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Beirut Residents Recall Barak the Fighting Man

Lebanon: Some believe that an old warrior can help bring peace to the Middle East as Israeli leader.

June 26, 1999|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIRUT — She remembers the sounds of gunfire and people shouting in the street below. She remembers that the electricity suddenly went out in her apartment but that a strong light still shone through the peephole in her door.

She crept toward it and looked out but saw nothing. "Then I heard one word," the woman, now 80, recalls. " 'Hit!' I jumped back and my door exploded open. All the doors of the building flew open."

It was just after midnight on April 10, 1973, and Israeli commandos had stormed her apartment building in the elegant Snoubra district of the Lebanese capital.

Minutes later, three senior officials of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization were dead, shot in their homes in a bold undercover operation that shook the guerrilla movement and led to tensions between Lebanon and the PLO.

For Ehud Barak, the man who led the raid dressed as a woman, the operation still ranks as one of his commando unit's greatest successes.

Now Barak, whose army exploits made him the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, says he will follow the path to peace as Israel's next prime minister. Even as the man he defeated, Benjamin Netanyahu, sends warplanes to attack Beirut's civilian infrastructure in his final days in office, Barak has renewed previous commitments to revive Israel's deadlocked peace talks with the Palestinians and forge agreements, too, with Lebanon and its powerful neighbor, Syria.

But residents here still remember the night the Israelis came, 26 years ago, and assassinated the Palestinian guerrilla leaders who were living among them.

Against that backdrop, some people here and others across the Arab world wonder whether a man known for killing Arabs will be capable of making peace.

Still others, however, both in Beirut and throughout the region, appear to accept the widespread Israeli view that only a tough combatant can be trusted to make peace. They say they believe that Barak is committed to pursuing peace and predict that he will honor a campaign pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon within a year.

Arafat Also Warrior Turned Peacemaker

Several also point out that the region has had other warrior leaders who became peacemakers, including Arafat.

"Twenty-six years ago, Barak was just an officer in the army," says Ibrahim abu Hjeili, 57, who owns a barbershop on the street and remembers arriving the morning after the raid to find blood on the pavement and a scene of chaos.

"Now he's the prime minister, and it's not a surprise to me that he is talking about peace. . . . Since that incident, we've had 20 years of war," Hjeili says. "People can change after all those years. Look at Arafat."

But people here also say that until Barak's recent election victory, they never knew that the leader of Israel's Labor Party and the commando chief who once stormed this neighborhood in a navy pantsuit, brunet wig and blue eye shadow were the same man. Barak's involvement in the raid has long been known in Israel, but residents of this neighborhood say they were surprised when a Lebanese newspaper reported the connection after last month's vote in Israel.

Those who were here then say they remember the shooting and the explosions and the fear, although some memories are clouded now by a haze of time and the confusion and shock that reigned in the first hours after the raid.

"I was screaming so much I couldn't hear anyone else," says the elderly woman, who asks that only her first name, Omra, be used; she doesn't want to anger Israel, she says.

Barak and his commandos arrived that night by rubber pontoon boats on the coast just south of Beirut. According to Barak's recently published biography, they were met on the beach by Israeli Mossad agents and driven north into the heart of this Arab capital. They posed as couples--three team members were dressed as women--and then raced into two buildings on Takieddein Solh Street.

In the first building, the Israelis killed top Arafat deputy Mohammed Najjar, known as Abu Yussef, who was chairman of the PLO's political department and had been implicated in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In the second, adjacent structure, the targets were Kamal Adwan, in charge of PLO operations inside Israel, and Kamal Nasser, Arafat's spokesman and a leading Arab poet; the two lived one floor apart.

About a dozen other people also were killed in the operation, although the figure varies in Lebanese and Israeli accounts. Among them were Najjar's wife, who was shot as she tried to help her husband; an Italian woman who lived upstairs from the Najjars; and a number of Lebanese police and civilians. About 20 people were injured, according to press reports.

Raid Took Less Than 45 Minutes

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