often speak of destroying the "Palestinian infrastructure" in Lebanon. I have not heard the media question the meaning of this statement. It is inferred that it involves merely the destruction of a complex military structure. To a certain extent it does, but it also involves the Israeli intention to destroy every institution of Palestinian society-the factories and workshops of SAMED, the art galleries and cultural centers, the clinics and hospitals, the schools, the rehabilitation centers, the vocational training centers, the research institute, and so on. The PLO is all of these things; it is not merely a military organization of highly trained guerrilla fighters. It is also a complex social organization. It is the Palestinian community, or the institutional expression of that community. Destroying the PLO means destroying an entire nation of people and all of their social, educational, welfare, medical and cultural concerns. Moreover, Palestinian society in Lebanon is inextricably intertwined with Lebanese society, particularly in West Beirut. Thus any attempt to eradicate the Palestinians must of necessity involve massive destruction of Lebanese society as well. The Israelis cannot but be clearly aware of this.
Cheryl Rubenberg is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Florida International University.