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PLO gains time but fails to win real Arab support

By Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 1982


The Palestine Liberation Organization has surprised everyone - except perhaps itself - by holding out so long, remaining united, and even now inflicting significant damage on the Israeli invaders of Lebanon.

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Despite that, however, the PLO's political stock seems to have fallen drastically.

Its welcome, even by sympathetic Lebanese, has worn thin. The PLO's Arab allies continue to put up what an American diplomat calls ''a thunderous silence'' in the face of Israeli efforts to destroy it. And they refuse to give it refuge except on their own strict terms.

The PLO's often-fractious leaders, realizing that the choice before them today is between independence and a last-ditch stand, agree that staying and fighting may be best. The very existence of the PLO may therefore be at stake here.

The Lebanese and most other Arabs see the PLO at this point more as the poor loser, dragging innocent Lebanese down with it, than as the plucky survivor.

Yasser Arafat's recent rhetorical comment, ''Did Churchill leave London during the blitz?'' was quietly criticized by several prominent, otherwise sympathetic Lebanese, as presumptuous. They pointed out to the Monitor that Beirut is the Lebanese, not the Palestinian, capital.

Similarly, when George Habbash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine suggested making Beirut the PLO's ''Stalingrad'' - or, more recently, its ''Hanoi'' - a number of Lebanese discreetly criticized Mr. Habash for abusing the PLO's guest status here.

This seems to run counter to previous (and, admittedly, less drastic) Israeli assaults on the PLO. During heavy Israeli raids last summer, the PLO suffered serious military setbacks. It took most of last fall and winter to recover from them. But it seemed to benefit from the underdog image and from the negative publicity Israel received for using its fighter-bombers against the Palestinian-Lebanese Fakhani neighborhood in Beirut where the PLO has made its headquarters.

This time, however, the PLO's early military losses were made up for by the strength of its last redoubt: the city of Beirut. Six weeks after the vaunted Israeli Army entered Lebanon and five weeks after it sealed off Beirut, Israel is quite reluctant to go in after the PLO. In fact, Israel is having to adjust to the PLO's residual military muscle.

Perhaps the PLO's most impressive military feat came July 11. For weeks Israeli armor and artillery had been bashing Palestinian positions in west Beirut with only mild response from the PLO's showy but inaccurate Katyusha field rockets. Soldiers staffing Israeli supply depots and rear line camps had been basking in the breezy, pastoral hills outside Beirut.

But on July 11, the Palestinians surprised the Israelis with cannons, mortars , and rockets. They hit these Israeli positions, destroying a number of vehicles , and causing, according to Israeli Col. Paul Kader, 31 Israeli casualties in one day. Three of them were fatal.

The Israelis responded with an intense day-long bombardment of west Beirut before another truce was worked out late July 11. Colonel Kader estimated 10,000 shells were fired. As a result of the Palestinian attack, Israeli headquarters and supply depots were being relocated July 12.