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MIDDLE EAST: A Year of Pointless Death

5 minute read

A cease-fire in Lebanon sometimes seems like wide-open civil war anywhere else. During the first half of the latest ten-day truce (the 24th in five months), more than 300 people were killed in fighting between the rival Maronite Christians and an alliance of Moslems, leftists and Palestinian fedayeen. That brought the death total to more than 13,000 as Lebanon this week marks the first anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war.

One hazard of the sectarian strife in Lebanon is that it could accidentally trigger a broader Middle East war. Damascus already has an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 troops in Lebanon—many of them disguised as commandos of the Palestinian Saiqa movement based in Syria—who were dispatched to enforce peace. Syrian President Hafez Assad may have to send still more troops to force the Moslem side into full peace. Assad, however, is reluctant to do so for fear that Israel might respond by occupying southern Lebanon, where many Palestinian strongholds are located.

Discredited Leader. To forestall any such confrontation, U.S. Special Envoy L. Dean Brown (TIME, April 12) continued his talks with leaders of the Christian and Moslem factions. France also dispatched retired Diplomat Georges Gorse to see what influence Paris could exert.

The basic issue of the discussions was how to arrange the quick election of a successor to President Suleiman Franjieh, the conservative, discredited Maronite leader from the northern town of Zgharta. The predominantly Moslem leftist coalition called the National Movement, led by Kamal Jumblatt, has vowed to fight on until Franjieh is ousted. At week’s end the 98 members of the Lebanese Parliament—meeting for the first time in more than a month—approved a constitutional amendment providing for immediate elections.

If the measure is signed by Franjieh —there is no guarantee that the stubborn old mountain man will do so—the way will be clear for the legislature to pick a new head of state. Because Parliament’s official chamber had been sacked during the fighting and is still not secure, the deputies met in a villa, near the Beirut race track, that was supposed to be on neutral ground. The site turned out to be the scene of some of the week’s bloodiest clashes.

Damascus has become so embroiled in the tangled conflict that some Middle East observers cynically predict that Lebanon could become “Syria’s Viet Nam.” The Syrians support the Moslems’ basic goal: political reforms that would change an outdated sectarian system in which the Christians have an unjustifiably large share of power. But Syria also wants to prevent a de facto partitioning of the country, which could happen if the Moslems carry on their offensive. A weak Maronite state, Syrians fear, might need foreign support—possibly Israeli—and might become a base for anti-Arab activity. The Syrians have infuriated the Moslem coalition by trying to cut off supplies to the National Movement and by seeming to prop up the failing Christian forces.

To prevent Jumblatt’s troops from rearming for another round, Syria has clamped tight controls on all roads into Lebanon. Saiqa forces under Syrian control set up roadblocks around Beirut airport, and the Syrian navy patrolled the coastline. To make sure that the Christians were not getting fresh supplies of weapons and ammunition, the National Movement set up its own blockade around the town of Jounieh and the east Beirut sector of Ashrafieh, the major Christian stronghold in the capital. When the first Saiqa convoys attempted to bring food and gasoline to the surrounded areas, Jumblatt’s forces turned them back in blazing gun battles.

Despite the hardships of the civil war, reported TIME Correspondent Wilton Wynn, no one in Beirut was starving. Meat and vegetables were in short supply in some places, and bread was rationed, but fruit was readily available. Hospitals were worried about running out of medical supplies, and security had completely broken down. Pedestrians were routinely held up by marauding bands of gunmen, who looted deserted banks, shops and apartment buildings without fear of police interference.

Surprisingly, some things still worked most of the time, including water, telephones and electricity. Occasionally, there were touches of the old insouciance that once made Beirut that most habitable of Arab cities. After a gunman robbed all a restaurant’s customers, the proprietress restored calm and gustatory enthusiasm by announcing that every meal was on the house.

Like the Syrians, the Israelis were worried about what might happen next in Lebanon, but they also had special problems of their own. The Jerusalem government was dismayed by the cordial welcome Pope Paul VI gave visiting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which was in sharp contrast to the cool reception suffered by former Premier Golda Meir when she met the Pontiff in 1973. The Pope did not help matters from the Israeli point of view by publicly insisting once more that any just Middle East settlement “must include an equitable solution to the problem of the Palestinian people.”

President Ford also irritated Jerusalem by informing Israel’s congressional supporters that he will veto any effort to add $550 million to the $2.2 billion in U.S. aid that Israel will receive this year. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger promised Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin during his January visit to Washington that the Administration would not object if Congress granted the money; Rabin took that as a Kissinger signal that Israel could lobby for the funds on Capitol Hill.

Since then, however, the Administration has reversed itself for reasons of “financial discipline.” The move embarrassed Rabin and angered Israelis. They were further annoyed by reports that an “American source”—later identified as blunt-spoken U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon—had accused the Jerusalem government of “dirty pool” for going to Congress behind Ford’s back in quest of the additional aid.

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