Palestinians show self-restraint on Lebanese fighting, Syrian missiles

With large slices of Lebanon being fought over by one faction or another, the Palestinians here are displaying what they themselves call a policy of "extreme self-restraint."

Instead, they are bracing for the "real" war -- against Israel.

Such a war could still flow from the Syrian confrontation with Israel over the deployment of SAM-6 missiles in Lebanon.

But as the likelihood of a military eruption between those two has receded, the Palestinians have become more concerned the Israelis will strike mightily against them in southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, even the multitudinous factions warring here admit that the Palestinians and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have shown both self-restraint and increased maturity -- politically and militarily -- during the past two months of off-and-on Lebanese fighting.

What they have done is to stay out of the fighting within Beirut and vowed to take up arms only when the crisis between Syria and Israel escalates into a military Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Palestinians would use a clash as a springboard to fight Israel for their right to a state and self-determination. And they would be supported by the other Arab nations with the likely exception of Egypt.

"We are prepared for any confrontation. We are against stagnation of the situation. We want movement and we want the situation to heat up.Stagnation kills our cause. We want our cause to stay alive," says PLO foreign press spokesman Mahmoud Labadi.

"We will fight with Syria and encourage them. Alone as Palestinians we cannot do it [fight Israel]," Labadi adds.

"The last place the [Palestinian] resistance wants to fight is in Lebanon," says Rashid Khalidi of the Institute of Palestinian Studies.

For those reasons the Palestinians stayed out of the battles in Beirut, although their sections of the city were heavily shelled. The Red Crescent, only one of several medical groups which took in wounded during April 12 to May 19 reported that is had treated 454 Palestinians, including 119 women and 73 children under 14 years old, as well as registering 42 dead.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat has practiced Arab diplomacy, traveling the region during the crisis to convince leaders that the situation was critical and called for Arab unity of action.

It is nothing new for the PLO in recent years to try to work through the diplomatic, "established" channels on a political plane. However, many observers here see a new self-control and dicipline displayed by the Palestinian military.

Arafat ordered a full mobilization of his troops, which are now usually well supplied, largely by the Syrians and Libyans for a clash with Israel. The PLO does not reveal the size of its army, but estimates range between 12,000 and 15, 000.

The Palestinian presence has been increased in Beirut in expection of a two-front strike -- the main one by the Israelis in the south and a diversionary one by the Christian forces in east Beirut.

But their primary preoccupation is defending their stronghold in southern Lebanon from Israeli attack. Their presence there has been a source of considerable disgruntlement to many Lebanese, especially the more than 100,000 who fled the south and became refugees squatting in camps and apartments mostly in the capital as a result of the Palestinians.

"Without a military presence in the south, we would be squashed like a bug -- it is defensive [to be there]," Khalidi said.

The Israelis enjoy unquestionable air superiority, but the Palestinians say they are more flexible and mobile on the ground.

Their forces have been deployed in small enough groups to have not been seriously affected by the recent Israeli air, sea, and land raids, Labady said.

The Palestinians will fight for the cities, but concede they will lose territory to the Israelis in the countryside.

The point is not that the Palestinians expect a military victory, they admit readily that the American-supplied ISraeli war machine is far too formidable for them.

What they are banking on is that their forces can kill enough Israelis to make it hurt politically at home.The loss of 10 Israelis is comparable to that of thousands of Palestinians in terms of its effect among the people and their willingness to back their leaders to the hilt, the Palestinians say.

Some of the Palestinian strategists and thinkers detect a change in the psychological makeup of today's Israelis. The society does not have a consensus and is no longer through and through a warmongering one, they say.

And, to top these factors off, the Palestinians now feel they have won enough support in the international political arena that a massive strike against them will cost the Israelis far more than it will the Palestinians.

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