Mid-May: This weekend Yasser Arafat received an urgent message from Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. During the week, the British ambassador paid an unusual visit to the PLO political department offices in the Arab University area. On Saturday afternoon, Arafat sent a message to all PLO offices in Lebanon and abroad, stating that an Israeli invasion was expected within the next 48 hours. The Israeli attack would be on a scale greater than the invasion of southern Lebanon in March 1978, or the Palestinian-Israeli war of the summer of 1981 when Beirut itself was bombed. Israeli forces were expected to drive north through all of Lebanon south of Beirut up to Khalda, the crossroads linking west Beirut at its southern tip with the only road open to Palestinian forces eastward to Damascus. The Israelis were expected to launch air raids and commando operations against west Beirut. Arafat ended his message, “God willing, we shall prevail.”
That evening, in the Fakhani district where many of the PLO political offices were located, Palestinian and Lebanese fighters were on alert. Anti-aircraft guns and artillery pieces mounted on trucks were positioned on the main street passing through the quarter. Enforced roadblocks were set up, and cars entering the quarter were carefully checked. Many of the civilian residents of the area spent the night in other areas of the city. In the rest of west Beirut, most people spent the evening unaware of any danger. In Fakhani, there was a tense expectation that the invasion every Palestinian leader had been predicting for the past six months would finally occur. No one slept soundly in Fakhani that night. But there wasn’t even the sound of a single gunshot during the night. There was no Israeli invasion. The next day the alert remained. Some of the dozens of Lebanese and Palestinian political offices in the area dispersed their functions as a security precaution. Arafat reportedly stated that Lebanese-Palestinian joint forces could hold out for ten days against such a massive invasion.
By the middle of the week, the alert faded. Only the constant Israeli reconnaissance flights and the resonating sonic booms over Beirut reminded us of the possible danger.
June 3: There is an assassination attempt against Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador in London. Israeli radio pins responsibility on the PLO. The PLO denies any involvement. In Beirut, the situation is calm. For weeks, Israeli radio has been contriving Palestinian violations of the ceasefire. The attack on Argov is taken to be one of the more convoluted attempts at alleging a ceasefire violation. No extraordinary precautions are taken.
June 4: A quiet day in Fakhani. In the early afternoon, I am napping on one of the upper floors of an apartment building there. Just as I awake, around three pm, the thunder of planes swooping low over the neighborhood. From the window, rising clouds of smoke a few blocks away as my ears ring from the deafening explosion. In the hallway, the sound of three tiny children screaming and wailing for their mother. She has left them alone to do some shopping. A woman comes running downstairs from an upper floor. There is no basement or air raid shelter in the building. We scoop the children up to race down to the bottom floor. Below, the children’s mother runs screaming from the street as the planes pass the second time. Then more bombs hit nearby. The explosions are even louder than before. Smoke and wind gush into the entry way of the building. After the second raid, streams of women and children come pouring out of the Fakhani quarter, rushing for Mazraa Street, five blocks away. Perhaps the Israelis wouldn’t dare bomb Mazraa, an exclusively Lebanese area. Some people are dazed. They run into apartment buildings, asking if there is a shelter. Nearby, Lebanese stand in the doorways of their homes or on balconies, staring up at the sky with blank expressions. Already, ambulance sirens are blaring, and rescuers begin to evacuate the first casualties. Fighters shoot Kalashnikovs in the air to clear the streets for the ambulances. On Mazraa Street, crowds form under the overhangs of buildings, waiting to see if the raids will continue. There are five more waves of bombing over the next hour.
The Israelis concentrate on the city’s sports stadium which they claim was a major PLO weapons depot. In fact, half the stadium was used as a food storage center for distribution to Lebanese refugees from previous Israeli attacks against southern Lebanon. The last Israeli attacks of the day maim and kill a dozen medical rescue workers near the stadium while they were evacuating the victims from the first attacks. More ambulances are destroyed in the air raids than military vehicles. Bombs fall on the nearby Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. Fakhani is hit, as is Bir Hasan and Burj al-Barajna camp. The planes head south and bomb 20 Lebanese villages along the inland road between Sidon and Nabatiyya. These raids are many times the intensity of the first Israeli bombing attack on Beirut, on July 17, 1981. Still there is uncertainty whether this is a prelude to the expected invasion.
June 7: In the past two days, the bombing raids have been repeated over wide areas in southern Lebanon. The number of killed has doubled, to over 300. The invasion has commenced on three axes in the south. An Israeli ground invasion force is pushing towards Nabatiyya in two directions. Israeli tanks and army units move along the coast towards Tyre.
In the afternoon, Beirut is bombed again. Most civilians have now evacuated the Fakhani and Arab University areas. Palestinian and Lebanese political offices have dispersed and moved underground. Yet there are still a few shops open near the Arab University. Some families are determined not to leave their homes. Militia men in uniform are positioned at the entrances of the almost empty buildings.
At four in the afternoon, the Israeli war planes begin circling the city. It doesn’t seem possible that Beirut can be bombed again. In a basement in the Arab University area, about 20 people are huddled as the raid begins. The planes can’t be heard underground. Then, the whole basement shakes with the strenuous reverberation. The bombs are falling nearby. Everything stops. The force of the explosions are unusual in their strength. People talk each other into remaining calm and staying put in the basement. After the second wave, many of those in the basement decide to make a run for the streets outside the area.
On the streets the fighters and militia men maintain their guard posts and anti-aircraft positions undeterred. Civilians gather in the lobbies of apartment buildings, cautiously peering out onto the street to see if there will be other strikes. More bombing waves. The reason for the forceful trembling underneath the ground becomes clear once out on the streets. The newly built engineering building at the Arab University had been hit repeatedly. Israeli air force intelligence thought that they had targeted Yasser Arafat’s headquarters. The engineering building was hit from all four sides with anti-shelter bombs which explode deep into the foundations of the building. Arafat wasn’t there. The night before, some 300 refugees — women, children and some of the wounded from the first bombing raid on June 4 — had spent the night in the basement of the engineering building. Miraculously, they weren’t there now. No one was.
The dead and wounded from the attack are mostly civilians who hadn’t left their homes in a nearby apartment block. The camps of Sabra and Shatila are also hit. The municipal stadium is again hit, repeatedly. Single bombs are dropped sparsely in residential areas to spread terror among civilians.
June 13: Israeli troops have reached Baabda. The siege of Beirut is beginning. Despite continued bombing raids and Israeli artillery shelling by land and sea, refugees are pouring into west Beirut from the south. The main business district of Hamra is beginning to lose its commercial flair and take on all the characteristics of a sprawling refugee camp. The building I’m in, emptied of its foreign residents, is filled with families from Na‘ama, near Damour, which has been completely destroyed in bombing raids and shelling attacks. People stand on their balconies watching newly-arrived refugees looking for shelter. A car packed with mattresses, boxes, suitcases and women and children drives into an alley, loudly honking its horn. Shouts of jubilation from an upper floor. Relatives have made it safely from Sidon.
There is room for optimism. Lebanese and Palestinian forces are still fighting in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa camp in Sidon. Heavy clashes are reported in Damour. The rumor in the street is that the Fateh commander in Tyre region, Asma, is still in radio contact with Beirut and continuing to carry out military operations. People say he’s taken 75 Israeli soldiers prisoner. There are the conversations between fighters who join relatives and refugees for coffee in the afternoon. Sometimes amid shelling or air raids. Everyone who is fighting or involved in emergency work spends the day by the radio waiting for the news by the hour, gauging every minute change in the military situation.
June 24-25: The worst air raids and shelling attacks against Beirut since the war began. The whole southern half of the city from Mazraa Street is pounded relentlessly for two days. Rouche, Manara and points along the sea front are also shelled by warships. There is an attempted landing in Manara at night. Whole neighborhoods are flattened into rubble, like Abu Shaka, Burj al-Barajna and Ouziye. I know one woman in Fakhani who spent 30 hours in a shelter because of the concentrated bombing of the area. I know a radio technician who has been manning his underground post for 24 hours a day ever since June 4. Every building around his shelter has been hit. Hamra has become a large refugee camp. Cinemas are turned into clinics, hotels into hospitals. Half-constructed buildings and commercial offices are shelters for thousands of refugees. And an amazing demographic transformation has occurred. With the systemic destruction of the camps, Palestinians and Lebanese have been mixed into one people. Every home now has relatives or friends who have been displaced from the south or other parts of Beirut.
Fighters are seen everywhere on the streets, as now all possible resources have been mobilized. In the afternoon, all traffic disappears from the streets. People who are not fighters or workers stay at home until the next morning, awaiting the aid raids or shelling attacks. Many streets are now strewn with anti-tank barricades. This current bombing attack is gruesome. Hospitals are overcrowded with victims from fragmentation bombs and phosphorus shells. You begin to see many people on the streets with their right hands bandaged. They have tried to evacuate the victims of the phosphorus shells, and they too have become victims as the acidic gel has stuck to their hands. There are many amputees. They are the ones who survived wounds from fragmentation bombs. The others have deep wounds in their torsos. It takes five doctors to operate on one person who has been hit by a fragmentation shell. Not many of these victims survive. There is a shortage of operating theaters.
The bombing raids continue all afternoon. Shelling from land and sea intensifies after sundown. No one can believe that the world has stood silent and allowed the Israelis to devastate completely southern Lebanon and now Beirut. The mood of the people swings like a pendulum. One moment there is disgust and depression at all the lives which have already been destroyed. The next moment there is a swell of collective pride, that Beirut, with all its Lebanese and Palestinian fighters and civilians, still stands in defiance against the fourth strongest army in the world. Everyone is aware that each day is historic.
Suddenly, the shelling magnifies in its intensity. It seems that the final invasion is at hand. People call it majnoun — insane. Then at 8 pm there’s a complete silence in the city, a complete, dark silence. With the electricity cut, candles burn as people sit on their balconies and turn on their radios. Reagan announcing that Haig has resigned. It seems to everyone in Beirut that their endurance through this latest and most intensive Israeli pounding of the city has caused Haig to fall. There is a popular feeling that Beirut may also be obliterated, though people say that after Beirut it will be the turn of Begin, Sharon and Shamir, Reagan, all the Arab kings and princes and the Arab dictatorial regimes. People think that this would be the historical justice for what they have suffered. Haig’s resignation is only a small turning point. The long siege of Beirut continues.