TEL AVIV (Sep. 15)
Israeli troops and armor entered west Beirut in force last night after the death of President-elect Bashir Gemayel in a bomb blast yesterday was confirmed. A military spokesman said the Israeli forces moved in “to prevent any possible serious incidents and to ensure quiet.”
The spokesman added, “The IDF forces’ entry was accomplished without incident.” But by mid-morning, reports from Beirut said leftwing forces and Palestine Liberation Organization remnants left behind when the PLO evacuated west Beirut last month had opened fire on Israeli troops. The reports spoke of stiff fighting involving tanks, bazooka, mortar and machinegun fire.
Gemayel succumbed to injuries sustained when a massive bomb explosion destroyed the head quarters of his Christian Phalangist Party in east Beirut where he was attending a meeting. Eight other persons were reported dead and at least 50 injured. Initial reports quoted Gemayel’s associates as saying that the 34-year-old Phalangist leader was alive when extricated from the rubble. Apparently, he died in a hospital but this was not confirmed for many hours.
STRONGLY SUPPORTED BY ISRAEL
Gemayel’s rightwing Phalangists were strongly supported by Israel which considered them an ally in the drive to oust PLO and Syrian forces from Lebanon. His election last month to the Presidency, an office he was to have assumed September 23, was hailed in Jerusalem as the forerunner of a strong central government in Beirut. Israeli leaders openly acknowledged that the presence of Israeli forces in Lebanon was in large measure responsible for Gemayel’s election by the Lebanese parliament. There were no rival candidates.
But Premier Menachem Begin was reportedly disappointed when Gemayel appeared to hedge on the matter of an early peace treaty with Israel and said he planned to arrest Maj. Saad Haddad, commander of the Israel-supported Christian militia in south Lebanon, and put him on trial as a deserter.
With Gemayel’s death, it appeared that incumbent President Elias Sarkis will remain in office temporarily. Lebanese government sources said Sarkis could call for new elections before September 23 or could appoint a Presidential Council to exercise executive power until elections are held.
NEW TURMOIL FORESHADOWED
The assassination of Gemayel foreshadowed new turmoil between Lebanon’s Christian minority and Lebanese Moslems. The Moslems themselves are divided. Some were bitterly opposed to Gemayel while others offered him qualified support in the interests of a united Lebanon.
The immediate development was the entry of Israeli troops into the Lebanese capital. They had been withdrawn from the immediate area of Beirut recently after Syrian and PLO forces left west Beirut under the supervision of a multinational force that included some 800 marines. They and the French and Italian forces which comprised the multinational force have since left.
According to reports from Beirut today, some Israeli troops were landed from large transport aircraft at Beirut international Airport last night and others pushed into the city by road from three directions. Israeli troops were said to have occupied areas of the city they had previously kept away from, including the main hotels and the sections housing foreign embassies. They also took over buildings occupied until a month ago by El Fatah and other PLO branches.
While their ground forces advanced, Israeli war planes made low passes over the city but did not drop bombs or open fire. At the same time, recently removed barricades were re-erected separating the Christian eastern sector from Moslem west Beirut.
The decision to send Israeli troops into west Beirut was taken by Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon after midnight last night, shortly after news of Gemayel’s death was known.
Sharon himself was in Beirut shortly after dawn, as Israeli soldiers began landing at the international airport south of the city and fanning out through the western sector of the city, advancing slowly but carefully along the main streets and taking up positions at important road crossings.
Sharon later called at the residence of the Gemayel family in a village outside Beirut, to express his, condolences and those of the Israel government. According to a press report, Sharon also attended the funeral of Bashir Gemayel, but no confirmation of his presence at that ceremony was available here.
Begin sent cables of condolence to Pierre Gemayel, founder of the Phalangist party, and to the slain leader’s widow. He denounced the assassination as “This dastardly crime” and spoke of the “depth of my shock.” He praised Gemayel as “a brave fighter and true Lebanese patriot.”
Foreign Minister Shamir noted, in a brief statement, that the murder of Gemayel was “a heavy blow to the efforts to rehabilitate and re-unite Lebanon…a criminal act perpetrated by those elements which seek to prevent the independence of Lebanon.”
TENSIONS AND CONTROVERSIES
Meanwhile, all of Lebanon was gripped by tension and new controversies arose in Israel in the aftermath of developments in Beirut. Israeli and Syrian forces stepped up their alerts in the central and eastern sectors of the country, particularly in the Bekao Valley where Israeli and Syrian forces have clashed recently.
In south Lebanon, curfews were imposed in the coastal town of Sidon and in villages throughout the area. Road traffic was halted in the south and on the main Beirut-Damascus highway. Haddad’s militiamen were assisting in enforcement of the curfews.
In Israel, Minister of Science and Development Yuval Neeman, head of the ultra-nationalist Tehiya party, claimed that Gemayel’s murder confirmed the need for permanent Israeli control of south Lebanon. But Shimon Peres, chairman of the opposition Labor Party, said Israeli troops should be withdrawn immediately from west Beirut. He suggested that an international force be sent in if necessary to prevent a renewal of civil war in Lebanon.
Peres also maintained that the Likud government erred by putting too much trust in Gemayel to restore peace and tranquility in Lebanon. The left-wing Shinui party and the Peace Now movement issued separate calls for an Israeli withdrawal from the Beirut area and from all of Lebanon as soon as possible.