Almost before we had seen them, two of the helicopters - American-made Apaches - turned over the seafront and there was a sullen pop-popping sound like a toy gun and two small puffs of white smoke rising from the southern suburbs of Beirut - the canyons of high-rise apartment blocks and narrow streets in which many of the Hizbollah leadership live. Their target, the Israelis would claim later, was the "operational nerve-centre" of the Hizbollah - although the organisation's headquarters later emerged apparently untouched.
There were few Lebanese who did not believe that Shimon Peres' battle to convince Israeli electors on 29 May that he can strike at what he calls "Islamic terror" lay behind the appearance of those helicopters over Beirut. Israel's long-expected blitz left at least four dead and six wounded across Lebanon. Mounting casualties among Israel's occupation troops in southern Lebanon and repeated Hizbollah missile retaliation on Galilee for the Israeli shelling of civilians inside Lebanon meant that the "red line" which had for so long restrained the Israelis from attacking Beirut would almost certainly be crossed.
Yet when it was crossed, it took less than a minute for Beirut to melt back into the wartime nightmare that so many Lebanese thought had ended. Panic-stricken motorists, their headlights blazing, hands clamped on the horn, blasted their way through the traffic jams. An ambulance, careering up on to the pavement, siren screaming, swept past us with a carload of armed men behind it. In the Sahel hospital, a young man with his face bathed in blood was surrounded by television crews. "I was walking in the street and all I remember is a flash and then I found myself covered in blood," he said.
And the gunmen were back in the southern suburbs, bearded Hizbollah men with American M-16 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, kitted out in webbing and camouflage jackets and captured Israeli helmets. Even the Lebanese radios reverted to their wartime role of endless news bulletins interspersed with the haunting laments of Fairuz, that most famous of Lebanese singers, whose voice is forever linked to the horror of the 16-year conflict that was supposed to have ended.
The news was all bad: a 27-year old woman killed in her car by a missile- firing helicopter near the Jiye power station, south of Beirut; a civilian killed in an air raid in the inland town of Nabatea; a 60-year-old man cut down by the Beirut rockets. The raids were in retaliation, said the bulletins, for the Katyusha attacks on Israel, which were retaliation for the killing of a 14-year-old Lebanese boy, which might have been retaliation for a suicide bombing against Israeli troops, which was retaliation for ... It was like listening to The House that Jack Built.
When I called an old friend on his mobile telephone in the southern city of Tyre, he just had time to tell me that Israeli Apache and Huey helicopters were hovering over the city. "They're mounting mobile checkpoints in the air," he said. "They're watching everything that moves." Then the line went dead. The lines went dead all over Lebanon, just like the peace of Beirut that expired yesterday morning. By early afternoon, it was turning into a ghost city, its streets largely deserted, its restaurants empty.
When I drove into the southern suburbs at dusk, the only men standing on the street corners were armed. The Hizbollah's green-painted central offices - supposedly the "nerve-centre" which the Israelis said they had attacked - stood apparently unharmed. But in a dingy office where a Donald Duck cartoon was playing on a miniature television, a bearded man close to the Hizbollah announced quietly to me that the Israelis had crossed a red line. When the Israelis killed civilians, the Hizbollah fired back into Israel. He blamed the Israelis for the death of a boy in Bradchit village at the weekend.
"But there is a balance of terror now," he went on. "The Israelis used to hold the balance. Now it is shifting to the resistance. Hitting civilians is crossing a red line for our resistance forces. This has nothing to do with targeting military headquarters.
"I tell you this: the hand of the resistance is long and is capable of hurting the enemy. We have an expression here - that we and the Israelis are biting each other's fingers. The biting of fingers has begun and we shall see who screams first."
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