PLO: no place to go and no desire to leave
Beirut — A newly arrived camera crew went to the information office of the Palestine Liberation Organization the other day to ask to film a fighter and his family packing to go to Syria.
The PLO officials were furious. For the PLO insists it is not going anywhere - regardless of public statements put out by others.
PLO officials maintain, on the record, that they are willing to discuss their presence here in Lebanon and they have even said they are willing to consider moving to Syria. Some observers see such statements as a means of stalling for time or an attempt to initiate a direct dialogue with the United States or even Israel rather than going through a variety of Lebanese officials.
But the Palestinians have never said they are leaving. And, privately, the same officials say all this talk of evacuating is nonsense.
''We are not leaving,'' a senior PLO official said categorically, as Israeli shells crashed just a few blocks away.
Syria had been taken for granted by many as the PLO's natural refuge - until Syria said it didn't want the guerrillas.
''Well, now we are even,'' said a ranking official from one of the more radical PLO groups. ''We don't want to go to Syria and they don't want us.''
The reason the PLO doesn't want to leave Lebanon is no longer primarily a military one. With the Israelis in control of south Lebanon, the Palestinians admit they are broken militarily.
But the PLO has to stay in Lebanon to survive even as a political group. And Lebanon is without question the only Arab country where that is possible.
Only in Lebanon can the PLO operate its myriad institutions freely. The PLO runs schools, hospitals, a newspaper, several magazines, a radio station, an academic research institute, a ''think tank'' research center. It has a major share in an Arab bank.
The PLO ran Samed, a multimillion-dollar industrial conglomerate which was one of the largest employers in the country before the invasion. Much of Samed's factories have been devastated by Israeli attacks and most of its workers are now in combat fatigues - if they have not been captured, wounded, or killed.
The Palestinians would face two insurmountable obstacles by uprooting their infrastructure in Lebanon.
First, no Arab country would take the greater bulk of the Palestinians. The guerrillas would purposely be parceled out to a number of countries to make sure they can't build what they did in Lebanon either politically or militarily.
That splintering would effectively ''kill'' the PLO. And even if the small groups could patch together a semblance of the old PLO in miniature, their host countries wouldn't stand for it.
Everything the PLO has or had in Lebanon is strictly state-run in every other Arab country. Those nations tightly control the political movements of their own people and are even harsher with the Palestinians already living there.
Ironically, the PLO headquarters already technically is in Damascus.
''But we never go there because we don't like it there,'' said a senior PLO official bluntly.
Another official of Al-Fatah (the main element within the PLO) recently told this reporter it wasn't worth talking to those PLO officials who are based in the Syrian capital because their hands and tongues were tied by the government there.
Already all the PLO finances are handled in Damascus. Just before the Israelis tightened their ring around west Beirut, the PLO orphanages were moved there too, because the Palestinians feared the 600-odd children were no longer safe in Beirut.
Soon after the Israelis encircled Beirut, for instance, the Syrians raided the major Palestinian refugee camps in Syria to search for weapons.
In another Arab country, Kuwait, Palestinian demonstrations against the Israeli invasion were sharply put down with no mention of them in the state-run press.
PLO officials maintain the political, informational, and diplomatic side of the organization will never leave Lebanon - unless of course it goes to Palestine.
''We just wouldn't have the access we need to foreign diplomats, the media, academics, and traveling parliamentarians that we have here,'' said one senior PLO official.
Another factor which makes the Palestinians uncomfortable neighbors with other Arabs is the essentially middle classness of the Palestinians here. They tend to be better educated and lead a lifestyle that has both the freedoms and trappings of that status.
The American University of Beirut, with its visiting professors, provides intellectual stimulation and resources. Travel is not hampered by the seemingly endless red tape of other Arab entrance and exit visas.
And despite its years of violence, Beirut still has restaurants, cafes, cinemas, and beaches viewed as free of the stuffiness of some other Arab and Muslim nations. Many of the Palestinians, especially the leadership, would feel personally as well as politically suffocated living elsewhere.