PLO guerrillas, Sinai squatters keep Israel on its toes

Israel is worried by a border and a border-to-be -- southern Lebanon and northern Sinai.

In the north, Israeli military officials continue to express concern over what they contend is growing Palestinian armed strength in southern Lebanon -- but so far the Israeli Army is not moving into action.

In the south, however, the Army has already been committed -- to prevent diehard settlers in northern Sinai from bringing in sympathizers. And elsewhere along the soon-to-be Egyptian-Israeli border, there are tough boundary demarcation issues to be resolved.

This is the way Israel's two-front, semimilitary, semipropaganda campaign is going:

Southern Lebanon: Moshe Arens, Israel's ambassador to Washington, recently outlined his country's estimate of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) strength in southern Lebanon. Israeli government and military officials say the buildup continues to threaten their northern cities.

Defense Minister Ariel Sharon March 7 said Israel does not, however, intend to invade southern Lebanon ''unless there is a clear provocation.'' But some Western sources remain concerned the Israelis would like to attack northward while the Egyptians are still tied down waiting anxiously to get back the rest of Sinai next month.

Special US envoy Philip C. Habib, at the close of his fifth Mideast mission since last May, told Israeli officials that conversations with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria convinced him that none of these Arab states wants to see the cease-fire broken.

For the moment Israeli officialdom appears to agree with this view. The PLO buildup still should be neutralized and the Syrian antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley still should be removed, officials say, but the Israeli Foreign Ministry reiterated March 8 that Israel ''would not attack if we are not attacked.'' (Reuters reported March 8 that the PLO said its commandoes and Lebanese leftist allies would strike deep inside Israeli-held territory if Israeli leaders persisted in making such ''provocative statements.'')

Northern Sinai: Israeli settlers in the last patch of Sinai captured from Egypt in 1967 are reported to be fortifying buildings with sandbags and storing provisions and projectiles. The Israeli Army has been evicting squatters for 11 days and recently set up roadblocks to prevent Israeli sympathizers from entering the area. This week work resumed by the World Zionist Organization on dismantling the settlements. Evacuation of legitimate settlers is scheduled for late this month.

The internal strife over Sinai withdrawal has spread to the West Bank, where hard-line Israeli settlers blocked roads March 7. There is considerable concern in the Israeli press about the protests becoming violent. The Jerusalem Post March 8 urged ''all the forces of peace to stand fast together.''

Elsewhere along the pullback line, problems remain with Egypt over how the border will cut through the city of Rafah and whether Israeli property (including a new hotel complex) in Eilat is in Israel or Egypt. Defense Minister Sharon and Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali were met in Israel March 8 to try and resolve the differences. Mr. Sharon reportedly sent Cairo a stern message warning that if the differences over border problems were not resolved, the Israeli withdrawal would not take place.

Southern Lebanon and the northern Sinai have had a ripple effect on Israel's two Camp David partners, Egypt and America. Due in part to fears Israel might attack the PLO while he is in Lebanon, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is reluctant to visit Israel. Neither does Mr. Mubarak wish to visit Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital. But Mr. Mubarak is caught in a position of not wanting to anger Israel, and jeopardize Israeli withdrawal, before April 25.

Washington and Tel Aviv have been arguing over the actual extent of PLO buildup in southern Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is reported to be angry that President Reagan has asked Israel to provide evidence that it is not simply waiting for a minor provocation to launch an all-out attack on the PLO.

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