Beirut is an evocative city even when you’ve only seen it in its worse moments. In yesterday’s New York Times, Roger Cohen waxes nostalgic about Beirut of a quarter-century ago, and in today’s Ha’aretz, Yehuda Ben-Meir praises Israel’s restraint in not invading the city back in the first Lebanon War. I was probably in Beirut at the same time Cohen was, so I’d like to join the party.
I was two days into Hell Week, the first chapter of my infantry NCO course, when helicopters appeared out of nowhere. We had barely slept for two nights, had eaten little, and were caked with the mud stirred up by a persistent late-winter downpour. Within a few minutes we threw our gear together and lugged it into the choppers that flew us to Tyre.
Israel had been in Lebanon for six and half months then and the quick victory and new Middle East that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had promised had not materialized. The IDF had begun a long and intractable occupation of all of southern Lebanon–including the southern neighborhoods of Beirut. Ben-Meir, who as a parliamentarian for the National Religious Party, was a member of the governing coalition at the time, is not accurate in his description of events. Israeli forces entered the Lebanese capital at the beginning of the war. The restraint he speaks of was not pressing further into the northern and western sectors of the city, where Cohen was, where Arafat and the PLO leadership had been until they were, as Ben-Meir describes, forced to leave.