Beirut — The Palestine Liberation Organization, currently reeling under Israeli air and sea attacks, is incapable of taking on Israel militarily. Until a few months ago the PLO would have had a difficult time, even internally, handling its confrontation with Israel. Political infighting has always been a major yoke around the PLO's neck, retarding its fight "to liberate Palestine."
However, at the Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in April, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat succeeded in pulling the ranks together while also fortifying his personal grip on the organization.
But the day when the PLO's approximately 15,000 guerrillas become a "real army" is still a long way off. Their training and equipment have been mostly hit and miss. The PLO has set out to correct this and formalize its military training.
The PLO also hopes to bring all of the guerrillas directly under Arafat's control. A couple thousand guerrillas are only nominally under the control of Arafat's Al-Fatah guerrilla group. These fighters answer only to their leaders, whose views and orders often conflict with Arafat's.
More importantly, the PLO arsenal is no match for the Israelis. The PLO now admits it has SAM-7 and SAM-9 anti- aircraft missiles in south Lebanon supplied by Libya.
Military observers say, however, that these are very inaccurate and virtually useless against the sophisticated Israeli Air Force planes.
Months before what Arafat called "this Palestinian-Israeli war" began, PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi readily conceded that the PLO was incapable of combating Israeli air strikes.
PLO officials quickly point out that their only military strength is as a "guerrilla" organization. Their sole advantage in the south is that they know the terrain as well as the field mice.
In a major land invasion on the scale of the Israeli March 1978 drive, the Palestinians would lose large chunks of land in the south, PLO officials have admitted.
However, the PLO says it could defend most of its city strongholds, such as Tyre and Sidon. Both of these have been bombarded almost daily for nearly two weeks.
Whether the Palestinians can live up to this claim now, with the major roads and bridges of the south largely unusable because of Israeli bombings, is yet to be seen.
Asked precisely that question, a PLO military spokesman sharply retorted, "A guerrilla organization does not need roads."
The Palestinians are not looking for an even military match. They will fight where they know they can inflict the most Israeli casualties.
"The Palestinians often lose hundreds," Mr. Labadi said, "but if the Israelis lose even one life, it creates political trouble at home," he added.
Therein lies the PLO military strategy -- at least until they graduate into "the army."
The strongest military tactic the Palestinian's have is being used now -- the shelling of northern Israel. Surprisingly despite the intensity of the recent bombings, the Palestinians' key military position in intact.
Beaufort Castle, a Crusaders' fortress situated 1,000 feet up on a hill, is the Palestinian's main artillery launching site just a few miles from the Israeli border. It is currently under fierce attack from the Israelis.
The PLO may be one of the wealthiest guerrilla groups in the world. The bottom line of its riches is an unguessable figure. One can be sure, though, that much of it comes from the Arab oil-producing states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Libya.
Should the PLO continue to put its own house in order militarily as well as politically, the PLO would certainly have the means to refine and escalate its operations.
Shortly after the PNC meeting, the PLO announced that all Palestinians, men and women, between 16 and 49 years of age should register for the draft.
At the PNC meeting itself, a new 15-member executive council was elected. That was significant because the election reinstated the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and gave Arafat's Al-Fatah a third seat on the council.
The PFLP under the leadership of George Habash (who is thought to have masterminded the September 1970 triple hijacking in the Jordanian desert) pulled out of the council in 1974 because it disapproved of PLO contacts with the United States.
Their readmission signaled not only a softening by the PFLP, but also a victory for Arafat to unify the PLO and solidify its claim of being the "sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."
Two smaller radical groups linked to the PFLP were rejected from the council. The groups angrily protested, then sent a hot-air balloon into Israel to carry out a military mission.
The Israelis shot down the two Palestinians and their balloon.
Although PLO officials will never publicly criticize such missions, privately they shake their heads and say it is just such incidents that they are trying to stop.
Not only do they uselessly sap manpower from the PLO, they also make it look ridiculous, one PLO official said.
One seat stronger on the executive council, Arafat is as securely in control of the PLO as ever before. Given the situation in Lebanon, he couldn't have picked a better time to be cem ented in the chairman's seat.