Hostage crisis shows Shiite leader's woes. Loss of status cuts Berri's ability to deliver on plan
Nicosia, Cyprus — The latest bid for center stage by Lebanese Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri underlines how much things have changed in Lebanon since the 1985 TWA hijacking. During that crisis, Mr. Berri was the central figure in the negotiations that ended the drama. Now, Berri is in a weaker political position which could undermine his ability to deliver on the deal he has proposed.
By press time yesterday, the kidnappers holding foreigners in Beirut had apparently ignored Berri's offer to negotiate on their behalf. Berri proposed Saturday that all the kidnap groups in Beirut release their hostages in exchange for his negotiating the exchange of a captured Israeli pilot for 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel has shown qualified interest in exploring its side of the deal.
Berri's offer represented a way out for the kidnappers and their hostages, following Israel's rejection of their demand. It allows Israel to get its airman back, and indirectly to help free the four hostages threatened with death if Israel had not released the 400 prisoners by midnight yesterday - but without capitulating to what Israel sees as ``terrorist blackmail.''
The release of 400 prisoners by the Israelis was the main demand made by ``Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine,'' the name used by the kidnappers who seized four college professors - three Americans and an Indian - from their west Beirut campus Jan. 24.
It was no coincidence that Berri's press conference where he made the offer was in Damascus. Berri has been living there for the past three months, and has not been back to Beirut in all that time.
Shiite sources say his prolonged absence has caused many questions to be asked both inside and outside the Amal movement he heads. Many different theories have been advanced to explain his protracted stay in Damascus.
Some say he is reluctant to return to Beirut because he fears assassination in the current climate of heightened violence. Others say his Syrian allies have told him to stay in Damascus. Published reports that he was under house arrest there were publicly scorned by Berri.
But local observers agree that Berri's position has been badly eroded, in two related ways :
Amal itself has lost a great deal of ground in the jostle between rival Muslim factions in west Beirut and elsewhere. The Iranian-backed radical Hizbullah (``Party of God'') has emerged as a considerable force in the Shiite arena, largely at Amal's expense.
Internally, Amal is showing signs of fragmenting into rival trends, in addition to taking heavy losses through the prolonged war with Palestinians. Informed sources say an anti-Syrian wing has emerged, headed by the movement's military chief, Akel Hamieh.
The Amal politburo chief, Col. Akef Haidar, late last month publicly deplored the fact that ``from Amal, through the Hizbullah, to the other militias, part of the factions have been penetrated and bought up by [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat.''
The war between Palestinians and Shiites for the control of refugee camps is widely regarded as the main cause of Amal's woes. The first round of the conflict broke out in May 1985 and lasted about two months.
The latest round began at the Palestinian camp of Rashadiya near Tyre, in late September, and spread to the camps in the Beirut area a month later. It continues to rage.
While Amal has been ground down by the war, losing hundreds of fighters, the Palestinians have also suffered heavily. At the weekend, representatives of the 13,000 inhabitants of the besieged camp of Borj al Barajneh, in Beirut's southern suburbs, dramatized their plight by asking Muslim religious leaders to issue an edict permitting them to eat the flesh of those who had died during the siege.
But paradoxically, the PLO's influence is generally seen as having burgeoned, despite the hardship prevailing in the embattled camps. Arafat's followers are reported to have won cooperation of one kind or another from almost all the factions on the Lebanese chessboard except Amal itself.
Israel has accused the Christian militia of helping Palestinian fighters return to west Beirut through Christian ports. Late last week, the Israelis announced they had detained 50 Palestinian guerrillas found on board a freighter bound for the port of Khaldeh, south of Beirut.
The Khaldeh port was built, and is operated, by the Druze militia, officially allied to Amal. But it is from Druze-controlled hills that Palestinian gunners frequently bombard Amal-held aras around the Beirut camps.
The PLO also has strong traditional ties with Sunni Muslim groups in Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli.