Obituary: Chafic Wazzan

ON THE morning of 25 June 1982, Chafic Wazzan almost broke down before the world's press. Shouting against the roar of Israeli jets as they flew over west Beirut to bomb the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camps, he was weeping with rage.

For days, he had been trying to negotiate with the American government for the PLO's departure from Israeli-besieged Beirut. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, had just urged the Palestinians to "go terrorist . . . because we have to face American terrorism, Israeli terrorism". Wazzan's face was an expression of contempt as he stood beside Jumblatt. "Every time we reach some kind of understanding [about a PLO surrender], we run into a new escalation, as if it is designed to pressure us," he said, his voice breaking. "I have informed President Sarkis that I cannot continue shouldering my responsibilities under this blackmail and escalation."

Chafic Wazzan was an unlikely as well as an unhappy prime minister of Lebanon. History - rather than ambition - had thrust him before the television lights on that swelteringly hot, dangerous day 17 years ago.

Born under the French mandate to a family of Sunni Muslim merchants, he underwent a typical middle-class education: study at the private Sunni Makassed college then a law degree at the Christian Saint Joseph University in 1947. He entered the Beirut courts as a lawyer the same year, became secretary of the Islamic Council - he saw himself as a representative of the country's large Sunni community - and won a parliamentary seat in 1968. A year later, he was minister of justice.

But the Lebanese civil war, which began in 1975, broke Lebanon into its constituent parts. While nominally representing the nation, government ministers found themselves representing religious factions. Within a year of the outbreak of the conflict, Wazzan had helped to found the Islamic Grouping, an umbrella organisation of Sunni personalities. And it was the total collapse of the body politic - there had been no Lebanese government for 137 days - that persuaded President Sarkis to appoint Wazzan prime minister in 1980. Sarkis, an uninspiring technocrat who had been elected with Syrian support four years earlier, could not have expected the diminutive Wazzan to show such mettle when the Israelis arrived at the gates of Beirut.

Since 1970, the PLO had operated as mini-governments in the great refugee camps of Lebanon, although a ceasefire in 1980 had prevented cross-border fighting between Palestinians and Israelis. But in 1982, the Israelis claimed - quite wrongly - that an assassination attempt against their ambassador in London had been ordered by Yasser Arafat, and commenced to bomb large areas of Lebanon, including Beirut.

An anti-Arafat faction led by Abu Nidal (who was working for the Iraqis) had in fact tried to kill the diplomat. But the PLO responded to the Israeli attack by firing Katyusha rockets over the frontier, and on 6 June 1982 the Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon advanced across the border with 20,000 Israeli troops in an effort - to use the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin's words - "to root out the evil weed of the PLO".

In reality, the US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, had given Begin the green light for his invasion some weeks earlier; it now seems clear that Israel intended to destroy the PLO so that it could proceed unhindered with its massive Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian West Bank in the years to come. Within a week, the Israelis had surrounded most of the PLO forces - and Arafat - in West Beirut.

Wazzan suddenly found himself at the centre of negotiations between the two sides, between an increasingly resentful and defiant PLO chairman and the most right-wing administration in Israeli history - represented, as usual, by the United States government - for a PLO withdrawal from Beirut.

On one terrible night, as Wazzan and Arafat talked of a PLO retreat, a car bomb exploded 500 yards from the prime minister's office, killing four pedestrians. At the beginning of August, after nine hours of sustained Israeli bombing of the camps and with mile-high clouds of smoke and dust drifting over Beirut, Wazzan appealed desperately to President Ronald Reagan and to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to intervene. They were silent.

I came across Wazzan on the steps of his office that evening. "If the Israelis want to kill us all, let them do it and let's get it over and done with," he shouted. "We have offered all the concessions requested from us for the PLO evacuation and we have even reached the stage of defining the PLO's departure routes. Then we have this . . . Enough is enough!"

But it was not. American, French and Italian troops arrived in Beirut. The PLO left and so did Arafat - in Wazzan's black, bullet-proof limousine - for an American-escorted fleet of ships which scattered them around the Arab world. Then the Lebanese Christian president-elect was assassinated and the Israelis invaded West Beirut - against the signed promise of the United States - and surrounded the Sabra and Chatila camps. They sent their brutal Christian militia allies into the camps and for three days allowed them to kill up to 2,000 civilians, most of them Palestinians, many of them Sunni Muslims.

Even after the US, French and Italian armies had returned to Beirut to protect the survivors, Wazzan found himself forced to negotiate a "peace" treaty with the Israeli occupiers - the so-called 17 May accord - which notionally provided for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon but included a number of humiliating clauses: the Israelis would be allowed to keep military outposts in southern Lebanon, for example, and their gruesome militias would have to be merged into the weak Lebanese army. Besides, the Syrians, who themselves had 22,000 troops in Lebanon, did not trust Israel and had no intention of pulling their own soldiers out.

The Lebanese parliament approved the accord but the new president, Amin Gemayel, never signed it. Israel organised its own chaotic partial withdrawal, the Americans and French were suicide-bombed by their Muslim enemies and Wazzan earned the disdain of his countrymen, not least his fellow Muslims. Indeed, he was for a time boycotted by Muslim leaders in Beirut. Approaching Gemayel with his resignation on 4 February 1984, Wazzan told him: "I hope - rather I insist - that you accept it immediately."

But Beirut is usually kind to its old public servants and Wazzan, battling against severe diabetes and heart disease, continued to speak out on Arab issues, against Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and for religious tolerance and unity in Lebanon. When he died, another wartime prime minister, Selim el-Hoss, was among the first to pay a visit of condolences to the family home. Lebanon observed three days of national mourning. President Emile Lahoud called him "one of the great men of this nation who spent his life in the service of his country". Chafic Wazzan had lived just long enough to hear a new Israeli prime minister promise to withdraw the very last Israeli troops from Lebanon within a year.

Chafic Dib Wazzan, lawyer and politician: born Beirut 1925; Prime Minister of Lebanon 1980-84; married 1953 Wahija Arris (one son, one daughter); died Beirut 8 July 1999.

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