The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) played a significant role in arranging for return of the remains of eight American servicemen killed during the abortive Iran rescue mission, according to Palestinian sources.
"It would be hard to ascribe the whole operation to the PLO alone," said a Carter administration official. "But they have a legitimate case to make. . . . They were cooperative."
The official said that the PLO obviously sees such forms of cooperation as a means of improving its image in the United States. This latest development indicates that despite reports of a recent hardening of PLO policy toward the United States and other Western powers, the PLO still wants to court American public opinion and sees it as a key to the attainment of its goals.
In the immediate aftermath of the unsuccessful raid into Iran, there was considerable confusion over whether the remains of the eight Americans who had been left behind would be returned to the US. At first, Iran's President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr declared that they would be quickly returned.Then other leaders contradicted him. Mr. Bani-Sadr designated as a middleman Ilarion Capucci, a Greek Melchite Catholic archbishop and ally of the PLO.
According to Yusif al-Bandak, counselor at the Tunisian Embassy in Washington and a member of the Palestine National Council, which is the "parliament" of the Palestinian nationalist movement, the PLO played an important behind-the-scenes role in negotiations with the Iranians. Mr. Bandak said that Archbishop Capucci acted as an "official delegate" of the PLO.
"I was on the telephone and telex . . . all the time," said Mr. Bandak. "It was done with the knowledge of the White House."
Following last year's seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, the PLO had offered to mediate between the United States and Iran. State Department spokesmen implicitly endorsed the offer, declaring that the US would pursue every avenue to secure release of the hostages being held by the Iranians.
Despite a continuing US refusal to recognize the PLO or to have direct contact with that organization, there is a precedent for cooperation in humanitarian cases. A State Department official said that during the Lebanese civil war in 1976 the PLO played a "positive and important" role in the evacuation of Americans from Beirut.
Meanwhile, in what some Middle East watchers considered a significant gesture , PLO chairman Yasser Arafat told Anthony Lewis of the New York Times May 7 that guerrilla attacks by the PLO would be limited to Israeli-occupied areas and would not be directed against Israel proper.
Mr. Arafat said the PLO joint command was against any operation launched through the Lebanese border. A recent attack on a kibbutz situated near the Lebanese border, in which an Israeli child and two adults were killed, was apparently carried out by an Iraqi-supported Palestinian group.