Another Hot Beirut Summer


A week into the Israeli onslaught in Lebanon, all I can really say is that I imagined summer rather differently. Many tens of thousands of refugees are on the roads, living in schools, public facilities, convents, etc. Lebanon will have a reconstruction bill in the billions of dollars, not to mention what it has lost in terms of short-term opportunity cost of a summer tourist season up in smoke. I wonder if the Lebanese economy, with a GDP of around $20 billion and a public debt twice that, can escape financial meltdown.

Beirut was mostly quiet today, though the Israelis rocketed some trucks near my home because they looked like missile launchers. In fact they were devices used to dig holes in properties ready for development, to drain water. That closed the neighborhood down even earlier than usual. In the South, along the Israeli border, fighting has been intense, and my friend Nicholas Blanford of the Christian Science Monitor, who is in the southern city of Tyre, told me he saw Hizbullah launch rockets apparently directed at Haifa.

This seems like it will last at least another week or so, by which I mean this intensity of violence. Once negotiations begin, I imagine things will continue, but at a more irregular pace. Israeli generals say that they will complete their operations in 10 days to two weeks. My feeling is that they won't be able to make it: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should be in the region by the end of the week, and while the bombing will continue beyond that, Rice can't discredit her mission by allowing it to go on for too long. There is also the slight matter of casualties. Very soon the green light given to Israel by many in the international community will turn orange, then red, because the death rate is unsustainable: nearly 250 dead in a week of attacks–almost all of them civilians.

As I type, thousands of foreigners are on their way out of Lebanon, heading for Cyprus. I remember such scenes from the war years between 1975 and 1990. The Americans have had the toughest time, it seems, because there are quite a few of them–some 25,000 in Lebanon, though not all are leaving. No one yet knows when their evacuation will be finished, but I suspect there will be some angry citizens when this is all over, even though I know that embassy staff is working 24/7, without much food or sleep.

A final word on political realism. I chatted with a prominent Lebanese politician the other day, who argued that if a ceasefire came too soon, this entire affair would be a victory for Hizbullah. This, he dreaded. Amid all the carnage there is another story: Lebanon is paying the price of a militia that has decided to build a state within a state and to pursue a conflict with Israel, regardless of what the Lebanese majority wants. The result is this calamity.

The Israeli strategy? Simply to make sure the Lebanese, in particular the Shiites, never bomb them again. It's not subtle; it won't disarm Hizbullah; but it will be hard to forget. And the Israelis are proving ruthless in targeting areas.