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Beirut Residents Recall Barak the Fighting Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Barak, armed with an Uzi submachine gun and several mini-grenades stuffed into the bodice of his oversized jacket, supervised the operation from the street below the apartments, according to fellow commando Muki Betser. Barak and two others fought off several squads of Lebanese police who were summoned by neighbors to investigate a blaring car horn that had been hit by a stray bullet.

The raid took less than 45 minutes, from the time the Israelis landed on the beach at Ramlat al Baida near Beirut to the time they returned and made their way back to the Israeli ships offshore, says Betser, who led one team of attackers.

In a coordinated mission, a second group of Israelis, led by Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former army chief of staff who is now a centrist legislator, blew up the six-story Beirut headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant PLO faction. Two Israelis and more than a dozen Palestinians died in that operation.

Minem abu Muna, 60, was the concierge of the Najjars’ building the night it was stormed and now has a small shop on the ground floor. That night, he recalls, he heard the gunfire and hid under a table with his wife and two children.

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When the shooting stopped, he ventured out his door and into a chaotic scene of screaming, weeping and confusion in the building’s lobby. “There was blood everywhere,” says Muna, who carried some of the wounded out of the building.

Muna says he didn’t see any of the raiders but remembers that the street was immediately swept by rumors that at least two were women--a brunette and a blonde--wielding submachine guns and tossing grenades.

On the night of the raid, Farouk Nassar, a longtime reporter for the Associated Press in Beirut, and a photographer raced up the stairs of Nasser’s building to look for him. They found him dead, lying in a pool of blood.

“The bullets were fired into his mouth because he was the spokesman,” says journalist Nassar, who had been a classmate of the PLO spokesman at Birzeit University in the West Bank. The operation that killed him “was carried out with surgical precision,” Nassar says.

But can someone who led such a mission now forge a real peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs, he is asked? “Things are different now,” Nassar says. “Who would have believed that” assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak “Rabin would make peace and shake the hand of Arafat? Why shouldn’t Barak be in the same footsteps?”

Betser, who served alongside Barak in the commando unit and remains a good friend, says he too believes that Israel’s new leader can be trusted to proceed with the peace process and search for innovative ways to end the conflicts that have plagued Israel for 50 years.

“Men of the military know the dilemma,” says Betser, who now manages building projects near Israel’s border with Lebanon. “There is a responsibility and a price involved in war, and someone who has lived through the experiences of war and knows the toll it exacts will do everything in order to prevent it.”

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Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.


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