Beirut — Israeli forces appear to have launched a campaign of ''brinkmanship shadowboxing'' in an attempt to bait the Palestinians into provoking a confrontation in southern Lebanon.
This is the view held by Western diplomats and neutral UN officials here, who say the latest series of Israeli provocations may be an effort to justify an attack the Israelis cannot otherwise afford to make because of unprecedented international pressure.
Last week Israeli officials told US special envoy Philip C. Habib they would not attack Palestinian strongholds -- unless provoked. Western military analysts here feel the Israelis are goading the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into exactly that provocation. Indeed, one UN report suggests the Israelis are getting as close to violating the July 24 cease-fire as possible -- without actually breaking it.
Although tension over renewed hostilities began to build after the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights in mid-December, UN sources claim the provocation campaign did not begin until mid-January, when the Arabs failed to retaliate.
The turning point was Jan. 19, with the flight of four Israeli fighters over Syrian missile sites in the Bekaa Valley -- the first such flights since the truce.
The next day, Israeli forces deployed in the southern Lebanese stri' known as ''free Lebanon'' controlled by Israel's Christian ally Maj. Saad Haddad let off 5,000 rounds of machine-gun fire and 40,000 rounds of small arms fire during ''training exercises'' in Yarin and Marouahine that went on through the night.
That was also the first time UN observers noted tanks being used in Israeli training maneuvers in Lebanon. They labeled the action ''intensive, excessive, and provocative.'' It failed, however, to draw a response from PLO troops stationed nearby.
Since then there has been a series of incidents escalating in scale and nature, according to the UN.
One such incident occurred Feb. 8 when a convoy of 32 buses entered Lebanon from Israel -- already a violation of UN Resolution 425 - carrying between 600 and 700 well-armed troops.
They stopped at Dibbine at the controversial ''gap'' between UN deployments and less than one mile from where the PLO feels the Israelis would launch an attack on a central front.
But the Israelis left the same day, having failed to draw reaction. When queried by the UN, Israeli officials said it could have been either a ''demonstration'' or a ''recreational trip.''
On March 8, 300 Israeli military vehicles moved into Khaim, again as if in the initial stages of attack, since the village is also close to both routes the PLO feels the Israelis will use in a land assault. Again, however, they pulled out the same day.
There have also been a number of provocations at sea, according to UN reports.
On Jan. 25, seven Lebanese fishing boats reportedly were intercepted inside Lebanese territorial waters near Tyre by an Israeli warship and several torpedo boats.
The Israeli ship opened fire and sank two boats, the first incident of its kind since the cease-fire. Similar incidents were cited in UN reports on Feb. 10 and Feb. 16, this time by Israeli and Haddad forces stationed in Bayadah.
PLO officials allege there have been repeated and increasingly heavy nightly sea patrols by the Israelis as far north as Beirut. Their charge that at least 27 boats were spotted off the coast between Tyre and Beirut on Feb. 25 was later substantiated in part by Western diplomats who have also noted increases in Israeli patrols lately.
UN officials are angered to the point of publicizing recent incidents, hoping it will check the provocation. At the same time, they praise the PLO's ''unusual restraint.''
Abul Walid, PLO chief of military operations, said PLO troops in southern Lebanon had been ordered to adhere to the terms of the truce, although he admitted tension was high due to the constant alerts during these incidents.
Western diplomats here fear a nervous or angered group of guerrillas will jump at the bait. It is no secret that certain factions in the fragmented PLO have never been enthusiastic about the truce.
Indeed, PLO chief Yasser Arafat has increased his ''inspections'' of the south lately, a move believed aimed largely at calming or reining in troops stationed there.
The Israelis recently charged the PLO with 30 attacks on the Christian enclave since the cease-fire, 16 attempts to infiltrate from Jordan, and 21 attacks on Jewish targets abroad. Most significant was the capture of three Palestinians carrying explosives during an attempt to infiltrate through the Jordan Valley, which almost sparked an Israeli attack on Lebanon last month.
UN sources characterized the Israeli charges on southern Lebanon, the only area monitored, as ''exaggerated generally,'' and nothing compared with the Israeli provocations. One UN report also claims the Israelis last week took the provocation into the political sphere. In a discreetly arranged deal to show Palestinian interest in consolidating the cease-fire, Arafat had tentatively agreed -- against the wishes of more militant PLO factions -- to allow UN observers back into Beaufort Castle.
The Palestinian-controlled crusader fortress has withstood numerous bombardments and remains a prime Israeli target. It was shelling from the castle that hit northern Israeli settlements during the conflict last July.
The Israelis charged last week that Syrian observers were at Beaufort. The UN was then forced to announce that the only observers were UN officers on an initial inspection. The publicity reportedly embarrassed Arafat and could foil permanent observer deployment by making it a major issue within the PLO.
In large part because of the continued provocation, the Palestinians remain convinced there will be an invasion this spring. However, Abul Walid said he did not feel it would necessarily be timed to the April 25 Sinai transfer.
In preparation, the PLO joint military command last week drew up an elaborate scenario of how they feel the Israelis will hit Lebanon on three major fronts, with separate assaults on Beirut and Tyre to distract and cut off the two cities.
The report predicted: ''Enemy preparations in the eastern sector near Arkoub indicate he (Begin) will begin his attack from this point. It is likely to be in two thrusts: from Chebaa working north to Rachaiya. The second thrust will be through the UN gap from Blat to Yamor in the Bekaa Valley.''
On the western Mediterranean coastal front, the PLO anticipates four major seaborne landings from just south of the Zahrani River at Aadloun to almost as far north as Damour, backed up by helicopter-dropped paratroopers in the same area. Additional troops could be dropped inland at Aaichiye ad Kfar Houne.
That the PLO will take a heavy beating in any confrontation with the Israelis is conceded even by Yasser Arafat. But that does not mean the Palestinians do not have a few surprises up their sleeves, including the mining of southern bridges and roads to cut off Israeli ground troops and tanks. And PLO sources indicated further steps were prepared at a two-day military conclave late last week.