Violence mars rebirth of Beirut
In early September 1970, just as I was preparing to leave from Washington on a three-month reporting trip to the Middle East, Palestinian militants flew three hijacked airliners to a desert air strip in Jordan, blew up the planes and held some of the passengers as hostages.
A fourth plane was diverted to Cairo and detonated on the runway there.
Those actions by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the most radical of the militant groups, marked a significant escalation of violence in the region.
Later that week I flew to Beirut, Lebanon – then often called the Paris of the Middle East – and took lodging at the Hotel St. Georges, fronting on the bay with a splendid view of the mountains beyond.
The delicate power-sharing arrangement between Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim communities was intact, and I found Beirut a gracious and welcoming place, one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen.
I had intended to arrive in a time of relative peace, when it would be possible to talk with some of the players in that troubled region. Instead, just days before, war had erupted in Jordan.
Displaced by repeated Mideast conflicts, Palestinians – many living in refugee camps – had become a majority in the Hashemite kingdom. After several failed attempts to assassinate King Hussein, their militias rose up in an effort to depose him and seize control of the country.
Defeated, they fled for refuge into Lebanon, upsetting the fragile interfaith accord and sparking a 15-year civil war that killed an estimated 120,000 people, wounded more than a million and left great parts of the once lovely capital in ruins.
They also used the south of the country, bordering on Israel, as a base for cross-border attacks on the Jewish state, provocations that resulted in further reciprocal damage.
In 1976, neighboring Syria occupied Lebanon for the professed purpose of curbing radical influence and stabilizing the country. The intervention was initially welcomed, but became increasingly oppressive. And in 2005, under international pressure, Syria announced a withdrawal.
Beirut’s recovery, which had begun in 1990, was long and painful, but the city was said to have recaptured much of its appeal as an international tourist and commercial destination.
Thus the disappointment of waking to the recent news that a car bomb, detonated in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of the city, had left a large area in ruins and had killed at least eight people.
Among the dead was a prominent official known to have been a vigorous critic of Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs, giving rise to suspicion that the explosion may have been ordered by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.
This latest event seems almost to summarize the regrettable fate of the Lebanese – a hospitable and non-militant folk, endlessly doomed to be collateral damage in other people’s wars.