IMAGES of a ravaged country drift before our eyes via television. Homeless adults confront the remains of shelled-out dwellings, abandoned children wander, uncomprehending and terrified; thick black smoke distorts once beautiful skylines. Such are the results of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a foray that has left the Jewish state seemingly, more isolated than ever before. For the first time since its creation in 1948, Israel is the outright initiator of a conflict designed to garner security, not survival.
For Jews the world over, the war in Lebanon has entailed anguished soul-searching. Isolation is nothing new to Israel, but doubt about the moral foundation of its actions is. Already troubled by the increased violence in the occupied territories and the quasi-annexation of the West Bank, many Jews as well as Gentiles wonder if the destruction in Lebanon can be justified.
There is much to be dismayed-even horrified-about. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent civilians killed, and thousands more made homeless. Evasions, even lies, by the Israeli government, which at first claimed to seek a 25 mile "buffer zone" cleansed of the PLO only to march all the way to Beirut. And the siege of the Lebanese capital itself, trapping civilians as well as Palestinian guerrillas without food and water.
Yet somewhere, a jarring note sounds. As grievance piles upon grievance, the anti-Israeli rhetoric becomes venomous, hateful. In at all too typical example, the Village Voice compared Israel's invasion of Lebanon to the Nazi advances in Eastern Europe at the start of World War II. Such analogies are dead wrong and repugnant. The terrible waste of life and destruction notwithstanding, justification for the fight undertaken by Israel can be easily found.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin may have made a tragic diplomatic error in Lebanon: support in the United States, the most crucial of Israel's allies, has never been weaker. But the history of the Middle East since 1948 shows Israel constantly striving for peace, only to be rebuffed time and again by the Arabs.
Somehow, most have forgotten that the PLO's charter calls for the "extermination" of Israel "economically, politically, militarily, culturally and ideologically." Not surprisingly then, Israel remains reluctant to accept a PLO-run state on its doorstep. The Palestinians can expect little from Israel until they abandon their desire to "push the Jews into the Sea" and advocate a peaceful co-existence.
Few bother to recall the gruesome civil war inflicted on the Lebanese by the PLO when it established itself in Lebanon nearly a decade ago. By adding its muscle to the forces of Moslem extremists, the PLO helped topple an already fragile coalition government of Christians and Moslem moderates. In 1975 and 1976, 50,000 people, most of them civilians, died in Lebanon.
THE PLO'S use of Lebanon as a base from which to launch rocket attacks and terrorist missions on Israel is also conveniently over-looked. Critics of the Israeli invasion claim that the PLO has adhered to last year's cease fire. Yet several PLO commando raids have since been thwarted. More important, Israeli military strategists were shocked at the number and sophistication of weapons held by Palestinians captured in Lebanon.
As to the alleged Israel brutality in Lebanon, a large dosage of myth is mixed in with a small portion of fact. While the siege of Beirut can be deplored, the military did drop leaflets on the city for days prior to the encirclement warning civilians of the imminent danger and suggesting that they leave. Nor should it be overlooked that the PLO builds its military bases in areas with the highest concentration of civilians. Or that Arafat and Co. use schools and the United Nations-sponsored refugee camps as weapons depots and training camps for terrorists. As a PLO official once explained: "We mix in our bases with the general populace for good reason; when the Israelis attack us, civilians inevitably die and the world feels sorry for us."
In short, Israel is the victim of a perverse double standard. When the Hews assert their right to a secure homeland, the world calls them "war-mongers" and "Nazis." When the PLO tries to destroy Israel through terrorism, other nations sympathize with a people who "just wants a place to call home."
Ultimately, the Palestinians must and will get a homeland. They have a distinct culture and heritage. But like the Israelis, they are victims. They paid a horrendous price when the Arabs refused to go along with the U.N. partition in 1948. And they continue to live a wretched, tragic existence because of the PLO refusal to accept Israel's determined survival.
LEBANON is the result of years of frustration. Tired of being denied a reasonably secure existence, Israelis have finally taken to the offensive. This does not mean that their actions should be condoned without question. But the invasion of Lebanon can at least be understood.
Some Americans have speculated that the new balance of power in the Middle East will pave the way for a lasting peace in Lebanon. For the immediate future, such an outcome seems highly unlikely. The Lebanese remain so divided-even without the presence of the PLO. Syria and Israel-that the possibility of a stable government is remote.
Still, Israel is now in a position of strength. If the PLO can some-how be convinced to recognize Israel and abandon terrorism, Menachem Begin will have a unique opportunity to display the courage of benevolence. First, he will have to renounce the ideal of a "Great Israel" that would incorporate the occupied territories. Then, he must sit at the negotiating table with a demilitarized PLO, which, for all its disunity, still constitutes the closest thing to a legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people.
Such steps hold out no guarantee for peace. But the Palestinians and Israelis must start somewhere. Some friends of Israelis must start somewhere. Some friends of Israel believe that the Palestinians will never, in their hearts, accept a Jewish state in Palestine. Yet Germans and French, Chinese and Japanese, Mexicans and Americans have overcome their once insurmountable differences. Palestinians and Jews also have much to gain from peaceful coexistence.