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Israelis warm toward Sinai; West Bank leaves them cold

From Tel Aviv, it takes comfortably less than an hour to reach the heart of the occupied West Bank. Yet for many Israelis, the two dozen miles might just as well be 2,000.

The West Bank seems, in the Israeli mind, a faraway, alien, increasingly hostile place. The unrest there is a genuine worry, but a somewhat unreal one. Distant. Almost like background noise.

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True, the latest West Bank trouble has at least briefly reinvigorated Israel's ''peace now'' movement, a motley group of voices urging Israeli-Palestinian entente that emerged in the fertile political environment following Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem. Yet ''peace now,'' however dedicated, however genuinely upset by developments on the West Bank, is a small minority within Israel.

Many more Israelis, no doubt, sympathize with ''peace now.'' Still more, no matter what their political colors, may feel uncomfortable with the concept of an increasingly violent Israeli-Arab struggle for political control of the occupied territory.

Yet it is all a question of priority. Although the West Bank makes headlines overseas and Prime Minister Menachem Begin unceasingly portrays the territory as a crucial and inseparable slice of biblical Israel, ordinary Israelis nowadays seem less preoccupied with occupation on the West Bank than with the end of occupation in a more distant, more empty chunk of land called Sinai.

In just about every way, Sinai was a nicer place for Israel to occupy than is the West Bank. Sinai was, is, enormous by Israeli standards. The area made Israelis, traditionally prey to national claustrophobia, feel as though they lived in a big country.

Better, Sinai had relatively few people in it. What people it did have, Egyptians or Palestinians or Bedouin, were much more sparsely scattered than in the densely inimical West Bank. Israelis could drive through Sinai without really feeling they were traversing land captured from, and still inhabited by, sworn foes.

And there were the beaches; the Jewish outposts, more resorts than settlements, along the rivetingly beautiful Red Sea shoreline; the coral reefs; the technicolor fishes; the scorching, lazy days in what Israelis adopted as a southern playground.

Thus many Israelis seem to see final withdrawal from Sinai as a substantial loss of freedom and joie de vivre. This is not to say they necessarily reject the idea, as a price of peace with Egypt, although some do. It just isn't a very nice feeling.

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The way Israelis think about Sinai, as opposed to the West Bank, may demonstrate better than any opinion poll the psychological and emotional toll the West Bank occupation has taken on the nation. Immediately after the 1967 war , Israelis streamed into the West Bank -- Judea and Samaria as they call it. They drove. They gawked. They visited puzzle pieces of their biblical heritage.

In more recent years most Israelis would much sooner head south for a Sinai interlude than venture into the alien, oddly faraway, oddly uncomfortable West Bank.

Revisiting Beirut was worth it, if only for the puzzled look elicited by my request for a tourist visa to this city of sea, sun, and car bombs.

The car bombs are the most frightening thing that has happened in a long time in a capital used to frightening things. Like West Bank unrest for Israelis, the normal fare of gunfire bursts, occasional artillery duels, and the odd Israeli bombing strike have long since become background noise.

After nearly two years in the world outside Beirut, I had surprisingly little trouble relearning a nonchalance toward the nighttime echo of bullet bursts. But car bombs, Beirut style, are something else.

They began in earnest a few months back. The pattern is to pack an automobile with explosives and detonate the package on a crowded street at a bustling hour. The targets are unclear. The intention seems simply to terrify, an aim utterly well accomplished.

''Of course, the boys are scared,'' one Beirut friend replied when asked how his sons reacted to the bombings.

''We just tell them that these are bad people, but that they don't want to hurt children. They don't do bad things to schools or places like that. . . .

''What else can we tell them?''

What, I asked, about finally leaving Lebanon.

The answer, typically, no matter whom one talks to, goes something like this: My life is in Lebanon. This place is special for me. My life, my family's life, is here. Besides, we haven't left through all the other troubles. We live our lives, differently than before perhaps. . . .

The idea must seem strange to anyone who has never been to Beirut. I remember the first question I would be asked during breaks from my three-year stay here during the turbulent years from l977 through l980: Why don't more Lebanese leave? How can they go on living amid gunfire?

What I have always found strange is why so many thousands of Lebanese have summoned the utterly un-Lebanese ability to leave. Gunfire or not, Lebanon and Beirut remain very special places -- wrenchingly beautiful, illogically easygoing, and -- with apologies for sounding a little like a tourist brochure -- an odd and abidingly unique mix of East and West, Arab and European, Muslim and Christian.

(The problem, of course, is that these very contrasts, plus yawning gaps between rich and poor and the spillover from the Arab-Israeli conflict, guarantee that living in Lebanon will involve bombs and bullets for a long time to come.)

Yet Beirut, for the foreigner, can be addictive. I went back for the birthday party of an old friend, violating a vow to stay clear of the obvious dangers of Beirut. On the way in from the airport, through Syrian Army checkpoints, past the antiaircraft emplacements, amid buildings either shelled into ruin or pockmarked by small-arms fire, I told myself I had been crazy to return. Two days later, on departure, I almost wondered why I was leaving.

Perhaps the magnet of Beirut is the feeling of oneness among people who have lived through particularly horrible things together without becoming particularly horrible people. This applies to many people, perhaps even most, in Lebanon.

''Are you American?'' asked a news vendor at Beirut airport as I was leaving.


''Ayatollah Khomeini is good,'' rebutted the youth, evidently a Lebanese Shiite Muslim. Then he smiled with illogically genuine warmth -- and wished me a nice journey.

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