• 05 Mar, 2024

Residents of Beirut see similarities between Israel's tactics 42 years ago and the current campaign against the Palestinian territories.

WEST BEIRUT, Lebanon - As poets and writers flock to Sleiman Bakhti's bookstore and publishing house in Beirut's Hamra neighborhood, he greets them all like an old friend, often handing them the latest editions. He has been a "Khamrawi" for decades and has been through the ups and downs of Hamra, including the dark years of the civil war, which brought people together despite the harshness.

"There was hope for tolerance, solidarity, and freedom against the enemy who wanted to destroy Beirut," Bakhti, now 60, told Voice of Urdu from his shop.

According to Bakhti, this atmosphere of "light and hope" is in stark contrast to the genocide taking place in Gaza today. There, the few journalists left on the ground bring new horrors to the world every day.

Israeli tanks in Gaza City in the Gaza Strip, November 22, 2023 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]
Israeli tanks in Gaza City in the Gaza Strip, November 22, 2023 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]


Hamra's Glory Day

Long considered the cultural and intellectual center of the Middle East, Hamra had everything from cinemas to printing houses to cafes that, until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, were filled with political dissidents and exiles from across the region. Among the exiles were many Palestinians, including Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat and Ghassan Kanafani, a renowned Palestinian writer and revolutionary.

They came to Lebanon with the rest of the Palestinian political leaders after they were expelled from Jordan following the 1970 civil war. After the 1967 war, in which Israel annexed more Palestinian land, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly evicted from their homes in a second wave of expulsions after the 1948 Nakba.

Many of them were in neighboring countries, including Jordan, where resistance fighters attacked Israel, leading to Jordan's expulsion. By this time, Arafat and the Palestinian Authority had signed the Cairo Accord with Lebanon, which essentially approved the presence of Palestinian fighters and gave the Palestinians control of 16 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 and surrounded west Beirut, using the presence of Palestinian resistance as an excuse. As the siege by Israel and its domestically, Lebanese army, continues in west Beirut, it is hard to forget what then-US President Ronald Reagan called a "Holocaust" in a phone call with the Israeli prime minister. Minister Menachem Begin.

Parallel Lines

Many people in West Beirut see parallels between the violence 42 years ago and the ongoing genocide in Gaza. "The only difference now is how many people are dying," said Ziad Kaj, a writer and former member of the city's civil defense department.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, left, with Lebanese leftist leader Walid Jumblatt, centre, join hands to show a press conference that they would stick together, in Beirut, August 30, 1982 [Langevin/AP Photo]
PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, left, with Lebanese leftist leader Walid Jumblatt, center, join hands to show a press conference
that they would stick together, in Beirut, August 30, 1982 [Langevin/AP Photo]

Since October 7, more than 21,000 Palestinians have been killed, nearly half of them children. The siege of West Beirut killed an estimated 5,500 people in Beirut and surrounding areas, with 80 percent of the casualties being civilians, according to a hospital official.

"I'm not surprised [by Israel's tactics]," Kaj said. In 1982, Israeli and Lebanese forces set up checkpoints and cut off electricity around West Beirut. The phone lines were down, so there was little communication with the outside world. Israeli officials urged civilians to leave West Beirut, accusing Arafat and the freedom fighters of "hiding behind civilian shields."

Medical supplies, food, and other necessities were very limited and sometimes insufficient, despite attempts to smuggle the necessary goods. "West Beirut is under siege," Kaj said. "There was no bread, water, gas, and almost daily there was bombardment from land, air and sea."

"I looked for bread in the morning, but many times I couldn't find it," Abu Tarek, 70, a resident of Hamra, told Voice of Urdu. "There were no vegetables and no meat."

History is repeating itself in Gaza today. Israeli officials accuse Hamas of repeatedly using "human shields" and say 40 percent of the population is at risk of starvation.

Water shortages in Beirut have forced residents to rely on sweetened juices or unclean spring water. Gazans are also forced to drink unfit seawater.

In Beirut, as in the Gaza Strip, the damage was so severe that doctors did not always have enough time to administer anesthesia. Typhoid fever and cholera spread like wildfire among the children of Beirut as the number of rat bites increased due to the lack of garbage collection.

Stress mounted and the explosion was said to have had "extreme psychological effects".

In Gaza, meningitis, chicken pox, jaundice, and upper respiratory tract infections increased as the health system collapsed.
Shouts to the skies of Beirut

"Sometimes the explosions lasted 24 hours," Bakhti said in 1982. At the time, the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish lived in the Dabbuch building, Bakhti told Voice of Urdu, pointing down the street.

One day he went out on the balcony and started yelling at the Israeli fighters.

American scholar Cheryl A. Rubenberg, writing in Palestine Studies, described the bombardment that began at 3:30 in the morning and continued into the evening. A week later, in 1982, she wrote that she was suffering from "anorexia, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, inability to read or write coherent paragraphs, persistent uterine bleeding, and constant nervousness and nervousness."

Israel's bombardment of Gaza continued unabated for nearly three months, with a one-week humanitarian ceasefire at the end of November. Most West Beirut residents left the city and moved to homes in the mountains or East Beirut, but some stayed for work or to keep squatters off their properties.

Bakhti remained in West Beirut to monitor his relatives' homes. "I had a bunch of keys and I went to see their houses," he said.

"When I went to my parents' house, there was white phosphorous residue on the walls."

Beirut hospitals struggled to cope with burn victims after Israel used phosphorus in West Beirut, home to half a million people, including refugees from southern Lebanon. International human rights groups have documented Israel's illegal use of US-supplied white phosphorus in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon since October 7.

"We went through the siege [in 1982], but this time in Gaza it's a genocide," Bakhti said. "It's worse than dying."