Chapter 1

Pierre Hutton's The Legacy of Suez

MENU:- Introduction - Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5

MEC - Hutton 6-7Chapter 1 LEBANON

With my wife Judy and our five children, I arrived on 30 April 1973 in a tense Beirut. A few days earlier Israeli commandos had landed from the sea and killed several leaders of the PLO. For security reasons, only a few Embassy staff had come to the airport with protocol officials from the Foreign Ministry. They told at once of a feeling of uncertainty in the city. The next day was a public holiday, so it was on the morning of 2 May that Judy and I took four of our "Huttontots" (a term coined by Peter Hastings) to the British School for enrolment. I then went to the Embassy's Chancery (office) and Judy returned to the official residence. Shortly before noon she went out with a driver to pick up our children for lunch since it was their first day. As she arrived at the school, Palestinians and units of the Lebanese Army, accused by the PLO of performing poorly during the recent Israeli commando attack, were exchanging small arms fire. The British School was between them, and for the next eleven hours my wife and all our children, except baby Josephine, remained with other pupils and the teachers in the school (the children in the basement). Much of the building was severely damaged and it would never be used again.

Unaware of all this, but knowing that fighting was going on somewhere, I sought advice within the Chancery on whether a trip home for lunch with my family was wise. The Head of Mission's driver was with my wife, so lacking any knowledge of the topography of Beirut or the attitude to life of a Lebanese driver, I readily accepted the claim of another Embassy driver that he could get me home while avoiding the area of fighting. In Lebanon, experience had to be acquired rapidly. As we swung around a hill road we saw bodies lying by cars very recently hit by gunfire. Instead of attempting to reverse up the steep road, admittedly a difficult feat, the driver suggested with a note of urgency that I lie on the car's floor while he accelerated. In a few seconds, we were in the middle of Lebanese troops firing automatic weapons into the nearby orchards while tanks were approaching in a menacing formation. Obviously I did get home, only to learn of the plight of my family.

The British Embassy was responsible for the school, so it conducted negotiations with the Lebanese Army and the Palestinians for a convoy of cars (including mine) to enter the school grounds at dawn under a white flag and evacuate teachers, children and my wife. This seemed wiser than for me to take up an offer from the Lebanese Army to make an armoured vehicle available to bring out the Huttons < notionally enjoying diplomatic immunity. The hours passed very slowly and then just before midnight the front gate bell of the Residence rang. It was my family. An Englishman working with Middle East Airlines (the airport was not far away) who had a good knowledge of back streets, had been able to drive to the School in the dark and bring out his own children. The Red Cross had brought in food and blankets, and morale in the School cellar was good, but with rumours circulating that the situation could worsen by the next day, my wife accepted his offer to drive her and our children home. By this time, the shooting had stopped and a number of parents had managed to get to the school and pick up their children. At first light the shooting resumed and was to continue for over a week. The Australian of 9 May 1973 reported these events in some detail with the banner headline "Arab war with our man in the middle". The Mercury of my home town, Hobart, was not outdone. Here a headline of 8 May revealed < "Tasmanian in BeirutS Shots greet diplomat".

In 1973 the Embassy in Beirut had a large establishment for Australia's overseas representation. There were more than twenty Australians from Foreign Affairs, Immigration and the Trade Commissioner Service, and thirty-five locally engaged staff. Foreign Affairs officers and members of the Trade Commissioner Service were also our responsibility while they studied Arabic at the British Government's language centre in the hills above Beirut.

Our most visible activity was in migration. Lebanese, categorized as Syrians, had started coming to Australia in small numbers in the late 1870s. In 1902 forty seven were admitted, and during the twenties the annual figure was often lower than this. For many years they had suffered the severe disadvantage of being officially treated as "Asiatics," i.e. non-European, meaning no right to a pension, a vote or naturalization. Included with "coloured aliens" in a description given to the Commonwealth Parliament of 1901, the Syrians had progressed to being treated more favourably than other "non-Europeans" after an amendment to the Immigration Act in 1926. It was a long time coming. Cabinet had been aware of the issue since the 1900s. In February 1915, a lengthy submission proposing a change in the status of those "Syrians" was considered, but no effective action followed. There was further progress after the Second World War. In a briefing paper of June 1947 prepared for Immigration Minister Calwell by his Department is a statement of policy on admittance for "Citizens of certain Non-European Countries". While still not treated in the same way as prospective migrants from Europe, "Persons of Asiatic origin who are Lebanese, Syrian, Turks and Armenians and persons of Egyptian nationality of Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish or Armenian origin may be granted landing permits, provided they are nominated by persons resident in AustraliaS". [NOTE 1]

The Lebanese then came in growing numbers. They prospered, particularly in Sydney, and by 1973 Lebanese names were to be found at the top of major businesses, in local government, parliament and in sport. Family sponsorship and reunion migration accounted for a rapidly growing community in Australia. Not only this, but members of the Second AIF, following the military action against the Vichy French Administration in 1941, had left warm memories with the local population. This was a contrast to the legacy I would later find in Egypt.

Australia's strategic and trade interests in Lebanon itself were small, but there was a large human dimension in the relationship. For example, with the local governor and before a large crowd of Lebanese and the Australian community, I unveiled a new memorial to the achievement in 1942 of Australian Army engineers in rapidly constructing a railway line from Beirut to Tripoli in the North. Not far from Beirut, the Dog River (Nahr el Kalb) enters the Mediterranean and, from the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs, invaders had come through a defile made by it. Each army had left writing or a plaque on the rockface to mark their passing. The AIF was here in both World Wars. In this unique setting a cairn was first unveiled in 1942 by the British Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces in the Middle East, General Sir Harold Alexander (later Field Marshal and Earl). While the invaders' inscriptions and plaques remained in good condition, the concrete cairn had crumbled. Through the initiative of a visiting Australian ex-serviceman, taken up by the RSL and supported by the Australian Government, a bronze plaque was sent as a replacement. Later, during the civil war, it would be stolen for the value of the metal.

Very quickly after Independence, the Lebanese Government moved to establish official representation in Australia. The Lebanese Minister (Head of Legation) in London and later President, Camille Chamoun, saw Dr Evatt in October 1945 and secured his agreement for a consulate to be opened in Sydney. From the early Sixties, Australia had both a Migration Officer and a Trade Commissioner in Beirut. Without an External Affairs presence, they acted rather independently of one another. Even a modestly staffed Consulate under External Affairs would have avoided the puzzlement caused among the Lebanese, as well as the Australian and the other foreign communities, by the Australian flag flying over two offices, neither of which had any official status in international law and practice. Australian ambassadors visited Beirut from time to time, but they had no official standing. Despite this, the Australian Ballet performed with distinction at the international festival at Baalbek in the early sixties.

An Embassy was finally opened in 1967 with William Forsyth, one of Australia's most experienced diplomatic officers, being the first Head of Mission. Neil Truscott, who would in time have even more postings and non-resident appointments in the Middle East than myself, came after Forsyth. I was his successor. It was my good fortune to have a knowledgeable and supportive group of senior staff to guide my early steps.

Ian Haig, the Commercial Counsellor, was an Arabic speaker. On his second posting in the Middle East, his range of contacts throughout the Region was unequalled by any other Australian official. Following the petroleum crisis resulting from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, he was appointed Australia's Special Emissary to Oil Producing Countries and then first Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. We had known each other since 1958 when he was Private Secretary to the President of the Senate and I was with Richard Casey.

From Foreign Affairs there was the First Secretary, Ian Hutchens, who had many links to the leaders of the Maronite Christian and Muslim Sunni communities. He would later become Ambassador to Egypt. The Third Secretary was Helen Churchward who, in Beirut and later in South Africa, showed courage and tenacity in getting to know sections of local society not to be found at official social functions. The role of the Senior Administrative Officer at such a post is a difficult one, and I was glad to have the indefatigable Jim Meszes in charge of day to day management and consular work. My own activities were helped immensely by the tireless and thoughtful contribution of my personal assistant, Dorothy Savage.

Our migration activities came under much scrutiny and pressure from local and Australian quarters, for in earlier years a major scandal had been discovered in the Embassy. It was a wise decision to place Cyril Eddy, a mature and experienced Senior Migration Officer, in charge. When the internal security situation deteriorated Rod, an officer attached to the Migration Section with a security screening function, was of great assistance. Problems relating to the welfare of officers and wives, often outside Australia for the first time, began to multiply and I often needed Rod's liaison links with the Lebanese police and security authorities.

Despite the stressful welcome to Beirut, my family and I quickly settled into the Residence in the hills overlooking the City and the Mediterranean. We lived close to the President's Palace, and between us and the Embassy's Chancery in the affluent coastal part of Beirut lay large areas of smouldering communal hatred. Our location would later become a source of great difficulty in maintaining Australia's official presence. Nevertheless, at the outset we could enjoy living in the city called by its citizens the Paris or Pearl of the Mediterranean. Strolling on the fashionable Hamraa and driving on the picturesque Corniche were pleasant aspects of this. Apart from demonstrations and the burning of tyres in the streets as a gesture of protest, there were no hazards to prevent us from visiting most of this ancient land. It was however a political situation which made no sense.

On the basis of confessional figures obtained in a census of 1932 the French, in granting independence to Lebanon in 1944, encouraged the Maronite Christians to entrench themselves as the holders of power. The President was to be always a Maronite and so was the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The Prime Minister was from the conservative Sunni Muslims, the Speaker of Parliament from the Shi'ites, the Foreign Minister from a non-Maronite Christian group and so on. By the seventies most impartial observers agreed that the Maronite Christians were no longer the majority. It was hardly surprising that the Maronites would not agree to have a new census, for this would have confirmed that the restless Shiite underclass, with the country's highest birth rate, was now almost as large as the Sunni Muslim community. The division of the economy between the Christians and Sunni Muslims could only work while the largest community at the bottom of society sought neither political nor economic power. Sunni Muslims and the heretical Muslim sect, the Druze, had in the past occasionally challenged the Christian hegemony. Outright civil war in 1958 had brought intervention by the United States at the request of the Maronite President. Since then, uneasy and temporary arrangements had existed between the powerful leaders of the main confessional and political groupings.

I could not sum up my overall impressions of the realities of the Lebanese political system at the time better than Robert Fisk did in Pity the Nation: "For Lebanon was run by the zaim (or, more accurately, zuama), the `leaders', the powerful feudal chieftains whom the Lebanese would describe as `honoured families', but whom the average Westerner would quickly identify as mafiosi. Every community, every tribe, had produced its leaders whose pronouncements, conspicuous wealth, bodyguards, cruelty, education and private armies proved more efficacious than any electoral appeal. Their principal characteristics were a declared love of Lebanon, a publicly expressed desire to respect the National Covenant [the covenant between the main religious groups], and a ruthless determination to ensure that their power was passed on to their sons".

As I came to meet these men, the constant reassurance was that, in "the Lebanese way", political tensions might seemingly be taking the nation to the brink of another civil war but, as always (or almost always), they would abate. Even to one new to Middle East politics this seemed a dangerous tactic, particularly since it treated the Shiite community as non-participants. Secular universities in Beirut were also turning out a stream of radical graduates for whom there were no opportunities to move into either the political or economic establishments of the nation. So, as an early step outside the well-trodden path of protocol calls, I located the spiritual leader of the Shiites. The Imam Musa al Sadr was young, handsome and charismatic. He gave me a vivid picture of the suffering of his people and the impression that the status quo might not last forever. He would later disappear mysteriously while visiting Libya, but his short life was to give much inspiration to the Shiites once they were in armed conflict.

The established system of politico-economic accommodations had been in place before the influx of 300 000 Palestinian refugees from Israel, and later from Jordan. Their leaders had no direct involvement in the Lebanese "system" but operated with a ruthless and effective style that would itself soon influence the country's stability. Both Maronite and Sunni Moslem leaders claimed that this influx threatened Lebanon's fragile political balance. The Maronites, because they saw the country's Moslem population being augmented; the Sunni Moslems, because of the "radical" nature of the Palestinian leadership.

All this looked ominous to me, but was not regarded in Canberra as having any bearing on Australia's interests. It could have been argued, but was not, in the corridors of Parliament that the collapse of Lebanon would bring strains within the growing Australian communities with links to the Middle East. The reaction of one Foreign Affairs Minister to my efforts to describe the Lebanese situation to him while on a visit to Australia was polite but frank. What was important politically for the Federal Government, he said, was how it was regarded by the voters in North Caulfield and St.Kilda, meaning the Australian-Jewish Community.

Leading Australians of Lebanese origin, sometimes a generation or two back, struggled to understand what was about to happen. One wealthy industrialist, well known to the NSW Branch of the ALP, came to the Embassy in early 1975 with a routine letter of introduction from Prime Minister Whitlam. He demanded a full Embassy public relations effort on his behalf. The hectoring and one-sided conversation soon turned nasty but eventually he would be satisfied with what we could do. A bishop of the Maronite Catholic Church observed to me later < "Mr X has discovered the country of his ancestors too late in life to understand the complexities of politics in the Middle East". A more congenial visitor, to Lebanon and later to Egypt, was the late Bob Katter Senior, former Minister for the Army and at the time still Federal Member for the Mount Isa area of Queensland. His visit to Beirut was for family reasons and, having had no direct interest previously in the land of his ancestors, he was ready to ask questions and be briefed by the Embassy's staff. He acknowledged this generously in a speech made, on 17 August 1977, to the House of Representatives.

The Embassy had ready access to political leaders, especially those who led the Christian groups and clans < Franjieh, Gemayel and Chamoun. We also had occasional contact with the traditional Moslem leaders, Saeb Salam and Rashid Karami, but the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt was permanently elusive. They regarded the Lebanese community in Australia as a source of material as well as moral support, and this community, including all those with some ancestral links, numbered probably about 70 000 at the time of my arrival in Beirut in 1973.

Few of the political leaders of Lebanon had any first hand acquaintance with Australia. While migrants came mainly from the ranks of city workers and the poorer section of the farming community, the country's traditional leaders were usually francophile, with strong ties to Europe and the Americas. The Maronites resented any suggestion that they were "Arab" and were sure that their cultural roots were directly traceable to the Phoenician civilization and Old Testament times. Lavish entertainment ranged from formal tea parties given by "grandes dames" of Maronite Society to large black tie dinners offered by business leaders and bankers. More than the quality of the European-style cuisine and lesser known wines, the number of foreign ambassadors among the guests was a measure of the success of any social event.

The competitive ostentation and the display of imported Parisian evening gowns concealed any fear that an anachronistic socio-political system could soon destroy itself. Making conversation at dinner in late 1974 with the charming and well informed wife of a future President of Lebanon, I sought her opinion on the demands for political reform coming from conservative Muslim political leaders, traditional figures who were soon to become irrelevant as the Shiites surged to power. My neighbour at table felt that whatever the merits of their case for change, the time was not then right for concessions. I guessed that, for the Maronites, it would never be "right".

My family and I spent New Year 1975, the last peaceful one in Lebanon for nearly two decades, surrounded by snow at The Cedars, of Old Testament fame. Christian gunmen celebrated by firing automatic weapons with live ammunition. Our host, a Lebanese-Australian businessman with friends in many political camps, remarked that the Christian groups had cellars filled with weapons for any civil conflict. We were on the threshold of the long years of Lebanon's sufferings.

Friction had been growing between the many heavily armed Christian and Muslim groups throughout the second half of 1974 and into 1975. It was on the sunny Sunday morning of 13 April when I heard coming from Chiah, a crowded part of Beirut below, the sound of prolonged gunfire from automatic weapons. In a short time I would learn that a busload of Palestinians had been ambushed and killed in a reprisal operation by Christian militiamen. By chance I saw the bus later, and evidence of the savage and sustained attack upon it. This horrendous act would quickly unleash militia groups already determined to seek a violent solution to their political differences.

Before sketching how an Embassy operated in a country sliding into urban civil war, I will mention that our brief from the Department on political reporting was that we should act as a listening post for developments in the Arab World well beyond Lebanon's borders. In view of our slim professional resources and the absence of any other diplomatic representation in the Arab World, apart from Cairo, this was a little optimistic. However, the city was a market-place for rumour, inspired "leaks" and sometimes genuine information. Together with our links to politicians and academics, the Embassy had good relations with the foreign press corps and certain of the Beirut newspapers. Ghassan Tueni, editor of the respected daily, An Nahar, and later to become Minister for Information and then Lebanese Ambassador to the UN, accepted an invitation to visit Australia as an officially sponsored guest, even though he could have been at New York in late 1974 for Yasser Arafat's address to the UN General Assembly. At the time he was a most helpful guide to the complexity of Middle East politics, and once remarked to me that it was extraordinary that each Arab state or political group could fight its enemies through proxies on the soil of Lebanon.

We did not pay our Lebanese informants, and some of them would not have been at ease at diplomatic functions, even hospitable Australian ones. So it was that one day I surreptitiously left my car and walked the last few hundred metres to an obscure cafe, there to take coffee with a smartly dressed Lebanese lawyer who was a local covert representative of the Baathist Party of Iraq. His perspective on current events was useful and proved to be accurate but, in the tradition of the Middle East, he politely requested a favour. An application to enter the United Kingdom on business had been refused without explanation. Would I speak to "my good friend", the British Ambassador? While promising nothing, I did so. The Ambassador was a pleasant colleague, but my mention of the Lebanese lawyer instantly affected the convivial atmosphere. A few days later he told me that the Home Office would regard the lawyer's entry into the United Kingdom as prejudicial to national security and that this could be passed on. This transaction in the information market-place of Beirut was thus completed.

The efforts of the Embassy in reporting on developments beyond Lebanon were recognised in Canberra. We were told that the Department judged that our work during the year (1974) "reflected actual and potential gains for our policy of developing a closer and more fruitful relationship with the Arab countries of the Middle East, and that the post was able to play an active and in many respects leading role in this regard".

The Embassy came through the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 with little experience of actual violence. As it started one afternoon instead of at dawn, Ian Hutchens phoned from the far South of Lebanon where he was visiting Tyre. The noise of an artillery barrage could be heard through the receiver. There were also Australian Army officers stationed in Syria as UN military observers. They kept in touch with me by telephone during the fighting, and I could hear the background noise of an Israeli air raid in progress. We became accustomed to Israeli warplanes over Beirut during the war and later, but this could startle visitors.

In May 1974, a meeting of Australian Ambassadors and Trade Commissioners in the Middle East took place at the Beirut Embassy, chaired by a departmental Deputy Secretary. I broke into one discussion with the observation that visible evidence of Beirut's state of military helplessness would be available shortly after I finished speaking. I had spotted two Israeli planes coming in low from over the Mediterranean and guessed they would pass us at eye level as they attacked a Palestinian camp. There was some excitement in the room. The Star of David was clearly visible on their fuselage and jet engines were screaming as the planes passed us at a distance of 300 to 400 metres, firing rockets as they did so.

During 1974 the "no go" areas increased in Beirut and the countryside. Shiite urchins might stone our car on a family visit to the great Roman monuments at Baalbek, but it was in the far South facing Israel that travel could be quite difficult as Palestinian guerilla units mounted cross border incursions. Nevertheless, after visiting Gallipoli with an RSL delegation, the Governor of NSW, Sir Roden Cutler VC, came to Lebanon to see for the first time since 1941 the places where he had fought with the AIF and been wounded. These places lay in the far South, and although the Lebanese authorities did not wish to lose such a distinguished tourist, they permitted him access. Accompanied by Lady Cutler, an uneasy liaison officer from the Lebanese Army and my wife (I was on an official visit to Jordan), Sir Roden was able to revisited Damour, Nabatiyeh and Djezzine where he had won the Victoria Cross. At one point he was passed at high velocity by a truckload of Palestinian guerillas.

Once the deeper consequences of the massacre in April 1975 of a bus load of Palestinians began to unfold, movement in Beirut and beyond become hazardous for members of the Embassy and their families. Soon the Foreign Ministry would not open if there was a chance of incidents in its vicinity. It is difficult to conduct government-to-government relations when there is no one with whom to talk. Applications to go to Australia rose sharply at the very time when Canberra was asking me if the evacuation of Australian-based Migration staff and families should begin. Because of new problems in the way of fully "processing" applications, the number of migrants actually fell from 3178 in 1974 to 1496 in 1975.

The Embassy's Chancery was located in Kantari, almost on the street that would become the "Green Line" or no man's land between the various Christian and Muslim militia groups. The large luxury hotels, soon to be fought over by militia groups, were also nearby. So was the Hotel St. Georges, known internationally for its position on the coast and the high standards of its hospitality, and the setting for several novels. It would be heavily damaged as the urban warfare intensified.

Morale in the Embassy was lifted by Canberra's message of "appreciation for the professional and competent manner" in which the mission kept operating and continued to report on political developments in Lebanon and adjacent areas. From day to day the problems involved in keeping the flag flying were increasing. For example, a single officer living in an isolated apartment block might become alarmed by nearby gunfire and feel unable to travel alone by car to the Chancery. He would have to be picked up, at some risk, by another Australian officer in an Embassy car. Once my wife and I stayed too late visiting a house on the coast, and we had to cross about one kilometre of territory not controlled at night by the Lebanese army or police to get back to our children. With flag flying and an Embassy driver prepared to "give it a go", we moved slowly into no man's land. Hoping the flag would not be confused with the Union Jack or the Star Spangled Banner, I readily agreed with the driver that if anyone challenged us, we would promptly stop. Then I could ask if the questioner had a relative in Sydney or needed my personal attention in the Embassy's handling of a visa application. Out of the gloom a militia fighter did appear carrying a loaded rocket-launcher and moving purposefully. We looked at each other for a moment and then he disappeared again into the darkness.

If the Embassy was to keep operating, it seemed necessary for myself to be present as much as possible in the Chancery. The problem was that the areas of urban warfare within Beirut could change suddenly. Between the Chancery and our home was the area of the heaviest concentration of opposing weaponry. Each day we would ask the Lebanese police and security authorities what was the best route to take. Canberra, after repeated requests, provided mobile radios. While we thought that the Australian Defence Forces would have state of the art equipment to lend, departmental units arrived that had been used previously in the Embassy at Phnom Penh. They were rather tired instruments and not quite of the standard needed travelling in hilly terrain, narrow streets and between high-rise buildings. So we improvised. Between the Chancery, my wife at the Residence, Don Kingsmill, Ambassador-designate to Saudi Arabia, who was learning Arabic at the British Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies in the foothills of Mount Lebanon, and my car, we had a radio network which enabled us to keep in contact.

When my own driver could not get through to the Residence I once sought and obtained a ride in a small and unmarked police car. Going through very narrow streets, the plain clothed and well-armed officers decided to take a short cut. We turned a corner and there, building barricades but with their backs to us, were members of an extreme Muslim militia group. We reversed quite quickly and took another route before our presence had registered.

The United States Ambassador lived in the same residential area with a large and permanent presence of American and Lebanese guards. Mac Godley was a career State Department officer and previously Ambassador to Laos. Some sections of the Western media had portrayed him as a quasi-military figure personally deploying the CIA-financed forces of hill tribes, and the British Guardian had cleverly called him "Mac the Ungodly". He was a forceful figure, prepared to pursue American national interests without apologies, but Australia was for him an ally, and so it followed that the hand of cooperation was extended in a difficult situation. There was an open invitation from Godley to travel with him to central Beirut in his armoured automobile, which was always followed bumper to bumper by a shabby car without diplomatic plates filled with heavily armed Lebanese guards in civilian clothes. One morning, with no way of getting to the Chancery, an Australian colleague and I joined Godley in his rather special official transport. The interior was filled at 7.30 am with cigar smoke and the constant exchange of radio messages between the car's occupants and the American Embassy. I wondered silently if anyone with hostile intent was intercepting and interpreting the transmissions.

Travelling at high speed towards Godley's Embassy, I mentioned that pedestrians had just been hit by snipers near the Australian Embassy, so I would wait at the American Embassy until one of our cars could take me on to my office. Godley would have none of this. "To the Australian Embassy", he told the Lebanese driver, Zuhair, whose friendly smile balanced the impression given by a bandoleer of bullets over his shoulder. My Australian colleague was then invited to open a box located between himself and the driver. I somehow suspected that there was a surprise coming: inside was an automatic weapon that Godley was clearly ready to use himself if attacked. When we reached the Chancery, I suggested that if Zuhair slowed the car down, my colleague and I could quickly alight and scamper under a steel grill into the building. "Stop the car, Zuhair" was the order given as we arrived. Godley himself got out and walked about looking up at the flat roofed buildings for signs of hostile neighbours. He seemed a little disappointed at their absence. His successor, Francis Melloy, was also brave, but unlucky. Unarmed and accompanied by an Embassy officer and Zuhair, he would be lured to a bogus meeting and kidnapped. All were then brutally murdered.

At the outset of the civil war a form of Lebanese "double-speak" was in vogue. It was considered polite to refer to "les evenements" (incidents) and "unidentified gunmen". All knew that battle lines were being established between the numerous Christian and Muslim militia groups. There could be lulls, but security was always worsening between March and July 1975 when my family and I finally left Beirut for Canberra.

My successor, Peter Curtis, remained only until the end of the year and the post was evacuated in January 1976. In the months before our departure, we came to experience the unreal atmosphere of being bystanders in other people's bloody conflicts. We would sit in the evening watching the exchange of shells, rockets and tracer bullets in the city a few kilometres below. Other shells and bullets did not respect either Australia's neutrality or our international status of immunity . Hot debris from exploding missiles started to fall from the sky on the Residence and a bullet fired from nearby hit a wall of the house far too close to my head. The days of traditional diplomatic representation in Lebanon were ending.

An aspect of the Embassy's work during my Beirut posting which is still topical was the establishment of an informal dialogue with the PLO. Up to December 1972, when the ALP under Gough Whitlam won the Federal Election, there had been no deliberate contact by officers of the Embassy with any member of that organization. Casual meetings with Palestinian academics took place occasionally at a junior level but the Department, reflecting the caution of the Coalition Government, wanted no initiatives taken. The Australian public had been shocked by the fearsome image of the PLO itself and of fringe terrorist groups engaging in acts of terrorism such as the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in September 1972. In casual junior level contacts in Beirut, individual Palestinians told us that the official Australian attitude was at best bland, out-of-touch and unhelpful. At worst, it was seen as failing to recognise the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and being uncritically pro-Israel.

At the Federal political level, the plight of the Palestinians was seen as a complex and expensive international refugee problem, not as the issue of their political future. Any informal approaches to the PLO by the Embassy could have been rebuffed, since our Government's public statements and voting record in the UN were not sympathetic. Finally, Israeli Intelligence was also known to have agents in Beirut who might soon learn of any senior level contact. The domestic implications in Australia of any subsequent revelation that the country's representatives were talking to the PLO need not be spelt out here.

At the time of my arrival in Beirut in April 1973, the new Whitlam Government was having to take account of conflicting influences in formulating its policy towards the Palestinians. After Dr Evatt's close involvement in UN decisions on the partition of the former Palestine under a British Mandate and the recognition of the State of Israel, the Federal Labor Opposition had not needed to have any high-profile position on Middle East issues. With the exception of the Suez Canal crisis (when Evatt had attacked the government's attitude to the role of the United Nations), there had been little cause for political debate in Australia on the Middle East.

The Coalition Government had been content in its last year of office (1972) to maintain that Australia's policy was "one of neutrality and sympathetic to a settlement of the (Middle East) conflict". We were "friends of both the Arab States and Israel and wish to remain so". Since the Suez Canal crisis, the Coalition had shifted a long way, for it now saw the United Nations as the means of establishing and maintaining a long-term peace in the area, and in this its policy was consistent with the firm support of Israel by the United States. There was also tacit bipartisan support of Israel by the Federal Government and Opposition in the lead-up to the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973.

Entrenched behind UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, Australia had supported subsequent UN Resolutions on the welfare of Palestinian refugees while casting an abstention vote or opposing those which dealt with political matters. The findings of successive enquiries by the Federal Parliament's Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence were sympathetic towards Israel and silent on the national aspirations of the Palestinians. [NOTE 2] The emerging dilemma is illustrated in a report of 1976: "The Australian people's moral support for the State of Israel, whose establishment Australia supported, is not under significant challenge and seems secure. This sympathy has to be reconciled with our growing trade and economic relations with the Arab countries."

Australian political leaders did not seek to look into causes or understand the fury of the Palestinians. Public opinion, as reflected in polls, would not have tolerated anything else. A Gallup Poll showed that 34% of those questioned saw the "Arabs" as most responsible for Middle East problems. In answer to a question as to which people in the Middle East attracted "most sympathy", Israel scored 37%, and the "Arabs" just 5%. Curiously, 48% were equally sympathetic to both sides.

The ALP's foreign policy statements during and immediately after the Federal Election of 2 December 1972 had said little about the Middle East. Once in office, the Whitlam Government soon had to formulate attitudes to questions touching on the political demands of the PLO, not just those Palestinian refugees. Within the ALP, Bill Hartley of the Socialist Left, State Secretary of the Victorian Branch and a member of the Federal Executive, was establishing links to both the PLO and "socialist" Arab governments, in effect Iraq, Libya and Syria. The historically-based sympathy of the Australian people towards the Jewish people and Israel and the fraternal links of the ALP to Israel's Labor Party ensured that there was little support within the Government for this activity. Hartley had support only from left wing trade unionists and a few State politicians. Bob Hawke of the ACTU was not only a fierce political enemy of Hartley, he was a passionate friend of Israel. The Department of Foreign Affairs had no reason to venture into this political minefield, and its officers in Canberra advising on Middle East issues, almost without exception, had no direct experience of the area. Neither could they have been expected to know that in the Prime Minister's home base, Sydney, influential members of the Lebanese Community had good relations with the ALP and the new Prime Minister himself. The UN aspects tended to dominate Foreign Affairs thinking while the Department of Trade was inclined to believe that the growth of exports to the Middle East could best be encouraged by ignoring political considerations.

Finding this silence no guide, I began in September 1973 to prod the Department by dispatch and cable suggesting that "we and others have for too long ignored or put aside the embarrassing Palestinian Question". I went on to suggest that "all serious observers seem to be agreed that no lasting settlement can be imposed upon the Palestinians who are a force of major consequence. This may not have been foreseen years ago and becomes a confused issue because of terrorism and counter-terrorism".

My modest proposal was that some "informal and useful contact" be established in the first instance with some residents of Beirut sympathetic to the PLO. The recent arrest and deportation of a suspected member of a Palestinian fringe terrorist group who had entered Australia with false papers, and terrorist attacks on civilians in Israel meant that my timing was not good. Ah, said the Department in reply, we agree that we ought to take more account of the Palestinian attitude to a Middle East settlement. We "hope to develop a greater awareness that a final settlement would be difficult, if not impossible, without giving some satisfaction to the Palestinians". Accordingly, it "might well have been usefulS to take steps to develop some discreet contact with Palestinian circles in Beirut". Then came some Foreign Affairs equivocation. Because of recent guerilla activities against Israel and "the sensitivities that these have aroused, not least amongst minority communities in AustraliaS it might not be appropriate to pursue this idea at least for the time beingS we will have to continue to tread very carefully until some of the present sensitivities have been blurred". So contact between Australia and the PLO in Beirut in 1974 would become the preserve of a few politicians, trade unionists and university students who were quite unrepresentative, even of their own sectors of Australian society.

At the time of the meeting of Australian Heads of Mission in the Middle East at Beirut in May 1974 there had been suggestions in the Australian press that the Government should seek to encourage "moderate elements in the Palestinian liberation movement". The meeting was asked for its views, bearing in mind the decision against opening contacts made the previous year. Its consensus opinion was cautious, since any pro-active suggestions would have dismayed Canberra. The Palestinians were seen as being at the centre of any final Middle East settlement. Australia should therefore be as well informed as possible on their thinking. This could be done by informal contact with individuals, i.e. not with the PLO as such. Substantive dialogue was discouraged since it would come to Israel's attention and, by inference, to those sensitive "minority communities" in Australia I had been told about by the Department. My visiting colleagues left Beirut and the Embassy's contacts with Palestinians remained slight, occasional and low key. Without any change in the tenor of Departmental advice to the Government, there would now develop pressures that would eventually force a change.

In June and July of 1974 Bill Hartley led an unofficial delegation of ALP parliamentarians, trade unionists and youth group representatives to Lebanon and Syria. We had a cordial meeting; indeed I lunched with them, and one of my Embassy colleagues, Helen Churchward, attended a social event given by supporters of the PLO. She met casually the head of the PLO Office in Lebanon (Chafic al-Hout) and his deputy (Abed Kadri al-Daher), both expressing surprise that there was no record of any substantive contact in the past between the PLO and the Embassy. My colleague was not in a position, after the recent exchange with Canberra on informal dialogue with the PLO, to explain why! The PLO was invited, in general terms, by the visitors to send a delegation to Australia.

During 1974 there was further growth in the number of countries recognising the standing of the PLO and supporting moves for it to be given observer status in the UN and other inter-governmental bodies. The Session of the UN General Assembly that began in September was to be critical after the leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, was allowed to give an address. This was clear both to the Prime Minister and his cautious Department of Foreign Affairs. The time had arrived when more references to Australia's "evenhandedness" and Palestinian refugees would not be a policy.

I must have stretched the Department's patience by sending messages that suggested that "yesterday's terrorists are likely to be tomorrow's leaders with whom we might have to deal". I also urged dropping public references to the Palestinian "refugees" in favour of the Palestinian "people". "Palestinians" was eventually adopted as the term to be used by Australian officials. Mysteriously, Palestinian "Arabs" appeared in Australian statements to the plenary sessions of the UN General Assembly in 1974. In late November, the Minister, when answering Parliamentary Questions spoke of "the Palestinian people". They had been discovered at last. Quietly, the Department also advised posts that it no longer seemed useful or desirable to take a public position on the "representative" character of the PLO. I had been pointing out that Australia's "neutrality" on the Palestinian Question required this, particularly at a time when our economic relations with the Arab States were developing rapidly. Unknown to me, the Government's disastrous attempt to obtain Arab loans through an intermediary of doubtful standing, T K Khemlani, was also under way.

In his General Debate statement to the UN General Assembly on 7 October 1974, the Minister for External Affairs (Don Willesee) had moved Australia's position along just a little. He recognised that the Arab States had a particular concern, shared by other countries, that the "Palestinian Arabs" should have proper treatment, permanent homes and secure homes for the future. On 21 November, after the Minister had left New York, the Permanent Representative, Sir Laurence ("Jim") McIntyre, said that Australia would accept a Palestinian State alongside Israel if the Palestinians wanted it. He also recognised that there was "clearly a new and vigorous spirit, a new sense of destiny among the leaders of the displaced Arabs, a new confidence in their rights to self-determination and independence within a Palestinian state of their own".

"Evenhanded" neutrality was not, however, about to be abandoned. The next day, the Australian Delegation cast an abstention vote on a resolution to grant observer status to the PLO in the United Nations. This was said to be on procedural grounds, since there was no precedent for a body other than a government having such a status. But we were now careful to avoid any public challenge to the representative character of the PLO. After all, Arab states meeting in Rabat had just agreed that the PLO was "the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people".

While strongly critical of past acts of terrorism against Israel by Palestinians, the Federal Opposition also accepted publicly that "the Palestinian Arabs should have a state of their own".

Guided by Prime Minister Whitlam's instinct, rather than any deep and considered appreciation of the Middle East scene, the Australian Cabinet and the Foreign Affairs Department could now look to 1975 when pressures over the Palestinians should have eased. Then, within a few weeks, Australian relations with the PLO would be in crisis, the image of Australia in Arab countries questioned, and the Embassy in Beirut put under a heavy strain.

In late 1974 the PLO Office in Peking applied to the Australian Embassy for visas for a Palestinian delegation to visit Australia. This was quietly rejected by Canberra. In early January 1975 the Embassy in Beirut received a similar request, accompanied by the advice that Bill Hartley had obtained the Federal Government's preliminary agreement. When referred to Canberra, the matter quickly reached Cabinet level. Its sensitivity for the Government was heightened by the imminent meeting of the ALP's Federal Conference at Terrigal (beginning on 3 February) under the presidency of the President of the ACTU, Bob Hawke.

What happened in Cabinet can be learned from that exceptionally well informed political journalist, the late Alan Reid, in The Whitlam Adventure and from a Cabinet member, Clyde Cameron, in The Cameron Diaries. It is not covered in The Whitlam Government by the Prime Minister himself or in A Certain Grandeur by Graham Freudenberg. The outcome was an instruction to the Embassy to refuse to issue the requested visas because if the visit went ahead it could seriously exacerbate divisions within the Australian community. The Prime Minister, recently returned from a lengthy trip overseas, privately and publicly expressed regret that in the existing circumstances the decision not to issue visas had to be taken. "Storm over PLO visit splits Cabinet" reported the Melbourne Sun accurately. Editorial writers, of whom few supported the visit, media commentators, cartoonists, the leaders of the Jewish Community and Bob Hawke all contributed with zest to the uproar. Domestic political considerations again obscured the possible consequences of the Government's action. Accordingly, the shock in Canberra was all the greater when the Middle Eastern sky fell upon us. It was of limited relevance that a Gallup Poll showed 74% of Australians questioned supported the Government's decision and only 19% disagreed with it.

Condemnation by the Secretary-General of the Arab League in Cairo, media reports that Iraq, Libya and possibly other Arab States might cancel commercial arrangements with Australia and hostile comment in the many Middle East newspapers friendly to the Palestinians alarmed the Government. The PLO office in Beirut reacted with anger when informed by telephone of Canberra's decision, saying the application was only made on a clear understanding that visas would be granted. Pro-Palestinian newspapers of Beirut with headlines such as "Strong Arab actions against Australia" could also report each day's developments within Australia, including the split within the ALP, indeed within the Cabinet. Then came a new and sinister development that would, in the end, bring a positive outcome.

On 30 January 1975, a telephone caller, speaking Arabic with a Palestinian accent, made a bomb threat against the Embassy. On the same day, the PLO's main newspaper attacked Australia but also singled out the Embassy for abuse. We were, through our migration activities, removing the "flower of Palestinian youth" needed for the struggle against Israel. When contacted by phone, al-Daher, the PLO official who was to have led the delegation to Australia, assured one of my colleagues that violence against the Embassy or its staff was not intended. I judged this was not enough and that I should speak with PLO representatives at the Embassy. My invitation was declined; we were told that instead I could go to the PLO Office for Lebanon.

Since we had a continuous and confidential telegraphic link, there was never any use of the telephone for communicating with Canberra on sensitive subjects. I was surprised therefore to receive a call a few hours later from the Department seeking an urgent update on the Embassy's security. In view of the deteriorating situation, I sought approval at once to go to the PLO Office where I would be received by its chief representative in Lebanon, Chafic al-Hout. The reply was that I should do what I thought was best! [NOTE 3]

It was another sunny morning, 30 January 1975, when I asked an Embassy driver to stop his own car, which he had made available, a few hundred metres from the PLO's Office. It was bright red for easy identification but without diplomatic number plates. Although a wide street, the Mazraa had little traffic since Lebanese felt it prudent to avoid being too close to the visible PLO presence in their capital. Many thoughts passed through my mind as my deputy, Ian Hutchens, and I walked towards a shabby office building with the PLO flag hanging outside. There were understandings as to the arrangements for our visit, including the absence of journalists and photographers. As we came closer, there was a surprise: an armed guard of honour was drawn up on the footpath. Its members may have had a sartorial appearance comparable to "Dad's Army" on television, but I felt they would have been quite lethal in other circumstances.

I remarked afterwards to my wife that the Australian public and media, possibly the Department, might have thought that the meeting took place in an ill-lit cellar with a group of clones of Arafat wearing headdress and dark glasses and with automatic weapons on their knees. Hutchens and I were received by Chafic al-Hout, who could have passed for another well-dressed businessman of Beirut, in a modest first floor office. As well as al-Daher, there was also present Clovis Maksoud, a roving "ambassador" for the Arab League and, unofficially, for the PLO. He had once visited Australia. Ghassan Tueni of An Nahar and he had volunteered to ensure that my meeting with the PLO produced nothing nasty.

There was some initial tenseness, so when taking the offered seat with my back against an opened window on the street, I asked if this was the spot reserved for all visitors. A radio-controlled rocket had been fired at the building not long before by Israeli agents. The point of my question was immediately picked up with much laughter.

It was a long meeting and we covered many issues. I went through the conciliatory statement already made by Prime Minister Whitlam, emphasising that the decision over visas for the proposed PLO delegation was in no sense a reversal of statements made at the recent Session of the UN General Assembly. The Australian Government had to give full weight to the immediate problem of wide dissension and possible violence in the Australian community if the visit had taken place. A visit by representatives of the PLO in the future was not precluded. Its timing, the composition of any delegation, its sponsorship and public presentation in Australia were matters that could now be covered in continuing but informal dialogue between the PLO and the Embassy. It would be best not to rely on elements of Australian society that might be friendly to the PLO, but were not representative and could not speak for the Federal Government. Chafic al-Hout, in response, emphasised that the PLO had believed there was a clear understanding that the visit had been acceptable in principle to the Government. The public "disinviting" had inevitably produced strong and emotional reactions. The PLO was well aware of internal problems for the Australian Government but, in his words, was shocked at the power of the "Jewish Lobby" in Australia.

Al-Hout, having been in New York during the recent UN General Assembly Session, acknowledged that there had been a broadening of Australia's position. This led me to emphasise that it was central to the debate in Australia that the PLO continued to be unwilling to accept that Israel would continue to exist in the Middle East after the creation of a national home for the Palestinians. A strong reaction was forthcoming, with Al-Hout relating how he and Daher had been forced to escape by sea from their homeland. It was Israel which denied the Palestinians a separate identity and a national home. This was where moral pressure should first be applied. Intervening, Clovis Maksoud claimed that there was already an implied PLO recognition of Israel's right to exist beside a Palestinian State, but it was still not the time to expect a public statement. [NOTE 4]

The threats against the Embassy by phone and in the Palestinian press had made this meeting necessary. I tackled that issue by offering the personal opinion that any attack on Australian Embassy staff or property in Beirut would set back the Palestinian cause for a long time in Australia. It was not any action by the leadership of the PLO that worried us, but fringe elements who might be inspired to act against the Embassy. Al-Hout remarked that it would be the "Jewish Lobby" within Australia which would be working hardest to foster the belief that Palestinian reprisals could be expected. He undertook that, within its own "network," the PLO would do all it could to discourage hostile acts.

I never told Canberra in my cabled report of this meeting that al-Hout also offered to send reliable units of the PLO to the Residence to provide protection. The PLO had a "vested interest" in the personal security of my family and myself. The reactions in Australia would have been memorable. In declining the offer, I added that there was the likelihood of some misunderstanding. As we were talking, an armed unit of the paramilitary Gendarmerie Nationale of Lebanon was taking up positions in the garden around the Residence. To the fascination of our children it remained there for some days.

The meeting ended with al-Hout describing the continuation of an informal dialogue as most desirable. I had to accept that a short factual account of the meeting would appear in the Palestinian daily Al Moharrer and in Tueni's An Nahar. Reports of my presentation were not wild distortions, although a sub-editor added a reference to a "violent Zionist campaign" in Australia against the proposed visit. Al-Hout was said to have "reaffirmed the Palestinian People's desire to establish the friendliest relations with the Australian People".

There was relief both in Canberra and at the ALP Federal Conference at Terrigal. At this Conference, Australian media representatives, possibly at the swimming pool, were told that "the Australian Government has been encouraged with the reception given to Mr Hutton by the PLO leaders". The section of my report on "friendliest relations" being sought by the PLO was quoted. Sub-editors would add a headline: "Fears of PLO acts allayed". The Department quickly advised that it agreed "with the line takenS inS discussions with PLO leaders. This has been a most useful initiative". The Foreign Minister later told the Prime Minister that threatened action against Australia's economic and other interests in the Middle East had not had any appreciable practical effect. This was "partlyS because of the good relations we have built up with key Arab Governments and partly because of the good work by our Embassy in Beirut in making clear to the PLO and their supporters that the decision (not to grant visas) was not an anti-Palestinian decision but based rather on the purely domestic consideration of our wish to avoid provoking dissension within Australia". Within a few months a moderate PLO representative based in Cairo came to Australia with the granting of his visa approved personally by the Prime Minister. Indeed, the Prime Minister received him. A delegation of Palestinian students also came to Australia in 1975. This, perhaps predictably, produced violent clashes at universities. Finally in 1975, a United Nations conference on criminology to be held in Sydney was cancelled because the Australian Government refused to allow PLO observers to attend. Our policy towards the PLO had a "start-stop" character.

In commenting on the Embassy's activities in 1975, the Department judged that "the contacts the Post has established with the PLO have been of considerable value in the evolution of our policy towards the Palestinian issue". On his arrival in Beirut my successor, Peter Curtis, felt authorized to refer in a press interview to my "useful contacts with the PLO", which he hoped to maintain. If anything had been achieved in Canberra in the years 1974 and 1975, it was the widening of the Australian perspective on the Palestinian issue beyond seeing only the problems of refugees and acts of terrorism. My very small part had been possibly to assist in reducing the "demon" element.

I had experienced in Beirut the "fifteen minutes" of attention that Andy Warhol believed everyone would have one day. However, I had not really intended to take any initiative, only to avert hostile action against the Embassy and its staff. Many in Australia had reasons to be happy anyway < happier than when I told Canberra that Ghassan Tueni of An Nahar could arrange for me to meet Yasser Arafat. There was a negative response at once, which was understandable in the Australian domestic situation. So I never met him, although I learned through Tueni that the PLO leader was quite aware of what the Embassy had been doing. There were, however, a few later meetings with al-Hout that produced useful insights.

My last encounter with al-Hout, at the national day reception of an Arab state, had a lighter side. It was in one of Beirut's less prestigious hotels, the air-conditioning was not working adequately and alcohol was not served with the sticky cakes. Guests were quietly advised that a small bar was available and there I found him also obtaining strength. As my wife and I escaped from the reception, we had to pass al-Hout standing with an identically dressed bodyguard on either side. They wore reefer jackets and white polo-neck pullovers to conceal the bulge of handguns. The Huttons both addressed al-Hout with a cheery "Good evening". Al-Hout, a tall man, at once leaned towards my wife. "Mrs Hutton, you and your children may sleep safely at night. There is nothing for you to fear from the Palestinian revolution. It is only diplomats that you have to worry about". Much laughter followed, with the bodyguards joining in.

The closing of the Embassy in Beirut, the downturn in the fortunes of the PLO in Lebanon and many acts of terrorism would mean that the growth of informal links between Australian diplomatic representatives and the PLO would never be smooth. It would only be on 30 September 1983 that the Acting Foreign Minister, Lionel Bowen, in announcing the outcome of a Cabinet review of Middle East policy, would mention that Australian ambassadors could in future include PLO representatives in their range of political contacts. Caution had still not vanished. The Arab League could set up an office in Australia but, added the Minister, not with anyone on its staff who was a member of the PLO. The Government, in formulating Middle East policy under Prime Minister Hawke, still needed to ascribe the greater importance to the chances of "dissension" in Australia.


There was subtle discrimination against the Egyptian population, whose skin colour can vary considerably, though soon after Federation Australia had made formal immigration arrangements with Egypt, whereby merchants, students and tourists could enter the country temporarily without being subjected to the notorious dictation test that would exclude all other Egyptians.


In 1976, after leaving Beirut, I gave evidence to the Sub-Committee on the Middle East of the Joint Committee. When he had listened to me, its chairman asserted that the civil war in Lebanon was religious, "just like the one in Nigeria". Having been left on a bench waiting for quite some time while the Sub-Committee consumed their dinner, I became "undiplomatic". Rather bluntly, I commented that this was not the case in Lebanon and it had not been the case in Nigeria. By chance, I had served as High Commissioner there shortly after the Biafran War ended and I knew something about that one too. I was not called again.


Years later it was perplexing to find no record in the Australian Archives that the conversation had ever taken place. I then checked with the colleague and friend who had made the call. We agreed it was an administrative blemish that no record had been put on file. Nevertheless, I pondered on what the Department and Government might have said if my attempt to meet the PLO had produced unpleasant consequences.


This was not the only time I heard this argument. Ghassan Tueni had told me that Arafat had personally abandoned the original PLO goal of a modern, secular and democratic state in the former Palestine. However, he could not yet say this publicly.

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