"Operation Peace in the Galilee" was launched nearly a quarter of a century ago by the Israeli Army, yet peace still eludes the region today.
It began with a lightening swift push north across the Lebanese border led by Israeli Defense Minister Arial Sharon. It was a response to continued terrorist attacks on Israel. Quickly and decisively the Israeli "defense forces" (IDF) overpowered PLO, Lebanese and Syrian defenders. Soviet made tanks and equipment were no match for the Israeli heavy armor and iron will. Within days the Israelis surrounded Beirut from the south and east, scattering the Syrians and driving the PLO deep into their underground tunnels near the stadium on the southwest end of town.
Shortly after the IDF surge, CBS News sent me to the scene via Israel. It took a couple days to arrange transportation for the 150 mile journey north to Beirut. I was taken aback to see that our transport was a bright purple and white tour bus with Hebrew lettering prominently displayed on the side. The only thing missing was a big bull’s-eye! To make matters worse, we were all lightly dressed because of the extreme heat. But our Israeli military escort wore a helmet, a heavy flack jacket and carried an Uzzi; the submachine gun's name means "the Lord is my strength." Something was wrong with this picture.
As we crossed the border into Lebanon, the still smoldering carcasses of Syrian tanks (Soviet T-72's) and armored vehicles littered the landscape on the road leading past the ancient and historic port cities of Tyre and Sidon. We bounced and weaved our way up the coastal highway and after a couple hours our psychedelic tour bus stopped for a respite. The acrid smell of burnt rubber and metal permeated the air. Our armed guard warned us to stay close to the bus. Some locals appeared shaken and scared, while others seemed to go about their daily business undeterred by the invasion. For them, perhaps, war was just a periodic inconvenience.
We resumed our drive through the Chouf Mountains and after eight hours approached southern Beirut. Here, safely tucked into the tree-lined mountains, we arrived at a charming French restaurant and our luncheon rendezvous with CBS News Beirut producer Paul Byers. Our meal was delicious, salads of fresh garden greens and tomatoes, succulent lamb, veal and a most delightful bottle of local wine. It was all so civilized and incongruous with the conflict raging on the other side of the ridge.
Following our lovely repast, Paul and I got into a tattered Mercedes sedan driven by Michel, a local hire who spoke little English. As we wended our way down the mountain, a most stunning view lay before us. Beirut was a bright white and ecru jewel embraced on the north and west by the magical blue hue of the Mediterranean Sea. A few minutes later we entered the city, where life was teeming with an energetic fervor.
Paul explained the lay of the land while showing me key sites along the "Green Line," which divided the city in half. Muslims and the PLO heavily occupied the west, while the east, where we drove, was dominated by Christians and the Lebanese Army. As we approached an intersection in the central part of Beirut, Paul pointed out a Green Line crossing where a gauntlet of checkpoints, each representing a different faction, co-existed along a street that connected east and west.
A few years earlier, several Arab states paid the Syrian Army to maintain peace among the warring Lebanese factions. Soon after, the Syrians, who had long standing aspirations on Lebanon, decided to make their role permanent. Now the Israeli Army had dislodged them from Beirut and southern Lebanon.
BA-BOOM! Suddenly, without warning, a huge blast shattered our relatively peaceful conversation and our car shook violently. It was quickly followed by several more blasts. Michel, his eyes popping and face turning ashen, instinctively floored the gas pedal and steered us quickly away from the scene of the explosions. "Today's shelling has begun," Paul yelled. There was no time for further explanations as we screeched our way around curves, dodging pedestrians and other vehicles all racing frantically for cover.
A few minutes later we pulled up to our destination, the Alexandre Hotel. Paul said we would be safe at this "press" hotel, which was off-limits to attack. He went on to detail that the shelling regularly began around four in the afternoon because the U.S. networks shipped their daily reports by three o'clock. With that, Israeli jets could be heard bombing PLO positions in the distance, while PLO fired their Katyusha multiple-rocket launchers toward Israeli tanks and artillery dotting the hills overlooking Beirut. This would be a daily occurrence for the next few weeks, which we would watch and record from the roof of our hotel.
A large western press contingent was based in a press hotel on the west side of town, which was more dangerous than the east. Here snipers and kidnappers more freely roamed. Getting videotapes out and supplies in was perilous but necessary. One day CBS News producer Richard Cohen, who is Jewish, attempted a crossover through the various checkpoints, many requiring a separate pass. Mistakenly he flashed a Christian Phalange pass to a Mujahideen guard, but he quickly retrieved the right pass. The Mujahideen guard waved him through saying, "we have to be careful not to let Jews in." The name on the pass was Cohen!
One night I was awakened by loud voices outside my second floor hotel window. Then I heard the clang of metal and suddenly the unmistakable sound of mortars being launched over our hotel toward the west. I carefully peaked out the corner of the window, located at the rear of the hotel, where I saw a man, dressed in green fatigues, packing up his mortar and racing out of view. Anxious there would be a counter attack, I could not sleep.
Days later a few of us gathered in the hotel parking lot preparing to depart when several IDF jeeps pulled in and parked. Out of one vehicle bounded General Arial Sharon, who was surrounded by heavily armed guards. He walked into the hotel restaurant for what appeared to be a hearty breakfast. None of the journalists were happy about this brazen demonstration of insensitivity to our neutral location. An hour or so later the Defense Minister and his party quickly departed. Within minutes our hotel sustained rocket and mortar bombardment from the west. Journalists scrambled for cover as the hotel took several direct hits. One destroyed the fifth floor room of a journalist who fortunately was with me cowering behind a barricade. The short attack resulted in a couple injuries and a lot of damage.
It occurred to me, following this attack, that Sharon's action was in response to unfavorable press coverage he felt the IDF was getting. Earlier that week I had been summoned to meet two Israeli officers and hear their complaints about CBS News coverage. The video of Israel's 155-millimeter cannons firing was hard to balance when the PLO allowed no access to their heavy weaponry. "You show the Israelis as the aggressor and the PLO as victims," I was admonished. This in spite of the fact that every report fed by satellite from Israel to a western broadcast center was first required to clear Israeli censors. And they often replaced objectionable scenes with black. CBS News would air the reports with certain video blacked out.
In time I came to understand that Beirut is a microcosm of the complicated political and religious divisions that exist across much of the Middle East. These differences are emotional, deep seated and have roiled the region for centuries. While in Lebanon, I often heard from locals the phrase, "bookra inshallah" (tomorrow God willing). This means nothing is likely to happen for a long time. Another phrase sometimes used translates as "tomorrow when the apricots blossom." This means, "forget it."
When it comes to the question of "Peace in the Galilee," sadly either of these phrases may apply.