Lebanon: powerless to protect Lebanese or to keep PLO in check

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is in Lebanon because no other nation will have it. But even Lebanon did not provide itself as a refuge willingly. It just happened to be the most accessible border when Jordanian King Hussein turned on the Palestinians in September 1970.

After the triple hijacking in the Jordanian desert, Hussein ordered his Army to open fire on the Palestinians and eventually drove the majority of the PLO out of the country. Most came to Lebanon.

Their residence in Lebanon is now an unavoidable fact of life.

Lebanon is a country which cannot provide sufficient water for its citizens or protect them from the thousands of militiamen carving out territory for themselves with the threat of machine-gun barrels, much less control the PLO.

The Palestinian Statistical Abstract for 1980 said that 347,100 Palestinians live in Lebanon. Unofficially, many officials add at least another 150,000 to that figure.

The "armed resistance" of the PLO set up shop in the south along Israel's northern border to wage their campaign to free Palestine. (Palestinians are now entrenched in certain areas of southern Lebanon. Other areas are patrolled by United Nations forces or are under the control of Israeli-allied Maj. Saad Haddad.)

When they moved south toward Israel's nothern border, many of the Lebanese (largely poor Shiite Muslims) fled north to Beirut. When the Israelis invaded the south in March 1978, many more Lebanese and many Palestinians escaped north, again largely to Beirut.

The refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, the targets of last week's Israeli bombing raid on Beirut, were born out of the two-time exodus.

The presence of the Palestinians in Lebanon was a major ingredient of the time bomb which exploded into the 1975-76 Lebanese civil war.

The Lebanese Christians were particularly intent on running them out of the country, as were many of the displaced Muslims.

Out of the approximate 65,000 people killed in the civil war, some 10,000, at least, were Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said after the Beirut bombing that Israel would continue to pursue Palestinian terrorists even if it meant hitting heavily populated civilian centers.

The Palestinian news agency Wafa claimed that about 80 percent of those killed in the Beirut raid were Lebanese and not Palestinian. Even though that figure is most likely a bit inflated for effect it is a fact that not all the victims were Palestinians.

So what does Lebanon do to protect the Lebanese?

The answer is simple -- nothing. The Lebanese Army is powerless to stop a street fight much less an Israeli warplane. Many renegade Lebanese troops side with the Christian Phalange Party and therefore would be glad to see the Palestinians cut down by Israel.

After Friday's strike on the capital, the Lebanese took the only possible step -- they formally complained and appealed to the United Nations Security Council. They were handed a mild expression of "deep concern" along with an as yet unheeded call for a cease fire.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat said Monday that the PLO had restrained itself for the first two days of Israeli attacks, but finally was forced to protect the Palestinians and the Lebanese.

However the PLO admits it is no match for the sophisticated weaponry of Israel, despite the fact that the Palestinians do have some SAM-7 and SAM-9 missiles to use against the Israeli planes.

The only nation which can control Palestinian military operations is Syria. Syria is also the only nation which can provide the Palestinians with any military support.

The last two bombings before the Beirut strike. Syria demonstrated its solidarity with the Palestinians by scrambling its Air Force to overfly the Bekaa Valley and Beirut. The Israelis shot down one of these Soviet-made MIGs.

That could have been the spark to ignite war by Syrians and Palestinians against Israel, but it didn't happen.

The day the Israelis hit Beirut the Syrian planes stayed put.

Both incidents proved what was a basic fact. Israel's inventory of military might was far longer and far more powerful than anything even Syria could list.

The Syrians know that and, therefore it would seem, made a realistic decision not to send up their planes, knowing it was suicidal.

The political benefits to be reaped from such a show of solidarity with the Palestinians were not yet ripe for the picking.

However, as the violence continues and the other Arab nations begin to either feel the need or be pressured into expressions of support for the Palestinians, Syria is likely to assume the leadership partially by default, partially because it earned it through its stand off with Israel over the SAM-6 missiles in the Bekaa Valley, and partially because Arafat closely coordinates PLO moves with Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Arafat needs Assad to help him round up the Arabs behind his cause.

Arafat also needs Assad to assure the PLO presence in Lebanon. If Syria should becide that the Palestinians are causing enough trouble in Lebanon to threaten the status quo, he could turn his 30,000 peacekeeping troops in Lebanon on the PLO.

And for Assad, that status quo is his troops having the upper hand in the country and having the final approval on any major political or military changes.

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