The Israelis Strike Back: The View From Beirut

By day, Lebanon’s sunny shoreline is filled with vacationing families from the Gulf states. By night, the city’s watering holes throb with oil-rich Arab playboys and European hipsters who have flocked to see the new Beirut. Once a by-word for civil war, Lebanon’s capital was recently reborn as Middle East party central.

But conflict suddenly returned following Wednesday’s kidnapping of two Israeli solders in a cross-border raid by Hizballah, a militant Shiite Muslim faction. Accusing the Lebanese government of an act of war, the Israeli government launched a blockade against Lebanon Thursday morning. It started with an air blitz on Rafic Hariri International Airport, stranding hundreds of travelers before they could board scheduled flights. Earlier, Israeli artillery, gunboats and air strikes hit targets in southern Lebanon, including bridges, roads and a power station. Attacks continued at the rate of about one every 10 minutes, according to a Lebanese television channel.

Beirut airport is a favorite target of the Israelis: they struck it in 1996, 1993 and most famously in 1968, when Israeli commandos blew up 13 Middle East Airlines planes in retaliation for an attack in Athens by Palestinians. The airport, recently rebuilt during a Beirut reconstruction plan led by the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, is a lifeblood of Lebanon’s postwar recovery. “Tourism in Lebanon is finished if this continues,” Joseph Sarkis, Lebanon’s Minister of Tourism.

With both of the airport’s two runways now damaged, and with Israeli gunboats reportedly setting up a naval blockade, there is no way in or out of the country except by land through Syria. Already, fleets of taxis have been heading towards Damascus, evacuating vacationers who fear getting stuck in the country if the crisis continues.

For the moment that seems likely. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah says that the group would only release the Israeli solders as part of a negotiated prisoner exchange. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is holding the Lebanese government accountable. Thus Lebanese are bracing for what one Beirut newspaper is calling Israel’s signature strategy of collective punishment.

Beirutis are once again stocking up on supplies and buying generators in case the Israelis knock out the city’s electricity. The country can ill afford this kind of economic disruption. Reconstruction put Lebanon deeply in hock: it has one of the highest per capita public debts in the world. If the lights go out in Beirut’s nightclubs, the post-war party will clearly be over.

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