This is an excerpt from A Beirut Heart, a memoir of my fourteen years in Beirut. In this particular scene it is June 3, 1982 and the Israelis have just invaded Lebanon. In our war-warped minds, we initially thought Israel was doing us a favor by wiping out the PLO which continuously bombed our neighborhoods. We changed our minds when the assault on Beirut went on for sixty-seven days.
I was at a luncheon hosted by a friend at her mountain home on June 3, 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon. It was a seemingly peaceful, picture-perfect day. The sun was not too hot for those of us who wanted to sit in her exquisite garden and soak up its fragrance. The tall jasmine bushes were full of white blossoms, rows of red and yellow roses outlined the perimeter of the grass; and a fuchsia bougainvillea climbed the side of the staircase leading to the veranda. As usual in Beiruti gatherings, the women gravitated to one corner to talk and the men to another, everyone content to be in their own little group, all unaware of the Israel’s actions in the south.
When the news reached us, one of the well-informed guests, explained that the Israeli Army intended to advance twenty-five miles up the coast, stopping just south of Beirut. To judge from the number of guests nodding their agreement, far outnumbering the few who frowned disapprovingly, there was consensus on Israel’s actions. While I could see the necessity of clearing out the PLO who consistently bombed our neighborhoods and terrified our children, I felt uneasy about what we were agreeing with. I could not clearly articulate it even to myself; maybe it was the unsettling way in which we spoke of eliminating people as if they were vermin. I am ashamed to admit it now, but that was the prevailing attitude in Lebanon among the Christians in 1982. And our minds were very clear on the subject of Yasser Arafat. We were sick of him and his PLO. He had boasted one too many times that the road to Palestine led through Beirut. He and his PLO needed to be wiped out, so the Israelis were doing us a favor.
Part of me wanted to believe that, and as long as the Israelis conducted their nasty business in the south, and as long as our lives in Beirut were not endangered, we talked comfortably about someone else’s battles, someone else’s deaths. In retrospect, I cringe at the naiveté of our thinking; but that was how it was, it was civil war; and we were looking out for ourselves.
Israel used the attempted assassination of its ambassador to London as its pretext to launch the invasion into Lebanon. Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister at the time, led ‘Operation Peace for Galilee.’ In two days his troops had advanced all the way to Beirut. On June 6, Israeli warplanes began bombing West Beirut indiscriminately. The assault on the city lasted sixty-seven days.
After seven years of war, my family and I should have been immune to leaping up, tearing open the doors and staring in the direction of the latest explosion but there we were, night after night, sitting on our balcony, watching the bombs falling and the lights flashing across the sky. I had no sense those lights were coming from human beings. It was more like Heaven fighting Hell. I stood there, slightly bent forward, with my arms resting on the railing. Gradually, it occurred to me that neither I nor my children should be watching this horror show; it was disgusting; it went against everything I believed in, yet there we were, staying and looking.
There were people under those bombs, and for every bomb that fell someone died beneath it. Every plane—indistinguishable against the dark sky except for a red light in the rear—had a pilot or two inside. Presumably they were young men in their twenties, terrified that something was going to fly into their plane and blow it apart. Maybe they had a ring on their finger and a girlfriend or wife back in Tel Aviv; maybe these young men still carried the smell of their wife’s perfume in their hair; maybe they were reservists called up the day before; maybe they were convinced they were killing ‘terrorists’ so it was all right to drop one-thousand-pound bombs over a dark city where they could not see their targets, if they had targets at all.
And down below on the ground where the bombs exploded were ordinary people, women cradling screaming babies in their arms, old people holding terrified dogs, a husband frantic because his wife and children had not returned from an outing. There was complete mayhem across the dark sky, and I was watching it all from my balcony.
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