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Friday, 29 March, 2002, 01:09 GMT
Beirut's hollow calm
Amr Moussa,  Mahmoud Hammoud and Saud al-Faisal
Arab leaders agreed on a unified new stand towards Israel
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By the BBC's James Reynolds in Beirut
line
I woke in Beirut with the sure feeling that the city was being bombed. It was just before dawn.

The explosion was as loud as anything I'd heard in Jerusalem. I heard another bang. Then I saw a flash. And then I realized.

The bombing was thunder. It was just a storm.

I imagine there are many others in Beirut who woke as I did, thinking the city was at war. The memory of fighting is still recent here. This city still wears the marks of long years of battle of buildings all but destroyed by shell fire.


I'm sure I'll go back home I know I will

Jamal
Refugee and carpenter

The symbol of Beirut's destruction is a building next to the harbour: a former hotel, now gouged with shell holes and left as a reminder of the past.

But for this week's summit, it was covered up. An enormous banner was draped across the side of the building to hide the war damage.

Across the banner, a slogan was printed in jaunty letters: Long Live Lebanon.

But away from the centre of Beirut there are no banners, no cheery slogans. I visited the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.

Camps made famous 20 years ago because of a massacre, when hundreds of refugees were killed by militia forces.

In the camps thousands wait for their future to be decided.

I spoke to Jamal, a carpenter. He was born in 1947 in a village in northern Israel. He's been a refugee since he was one year old. "I'm sure I'll go back home", he told me. "I know I will."

Well, the fate of Jamal and his fellow refugees was a topic for the Beirut summit, seen as a defining moment in the Middle East conflict.

'Farce'

This was a chance for the Arab world to speak with one voice and to unite behind a peace plan to be presented by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

But things didn't go to plan. The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stayed away because of Israeli restrictions. Then, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt decided he wouldn't come either.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's summit plagued by choatic scenes

And, right at the last minute, King Abdullah of Jordan decided not to make the short flight from Amman to Beirut, which came as rather surprising news to his courtiers who had already made the trip to Beirut's airport to greet him.

The summit was beginning to look like Hamlet without most of its cast, I said to one of my colleagues. It was rather like having four acts of Osric.

It was soon something I regretted saying, since I had to spend the next two days trying to justify and explain my analogy to people who know far more about the Middle East and about Shakespeare than I do.

Wrong speech

The summit was a fairly chaotic time.

For those taking part, and for those covering it. At one stage a colleague and I found a copy of a speech, to be delivered by Abdullah. An advance copy of Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan, the diplomatic centerpiece of the summit.

As far as we could make out, no one else had it. So we raced through it, but we couldn't find any mention of the peace proposal. Perhaps something had happened, maybe the plan was off.

This was big news. But then we read the cover page again. It was, indeed, Abdullah's speech. King Abdullah of Jordan. Not Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The speech we had wasn't worth much, the king wasn't even here.

In the end, the Crown Prince did deliver his speech, and his peace plan: normal ties between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands.

And for Jamal and the refugees, the repetition of a long-standing promise, the right to return home. But the Crown Prince's words were overshadowed by in-fighting at the summit, and by threats of walkouts.

Doorstop collection

There is a danger now that his initiative may be added to the weighty collection of previous peace plans drawn up but never implemented.

King Abdullah of Jordan
King Abullah of Jordan decided at the last moment not to attend the summit

In fact there are now so many plans, resolutions, and proposals aimed at ending the Arab-Israeli conflict that they've been collected into a pretty hefty book.

A book I carried around with me at the summit, and whose main use was in propping open the door of our makeshift office.

I write now at the end of the summit. To my left I can see the shelled out hotel, covered by the cheery banner. On my right I can see another damaged building.

Twenty years ago, Israeli soldiers took positions on its roof to watch Yasser Arafat leave the city.

Now, so many years later the Israelis made sure the Palestinian leader would not return.

Twenty years ago Beirut was being bombed. And Jerusalem was quiet. Now the bombs have come to Jerusalem. And the only sound of war in Beirut is an early morning burst of thunder.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Middle East
Deadly suicide bomb hits Israeli hotel
28 Mar 02 | Middle East
Iraq pledges to respect Kuwait
27 Mar 02 | Middle East
Arab summit: Egyptian view
29 Mar 02 | Middle East
Media focus on summit disagreements
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