Everyone knows the Palestine Liberation Organization has guerrillas and guns but no state. Its critics see it as a gang of terrorists and murderers. What few people know is that the PLO has a social affairs department that budgeted $114 million this year to provide education, health care, pensions, and many other services.
''We are the humanitarian headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization, shouldering the humanitarian responsibilities of the PLO,'' said Jallal Nasri, duputy director of the department.
What began as a small committee in 1965 - to take care of four people left on their own when Palestinian guerrillas were killed - is now almost a proper ''ministry'' looking after 76,000 people, Mr. Nasri says.
The department extends its services free of charge to what it calls ''martyrs'' - guerrillas killed, missing, or imprisoned by the Israelis - and to their families. For instance, the widow and two children of a guerrilla in Lebanon would receive about $190 per month, which is about equal to the Lebanese minimum wage.
The PLO also shoulders the responsibility for anyone wounded in an Israeli attack - hence there are about 25,000 Lebanese on its rolls, Mr. Nasri says.
Education ''is considered a very important factor in the Palestinian revolution,'' according to Mr. Nasri. The bulk of education for refugee Palestinians is the job of the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), but he says the PLO picks up where UNRWA leaves off.
The PLO runs 14 kindergartens, 13 in Lebanon and one in Damascus, for four- to six-year-olds. The UNRWA has 85 schools in Lebanon with about 41,600 pupils between the ages of six and 17, says UNRWA's supervisor in Lebanon, Fuad Farah.
However, the PLO has a number of its own schools and also pays the tuition for some Palestinians to attend private schools. Some 1,700 students receive partial or full scholarships from the PLO to attend universities, often in the Eastern bloc.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society falls within the domain of the social affairs department. Under the direction of Fathi Arafat, brother of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the Red Crescent Society has more than 100 clinics in the Arab world.
The PLO also has several orphanages. The Tel Zaatar orphanage in Beirut is home for 150 children - mostly orphans from the battle at the Tel Zaatar refugee camp between the Palestinians and the Lebanese Christians during the Lebanese civil war.
The children are raised by a ''mother'' who lives with eight to 10 children. The ''family'' shares one large bedroom and one large dining table in the orphanage. The children attend UNRWA schools and return ''home'' for more lessons such as the history and folklore of Palestine. The PLO does not want them to forget Palestine, and the maps on the walls, together with the pictures of Jerusalem and Yasser Arafat, are constant reminders.
In Lebanon, the PLO has also undertaken such tasks as repairing sewage systems and roads because the post-civil war Lebanese government has not.
The social affairs department helps an estimated 22,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, Mr. Nasri says. ''By our own ways we send doctors to treat them, send books, fruit, clothing, and pocket money.''
The money for this rapidly growing array of services comes from three main sources: the ''liberation'' tax paid by Palestinians (5 percent of their salaries), contributions from Arab countries (especially those in the Gulf), and donations from wealthy Palestinians (especially those who work in the Gulf), Nasri explains.
The novelty of what amounts to the PLO's own bureacracy is that the bureaucracy comes to the people rather than the people to it.
For example, there is no office in Beirut's Palestinian refugee camps where victims of the July Israeli bombing applied for money or medical care, Nasri says.
The social affairs department goes out to the scene of a disaster and signs up people. ''We had the bad experience of going begging to UNRWA, so we don't want to make the same mistake.''