Beirut — The Palestine Liberation Organization is determined to react with restraint to last week's Israeli bombing of southern Lebanon.
The reason is simple: PLO leaders do not want to diminish the political and diplomatic benefits of being seen as the victims of Israeli action. Any violent Palestinian response, such as rocket attacks on northern Israel, would risk reversing this image.
In addition, the PLO leaders do not want to provide Israel with an apparent excuse for further Israeli attacks into Lebanon -- especially when they are convinced that such attacks will be launched anyway. PLO officials say privately they are not shelling the northern Israeli settlements, which is the only effective weapon they have, because that is exactly what Israel wants.
''They are coming back anyway so why should we give them the pleasure of an excuse?'' one PLO official says, refusing to be identified for security reasons.
The strategy has found support among the Lebanese.
''For the first time the PLO has been smart,'' says a Lebanese political source, usually resentful of the PLO presence here, referring to the PLO decision not to fire back at Israel. ''This is the first time I have ever agreed with the Palestinians.''
Another Lebanese adds, ''If they shelled Kiryat Shemona (in northern Israel) and injured one Israeli child, the newspaper picture of that child would make the world forget that Israel bombed first.'' Khalil Itani, Lebanon's ambassador to Washington, spoke out against the Israeli raid, saying: ''There had been no provocation against Israel or any hostile acitivity across the Lebanese border originating from Lebanon.''
Ambassador Itani was also outraged that the United States State Department joined Israel in citing (as a provocation) the killing of an Israeli soldier by a landmine in south Lebanon. This ''ignores the fact that this soldier should not have been in Lebanon in the first place and that his presence on Lebanese soil -- acknowledged by Israel -- is an aggression by itself.''
There is some pressure on PLO leader Yasser Arafat to respond. Indeed, there was pressure on him to break the nine-month old cease-fire long before the bombs fell.
But that pressure is not coming from PLO decision makers, PLO sources say, but from PLO officials making rabble-rousing statements.
These statements, say PLO sources, are embarrassing in one way but useful in another: They help Arafat continue his slippery balancing act between being the guerrilla chieftain and the only Arab leader whose diplomacy is so fine-tuned he is still talking to everybody.
The communiques, issued by such groups as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, are dismissed by PLO and Lebanese sources alike as being ''for local consumption only.'' Behind the militant noises, these sources say, there is widespread agreement among the leadership not to respond -- yet. But they warn that the policy of restraint may not hold if there is a second air raid.
The PLO has 25,000 guerrillas and about 15,000 of them belong to Fatah, according to moderate estimates. Fatah also has the money and contacts to buy weapons, the sources say. The other groups can probably raise only about quarter of the cash and weaponry they require.
However, the PLO sources do concede that there is the chance a radical stray could slip through Fatah's iron fist hold on southern Lebanon and lob a shell into northern Israel. They also say there are anti-Palestinian factions in Lebanon which might be prepared to do the same in order to trigger an all-out Israeli attack on the Palestinians.