It was a lovely spring afternoon. Warm sun glinted off the Mediterranean. Shoppers crowded the malls. Streets were filled with Range Rovers and BMWs.
Suddenly, there was a sound like an enormous clap of thunder. As motorists jammed on their brakes and pedestrians froze in their tracks, a nearby hilltop erupted in flame and smoke as Israeli warplanes scored their second bull’s eye in two days on a major Lebanese power station.
Besides knocking out electricity to the capital and creating a huge column of black smoke visible for miles, Monday’s airstrike underscored Israel’s willingness to target Lebanon’s economy in its five-day-old campaign to curb rocket attacks against Israeli civilians by Shiite Muslim guerrillas operating from southern Lebanon, some 40 miles south of the capital.
Israel wants the governments of Lebanon and Syria to put a stop to the rocket attacks by Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed group, which includes a political party and a well-armed militia, is fighting to eject Israeli troops from the portion of southern Lebanon that Israel occupies as what it calls its “security zone.”
Syria keeps 35,000 troops in Lebanon and has final say on major government decisions, including movement to and from southern Lebanon through the Bekaa Valley. In addition, Damascus, the Syrian capital, is reported to be a key transit point for Iranian aid earmarked for Hezbollah.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres has vowed that Israel will continue its campaign until the rocket attacks cease. Peres, who faces re-election next month, is under intense political pressure to crack down on terrorism following Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 59 victims in February and March.
So far, however, Hezbollah has remained defiant, launching daily rocket barrages across the border, including more on Monday. Its television station broadcast a program Sunday night in which 50 potential suicide bombers marched around with explosives strapped to their chests.
After earlier warning residents to leave southern Lebanon, Israel continued to pound the area Monday with artillery, and its helicopter gunships attacked a Hezbollah neighborhood in southern Beirut. Several people were wounded, hospital officials said.
The Israeli campaign has displaced an estimated 400,000 people from southern Lebanon - roughly one-tenth of the country’s population - and killed about 30 people, most of them civilians, according to unofficial Lebanese counts.
Fearing the effects of continued Israeli attacks on Lebanon’s fragile recovery from 17 years of civil war, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri traveled to Paris to appeal for help from President Jacques Chirac, who sent his foreign minister to the region to try to broker a cease-fire.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright tried to block any resolution emerging from what was shaping up to be a late-night meeting of the U.N. Security Council at Lebanon’s request.
Britain was backing up the U.S. desire to contain the talks to the bilateral level, said a British official.
Both U.S. and British officials said there were too many differences of opinion about the causes and remedy of the clash between Israel and its neighbors to find a solution at the United Nations.
Although Israel staged an assault for similar reasons in 1993, the current campaign is different in that it has included repeated airstrikes on Hezbollah strongholds in the capital itself, evoking grim memories of the Israeli invasion of 1982.
“Just hearing a few bangs, the anti-aircraft, it was frightening to me,” Nasser Safieddine, an adviser to the minister of tourism. “The whole thing came back.”
Beirut was beginning to get over its violent past. The economy had recorded its first three consecutive years of growth in 30 years, according to Marwan Iskander, an economist and adviser to Hariri. Foreign investors were coming back.
Tourism also has been showing signs of recovery. Air France recently increased weekly flights to Beirut from five to eight, a new Marriott Hotel is due to open at the end of the month, and new floodlights have been installed at the spectacular Roman and other ruins of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, according to Safieddine.
The targeting of Beirut’s electricity supply - a huge substation at Jumhour on the city’s outskirts was hit Sunday - is especially disheartening to residents who had only just begun getting used to having electricity on a 24-hour-a-day basis. Monday night, much of the city was in darkness.
“It’s been fixed, and now we’re back five years,” said Wael Soueid, 28, a manager at the newly rebuilt Commodore Hotel, where 30 percent of the lights had been turned off to avoid draining the hotel’s emergency power supply. “It’s very bad for morale. … It will affect everything.”
Also ratcheting up the pressure on Hariri’s government is the tide of refugees that has swept into the capital from the south in recent days.
A government official noted that during Israel’s 1993 offensive, many refugees sought shelter with relatives in mostly Shiite southern Beirut. But this time, he said, the refugees are afraid to stay there because of repeated Israeli airstrikes. So the government has had to house them in schools.