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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 13:52 GMT
Legacy of the siege of Beirut
Composite photo: Israeli flag and Palestinian boy showing victory sign
Beirut is currently hosting the Arab League summit
This is the last in a series of despatches from the BBC's Roger Hearing, who is in the Lebanese capital for the Arab League summit meeting.

Beirut is one of those names that to anyone of my generation conjures up images of kidnapping, violent death and destruction - a byword, in fact, for political chaos.

Beside the old seafront, the corniche of Beirut, there is a large tower block covered by an enormous red and blue poster saying "Vive Le Liban" - Long Live Lebanon.


You have to remember the siege of Beirut...88 days and the attacks were all around us

Yasser Arafat
At the back, it is still gouged out by shell-holes and pock-marked by bullets. Further down from that building the street lights are festooned at the moment with the flags of the Arab League whose summit is being held in the rebuilt city, at peace now for more than a decade.

But the main subject on the agenda, the efforts to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians, is a problem complicated by what happened in Beirut in the middle of the long civil war almost exactly 20 years ago.

At the time, as now in Ramallah, it was Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who was in a stand-off with the then defence minister, now prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Ariel Sharon says he could and should have killed Yasser Arafat back then in the Beirut siege.

Potent memories

Sallah Ta'amarai was one of the top Palestinian commanders in Lebanon at the time. "I think he did try to assassinate him because at one point a building where Arafat was working was demolished. Everybody in that building was killed. That was minutes after Arafat had left"

The buildings and bunkers are now obliterated, not by bombs but by bulldozers and it's being turned into a car park for the businessmen of new Beirut.

For Mr Arafat, in his dealings with his old enemy in a new siege in Ramallah, the memory and the lessons are not so easily demolished.

"You have to remember the siege of Beirut," he says. "Eighty-eight days and the attacks were all around us. It was the longest of Arab-Israeli battles."

Yasser Arafat
Arafat: Siege of Beirut taught him profound lessons

And Mr Sharon certainly has not changed his mind about the man he confronted so bitterly in the city 20 years ago.

"Arafat is an obstacle to peace," he insists. "He has chosen a strategy of terror. Pressure should be put on him in order to have an alternative leadership in the future."

Rafiq Khoury, the editor of Al Anwar newspaper, one of the big newspapers in East Beirut, remembers the events during the siege in 1982 very well. "Many times they destroyed my office," he says.

"Sharon came here thinking that he will have two aims; to put the Palestinians outside Lebanon and to have a new republic in Lebanon and something like so. And I think he failed."


Arafat is an obstacle to peace

Ariel Sharon

So, do the lines drawn up twenty years ago between these two men shape the confrontation in Gaza and the West Bank as it is seen now?

Dr Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House in London, says, "Arafat knows much better how to survive in the midst of crisis than he does to be the kind of statesmanlike leader who is presiding over peace negotiations.

Personal and political

"Ariel Sharon is very good tactically, but there is some doubt that he really has a strategic vision to all that he is doing.

"The two characters, therefore, represent each other's shadow, each other's mirror and the fact that Sharon has said that he wishes he'd killed Arafat shows how seriously he takes this one individual as a threat."

It is a portrait of both men that makes sense to many of those who know them and for people like Israeli commentator Israel Segal, this is one instance in which personality crucially affects politics. But the big difference now is that for Israel the war has come home.

Ariel Sharon
Sharon: Regrets not killing Mr Arafat 20 years ago

"It's even worse from my point of view," says Mr Segal, " because Lebanon, after all, was beyond the border. In Lebanon I had to go from here, from Jerusalem, to Beirut in order to sense the fear.

"Now, it turns that Beirut is crawling here to Jerusalem, to my home, to my street, to my neighbourhood. That's a very big difference."

At the port of Beirut 20 years ago, the quayside echoed to the sound of guns being fired into the air as thousands of PLO members and Yasser Arafat departed on a ship going into a different exile in Tunis at the end of the siege of Beirut.

Then it was widely seen as a huge defeat for the Palestinian leader and a victory for his nemesis, Ariel Sharon.

But now this city is the focus for a new attempt to break through the personal, as well as the political enmity, that was largely formed here 20 years ago.


Read Roger Hearing's first despatch from the Arab League summit:

Bright Beirut offers template for peace

See also:

27 Mar 02 | Middle East
Arafat summit blow for US
27 Mar 02 | Middle East
Key leaders absent from Arab summit
27 Mar 02 | Middle East
Palestinians' feeling of dread
26 Mar 02 | Middle East
Bright Beirut offers template for peace
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