All Lebanon holds its breath as peace efforts continue
All around the crowded, bomb-pocked Palestinian camps and out in the adjoining Lebanese-Palestinian neighborhoods June 15, people were waiting.Skip to next paragraph
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In the hills above the camps, the Israeli Army also was waiting.
So much June 15 seemed to depend on whether the Lebanese government could act with uncharacteristic decisiveness and, with Palestinian approval, deploy its troops into west Beirut. That, diplomats here believe, would preempt an Israeli or Phalangist attack on this part of the city.
''Time is so short,'' a diplomat said. ''The fate of Lebanon hangs in the balance. But so far there is only dithering.''
Efforts to form a governmental ''council of national salvation,'' linking the de facto powers in Lebanon have been unsuccessful so far. Personality and politics seem to be getting in the way.
The main problem is that Walid Jumblatt, the head of the leftist National Movement, refuses to join the council due, it seems, to his disliking for Bashir Gemayel, leader of the right-wing Phalange. Mr. Jumblatt is said to be concerned that the council, forming as it would with Israeli troops posted less than 200 yards away, would be a quisling government. In the past, Mr. Jumblatt has had close relations with Palestinian leaders.
As time passes, diplomats fear, other Lebanese leaders will be tempted to drop out of the council. The biggest loss would be Nabih Berri of the Shiite Amal Party. The Shiites are the largest confessional group in the country today. Their presence is vital in working on the problems of southern Lebanon, where most Shiites live.
These are the sorts of squabbles that have divided and redivided Lebanon for most of the past decade. The difference today is the proximity of the Israeli Army to Israel's archenemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization. Both Israel and the PLO seem likely to accept a formula in which part of the 21,000-man Lebanese Army would move into west Beirut and the PLO would at least partially disarm. But without a central government to give the order for the Lebanese Army to march, this plan cannot be implemented.
''What I fear is that sooner or later -- and it could be sooner -- the Israelis will not be able to resist going in after the PLO leadership,'' a diplomat said. ''They are so close, and they don't want their troops tied up waiting in Lebanon.''
Even as troops waited around Beirut, other Israeli forces pressed on into the Sannin Heights overlooking the Phalange enclave and the Bekaa Valley. Israeli artillery resumed shelling the Beirut-Damascus Highway, and Syrian forces remaining in Beirut were again delivered an Israeli ultimatum to get out. This warning was taken as a sign that Israel might be planning to hit Palestinian areas in and around Beirut.
United States special envoy Philip C. Habib was at the presidential palace in Baabda, continuing to urge on efforts to form the governing council and to work out a longer-term separation of forces.
PLO leaders remain publicly adamant about holding out. PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi said guerrillas were ''holding positions everywhere'' and would ''never accept any Israeli demands and conditions.''
Would the PLO accept the deployment of the Lebanese Army into west Beirut? ''So far we haven't been asked,'' Mr. Labadi replied.
In fact, PLO leaders are believed to have been asked quietly and to have indicated agreement with the idea.
Nevertheless, guerrillas have been hurriedly building tank defenses in the predominantly Palestinian areas in case the Israeli Army mounts an attack. This could come, strategists say, in these forms: (1) heavy Israeli air and artillery bombardment on the camps, (2) a two-pronged Israeli ground assualt down from the Baabda hills and up from the Khalde area, (3) a massive Phalangist-Israeli attack into west Beirut aimed at shocking Palestinians into surrendering, or (4) Israeli hit and run raids against Palestinian leaders.
''Right now,'' a diplomat said, ''all it could take would be one Palestinian firing his rifle into the air, and the Israelis could claim a violation of the cease-fire and attack.''
If the Lebanese Army can be sent into this side of the city, however, all parties could make this out as a victory:
* Israel would see the PLO effectively disarmed and subject to the Lebanese military.
* The PLO would have preserved its command structure and many of its fighting forces.
* The Lebanese would be exercising sovereignty as they have not been able to do since the early 1970s. US aid would then be rushed to support the Lebanese government and rebuild the country.
The alternative, another round of fighting, would be devastating. A tour of Beirut June 15 revealed how much destruction and human suffering there has been up to now. ''They hit us very, very hard,'' said Dr. Fathi Arafat, brother of the PLO leader and chief of the Palestine Red Crescent. ''Even here at Acre, hospital bombs hit outside and broke glass and put shrapnel in the offices.''
Dr. Arafat estimated there had been 10,000 casualties in Lebanon, including 2 ,000 in Beirut. He said 95 percent were civilians and 60 percent were Lebanese.