Postcard From Lebanon

Fawaz A. Gerges is the author of the recently published "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy." He holds the Christian A. Johnson chair in Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College (THE WASHINGTON POST, 17/07/06):

This is a sad city. The smell of war fills the air. There is no talk except war talk. Life has come to a standstill in this vibrant and lively city, built layer upon layer on top of vanished civilizations.

I came from northern New Jersey, where I live in a hamlet called Succasunna, to a suburb 20 minutes from the Beirut city center with my three children three weeks ago. My visit had a dual purpose.

First, I wanted the children to spend the summer with their grandparents, learning Arabic and enjoying themselves. Lebanon is great in the summer: beautiful beaches, spectacular mountains, delicious food.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists, mostly from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, fill its hotels, restaurants, and shopping and entertainment centers. Beirut is the shopping destination of the Arab world, and Lebanon is the most liberal society in the region, with free media, nightclubs, arts and music festivals, and a rowdy political class.

Second, I wanted to interview activists and Islamists for two books I am writing on the making of the Arab world and the jihadist movement. Beirut was my first stop on a 15-month research journey through the region. I never expected to find war in Beirut this summer. I thought that the turmoil was confined to Iraq and Palestine.

The latest round of fighting erupted when Hezbollah, or Party of God, a Shiite resistance group (the United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization), infiltrated the Lebanese-Israeli border and attacked an Israeli military post. Hezbollah fighters killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two.

Israel retaliated by attacking Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, including airports, bridges, seaports, electrical and water plants, communications centers, highways and other targets. It also imposed a full blockade on Lebanon by air, land and sea and sealed it from the rest of the world. More than 100 Lebanese civilians have died, and the numbers are increasing by the hour. Hezbollah struck back by firing rockets deep into northern Israel, hitting the port of Haifa and killing and wounding dozens of civilians and soldiers.

My children have had difficulties sleeping because of the constant presence of warplanes. I assured them that we're safe -- just 20 minutes away from Beirut's international airport, the country's only civil airport, which was shut down by bombing.

The bombing and blockade have sowed fears among Lebanese citizens who have experienced war before and dread its ghosts. Lebanon witnessed a crippling internal conflict that lasted from 1975 until 1990 and nearly tore the country apart. More than 100,000 people died and 200,000 were injured.

Israel became embroiled in Lebanon's affairs and invaded the country in 1982. It occupied a small strip of territories in the south until 2000. The current round of hostilities has its roots in that bloody chapter, which gave birth to Hezbollah and turned it into the most powerful paramilitary non-state actor in the Middle East. Armed and financed by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's military and organizational prowess dwarfs that of Palestinian Hamas.

As the fighting escalated, Beirutis flocked to supermarkets and gas stations to stock up on necessities such as bread and butter and fuel. Food disappeared from the shelves, and gas stations ran out of gas. The supermarkets, usually well stocked, are almost empty.

A neighbor in her seventies, Um Toni, complained to me that she did not find bread, an essential commodity here, in the market."What is going to happen to us?" she asked wearily. There is a real danger that food and fuel shortages, coupled with the blockade, could easily turn into a humanitarian crisis.

People are anxious and fear the worst. With no way in or out of the country, a sense of panic is taking hold. The streets of Beirut, often congested, are deserted. How to survive if the hostilities last longer than a few days? Tens of thousands of tourists find themselves stranded in what appears to be a war zone. Thousands of Lebanese and foreigners fled along one of the few routes left -- through Syria -- before the roads and bridges were destroyed.

Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable in urban warfare. Like other fathers, I am worried about my own children and what to do with them. I cannot afford to take risks with their lives.

The only way out of this predicament is for the international community to resolve the deadlock between Israel and Hezbollah. A U.N. delegation was dispatched to try to broker a cease-fire or at least to prevent further escalation. I hope that the United States and the European Union exert pressure on both sides, particularly Israel, to exercise restraint and refrain from punishing the civilian population.

I feel an extreme sense of urgency, not just as a concerned human being but also as a father. What was supposed to be a vacation has turned into a nightmare.