Israel's aim: silence PLO guns - and leaders
Sidon, Israeli-occupied Lebanon — If Sidon is an example, Israel's war policy in Lebanon is not content with simple neutralization and disarmament of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israel is going after not only the guns but the people.
In Beirut this probably means that the PLO will not be able to escape as a political entity even if it could agree to lay down its weapons. PLO lieutenants and captains have been searched out and arrested in Sidon, even after they and their men have thrown away their guns and fatigues. It seems logical that the PLO's generals, accordingly, will not be allowed to remain free in Beirut.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir stated as much June 22, saying his country wanted to see the destruction of the PLO ''in the entire Middle East.''
It seems, therefore, that the negotiations to avert a final Israeli assault on PLO strongholds in and around Beirut - negotiations which are still fraught with division and indecision - ultimately will have no effect on Israeli policy.
These negotiations are centered on a proposal under which (1) the PLO would voluntarily surrender its weapons, (2) all military forces - Palestinian, Syrian , Israeli, and Phalangist - would pull away from each other by five to 10 kilometers, and (3) the Lebanese Army would take control of western Beirut. The Israeli government rejected the proposal June 23, saying the plan did not meet its demand that the Palestinians disarm.
In this port city, one sees evidence of an apparent total war by Israel against the PLO. After the Sidon battle ended June 17, Israeli soldiers, acording to residents, began rounding up anyone suspected of having connections with the PLO, even those unarmed and dressed as civilians. Sidon residents, who seem rather pro-Israeli in their sentiments, say that local informers are being used to point out guerrilla fighters.
Israeli soldiers are everywhere in Sidon: at cafes, shops, bivouacs. Mostly, however, Israeli soldiers are on the main highway through the city, heading north toward Beirut. The size of the Israeli troop buildup between Sidon and Beirut, and the presence of stockpiles of ammunition, armor, and Israeli ambulances, gives the impression that rather than maintaining a siege the Israeli Army is massing for an assault on the capital.
A decision about whether or not to launch an assault on western Beirut - or on Palestinian strongholds in the vicinity - was expected to be made when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and aides met June 23. This was to be Mr. Begin's first conference with Israeli leaders since his meeting with President Reagan June 22.
Lebanese in Beirut read negative signals from the Reagan-Begin meeting. They noted that little was said afterward about Israeli restraint from attacking west Beirut. The announcement shortly afterward that the United States Embassy in Beirut was closing and an American ship was arriving to evacuate US citizens was further cause for concern.
What hope there was June 23 seemed grounded on little more than the quiet of Israeli and Palestinian cannons around Beirut most of the day. But Israeli reconnaissance jets flew over the city during the day, apparently lining up future targets.
With the threat of an Israeli attack on Palestinians in west Beirut growing, the Arab world is raising only modest protest. A leading Lebanese editor noted the virtual silence. He believes that Arab states now may be more afraid of allowing an embittered PLO to survive than of seeing the Israeli Army go after PLO chiefs.
From most observers in Lebanon June 23, the message was the same: It no longer seems a matter of if the Israelis attack west Beirut but of when.