Sad, but necessary

Israel had to make its point. It should now listen to George Bush, and exercise restraint.

I have no doubt that Israel was right to react to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers. For some time now, the Israelis have acted with great self-restraint in response to huge provocation from various groups allied to the Palestinian cause. In the end, something was bound to give, and the likes of Hezbollah knew that.

Israel has a new prime minister, a man with no military background. There are bound to be suspicions that this week's bombing of Lebanon was, at least in part, an attempt by Ehud Olmert to prove his hardline credentials to the Israeli military - and the wider population. He wouldn't be human if there were not an element of that in his mind, though it might well be buried deep in his subconscious.

But whatever the real reason, he was right to take action. Not least because, if he had not done so, it would have been interpreted by Israel's enemies as a sign of weakness and encouraged Hezbollah to take further hostages.

The key for the Israeli prime minister now is to determine what is a proportionate response and what is not.

Friends of mine, who know far more about Israel than I do, are convinced that the soldier kidnapped a few weeks ago is already dead. For all we know the same fate has befallen the latest two victims. If so, then the Middle East is about to enter a new phase of carnage and retribution at a time when the region already resembles a giant fusebox.

Memories of August 1914 keep coming to me. A world war started by a bizarre killing in Sarajevo. Could Hezbollah have started a massive new conflict by kidnapping two anonymous Israeli soldiers? It hardly bears thinking about.

I have no doubt that the White House will be urging the Israeli government to exercise restraint. Condi Rice will be telling them that they've made their point, and that further destruction and heavy military strikes would be counter-productive.

But her discussions with the Lebanese would be far more interesting. For the newly elected and very shaky Lebanese government is in a real quandary. It contains members of Hezbollah - one in its Cabinet - yet it does not control them. Indeed, you could argue that it is even less able to control Hezbollah than the Palestinian Authority is able to control the radicals and terrorists who operate within its jurisdiction. A further complication is that the Lebanese government is heavily influenced by the Syrians. And it is they who could prove key to this unfortunate situation. This is not a comforting thought for anyone.

My thoughts on this terrible situation are also influenced by a visit I made to Lebanon some 15 years ago, not long after the British hostages had been freed. Indeed, I was told during my visit to Beirut that I was the first Brit to have ventured there following John McCarthy's release, a bit of a coincidence as John McCarthy lived in the next village to me in Essex. Had I know this before my trip, I suspect I might well have chickened out of going.

The reason for my trip was equally bizarre. I was working as transport lobbyist at the time, specialising in various forms of transport privatisation. I got a call from the Foreign Office asking if I would be interested in speaking at a conference on the subject in the Middle East, as no one in the Department of Transport could go. Never having been to that part of the world before, I was naturally rather keen to go.

"Where is it being held?" I asked.

"Er, Beirut," came the response. I began to understand why Department of Transport diaries were strangely full. But my own curiosity and sense of adventure got the better of me and, a few weeks later, I was travelling to the Lebanese capital courtesy of a first-class ticket of Middle Eastern Airlines. "This is the life," I thought to myself.

I had been told by the Foreign Office that when I got off the plane I would be met by officials from the British Embassy, and that I wasn't to talk to or go off with anyone but them. When I started descending the rather rickety steps, all I could see were Lebanese army soldiers surrounding the plane toting AK47s. It was at that point I began to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all.

When I got to the bottom of the steps, a black Mercedes with darkened windows pulled up. A man wearing sunglasses got out, approached me and said: "Mr Dale? You come with me."

"No," I said. "I'm being collected by the British Embassy" . "Mr Dale, you come with me," he repeated in a manner that seemed rather determined. Being a complete coward, I got in the car and travelled a couple of hundred yards to a shed where he demanded my passport.

Eventually I gave up asking where the British embassy officials were and decided that doing what I was told was the best way forward. Once the passport formalities were completed, he told me he would take me to my hotel, which was about half an hour's drive away. I knew that the airport road was not exactly the safest part of Beirut, but I wasn't in much of a position to argue.

On the way to the hotel I had a running commentary of all the people who had been killed or kidnapped on this road. Just what I needed. The whole area seemed to resemble Dresden after a bombing raid. Rubble everywhere, people nowhere. As we approached Beirut itself, it was quite clear that this had once been a truly beautiful place.

The hotel was comfortable, if not luxurious. But, looking out of the reception window, it was impossible to ignore the armed guards who surrounded its perimeter.

At last I heard the sound of British voices. I turned round and saw four khaki-dressed soldiers approaching. They apologised for missing me at the airport and asked if I was ready.

"Ready for what?" I asked.

"You're guest of honour at a dinner at the British embassy in an hour," they informed me.

"Nice of someone to tell me," I thought.

I have to admit I am not the kind of person who is used to embassy dinners or cocktail parties. Indeed, I had never been to one before, and haven't been to another one since. But it's not the dinner that sticks in my mind from that memorable day. It is the 45-minute drive from the hotel to the embassy.

We were in a convoy of two armed Land Rovers, each with soldiers almost hanging out of the windows, carrying guns. We drove at breakneck speed through down Beirut, up into the hills.

I did wonder if it was such a good idea to have a Union Jack flying from the front of each Land Rover but didn't like to say anything.

We got to the embassy and negotiated the 200 yards long chicane of concrete blocks, which I think was supposed to protect the building from suicide bombers. I arrived to be greeted by the ambassador, and his wife, who had invited a selection of local businesspeople and journalists to meet me.

The next day I spoke at the Transport Privatisation conference, which was being shown live on TV throughout the Middle East and, therefore, informing every terrorist organisation in the region that a new Brit was in their midst. Thankfully I wasn't told that until I was about to leave. The speech went well and I then had the best part of a day to myself. I had been told I wasn't to set foot outside the hotel without ringing the embassy and getting their permission, and a guard.

They provided me with a driver for a visit I to the port area. I was shown round by the port manager, whose English was only slightly worse than my French. They were still trying to clear the harbour area of wreckage so the port could start to function again properly.

On the way back, I tried to ask my driver where I could buy some souvenirs. Feeling quite proud of making myself understood in French, I was horrified when I found him driving off the main road through some backstreets. He understood I needed to change some dollars but the first place we went t couldn't do it.

I then found myself walking down the main shopping street in Beirut behind this man, feeling rather conspicuous in my western suit. All eyes were on me; well at least I thought they were. I changed some money and bought a few vases, and then scarpered back to the hotel.

But the best part of the trip was yet to come. One of the organisers of the conference asked if I would like a tour of the countryside surrounding Beirut. I said I didn't think the embassy would allow me to, but I he managed to persuade me (the follies of youth), and I spent the next two hours in his company, being driven round the mountains and valleys that surround Beirut. He even took me to meet his family.

And that was a rather long-winded way of explaining why, although I understand and agree with what Israel has had to in the last few days, I weep for Beirut and for Lebanon. The country has spent fifteen years trying to recover form the ravages of the 1970s and 1980s. It has elected a democratic government and its fragile economy is slowly being rebuilt. Beirut has transformed itself from a pile of rubble into a city that can again attract tourists and investment. Western airlines continue to increase the frequency of their flights, a sure sign that recovery is underway.

But the bombing of the airport's three runways, the destruction of key roads and bridges, and the blockade of its ports, will have done immense harm to the country's recovery. The people I met were all very optimistic about their country's future, and desperate to play their part in its rebuilding. They wanted to break free from Syrian domination. Above all, they wanted democracy.

So the fact that all this has been placed in jeopardy, at a time when that recovery was at its strongest, is a very bitter pill to swallow, both for those in Lebanon and those of us outside who wish it well.

But the Lebanese have a choice to make now. Either they can allow their country to be taken over by another generation of militant zealots, or they can fight them. I hope they choose the latter course of action.

But the Israelis have a choice to make too. They can take George Bush's advice and exercise restraint, having understandably, and rightly, made their point in a very direct manner. Or they can squeeze the democratic life out of a country that doesn't deserve it, and unwittingly help the very militant forces they wish to destroy.