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In Beirut, those who can are getting out

Tourists flee as nervous locals hunker down amid growing sense of dread
At this time of year Beirut’s cafes and shops should be teeming with tourists. They're not.
At this time of year Beirut’s cafes and shops should be teeming with tourists. They're not.Mahmoud Tawil / AP
/ Source: news services

American tourist Michael Frantel had decided it was time to leave less than 24 hours after starting his vacation in Lebanon. But as he stood at the check-in desk at Beirut’s airport, Israeli airstrikes smashed the runways outside.

The airport closed, and Frantel and his two friends had to return to their Beirut hotel Thursday — joining Lebanese in dreading what would come next in Israel’s offensive.

“It was a little bit frightening,” said Frantel, a 20-year-old student from Ridgewood, N.J. “The explosions were pretty close, and you could feel them.”

Beirut streets were largely empty at the height of the summer season, when the capital is usually thriving with tourists and locals packing shops and street cafes. On the Hamra thoroughfare, owners stood bored and worried outside their empty boutiques.

At one bank, the employees who decided to show up were distracted by TV images of Israeli shelling of Lebanese villages on the second day of Israel’s bombardment, triggered by Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers.

A much-awaited concert that Lebanon’s diva Fairouz was to hold in the ancient ruins of Baalbek on Thursday night was indefinitely postponed after the city — a Hezbollah stronghold — came under Israeli attack.

Rush for supplies
The only places that saw crowds were supermarkets — where shoppers mobbed to stock up on canned food, water and bread — and gas stations, where lines stacked up amid rumors of fuel shortages.

Those tourists who could were taking the only way out possible: by land to Syria. Cars belonging to a travel company were seen leaving mountain resorts like Bhamdoun, a favorite with Kuwaitis and Saudis, and heading for the border in droves.

Taxi fares from Beirut to Damascus jumped to $300 from an average of $60 on the strength of demand.

At the Lebanon-Syrian Masnaa border crossing, dozens of cars lined up outside the Lebanese passport control. Many had Kuwaiti and Saudi license plates, but the majority bore Lebanese ones, suggesting that some of Lebanon’s 4 million people were also fleeing.

Hotels that were packed only days before “are being vacated,” said Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis. “There’s a flight from Lebanon.”

‘We’re weeping inside’
Lebanese hoping to be reunited with family members who live abroad, as they do every summer, were bitterly disappointed when the airport closed.

“We’re weeping inside,” Muhammad Abed said as he puffed on a pipe outside his store that sells traditional artifacts to tourists. “It wasn’t the right time for such an operation,” he said of Hezbollah’s snatching the Israeli soldiers.

“Business was just picking up. We were hoping for an excellent summer, but now look at this,” added Abed, pointing to hotel porters across the street loading the luggage of Persian Gulf tourists into two cars.

The violence brought to the Lebanese bitter memories of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war and a sense of dread that the Israeli offensive could degenerate into another round of internal strife.

“We are scared and worried about what the future holds,” said Roger Assaf, a 34-year-old accountant.

Split sympathies
The crisis came at a time of deep divisions over international pressure to disarm Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah may get a boost from supporters in resisting the pressure. But the split between the supporters and opponents of Syria, Lebanon’s former power broker, could be aggravated by the Israeli offensive and lead to the anti-Syrian government’s collapse.

Syria will be the biggest winner if that happens. Damascus has been uncomfortable with the status quo since the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria had to withdraw its troops after a 29-year military presence in its tiny neighbor, and a U.N. investigation has implicated some of its top officials in the assassination.

A new Lebanese Cabinet will likely be more sympathetic toward Damascus and could work to stop the U.N. investigation into Hariri’s murder, a main source of pressure on Syria.

On Thursday, Hezbollah tried to rally Lebanese, sending cars around streets playing marching music. Its Al-Manar TV station highlighted the militant Shiite group’s rocket attacks into Israel in urgent flashes.

Taleb Dakroub spoke passionately about his support for Hezbollah, saying its snatching of the soldiers was the only way to win the release of Arab prisoners in Israeli jails.

But as the 60-year-old driver steered his taxi in Beirut, a news flash on the radio reported an Israeli missile hit Al-Manar TV studios in the southern suburbs.

Suddenly, Dakroub’s smile disappeared. He slammed a fist against the steering wheel as his eyes welled with tears.

“My son and his wife work at the station,” he said, his voice choking, not knowing that there were no casualties in the attack.

Did he still support Hezbollah’s action?

“Yes,” he said. “There’s no other way.”