Israel's awesome pounding of west Beirut Aug. 1 and its armored advance on the city's south side may have been designed to pressure the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into leaving Lebanon.
But in the short run it was seen from here as likely only to inflict greater civilian suffering - and possibly to torpedo peace negotiations.
Israeli military actions in and around Beirut seemed to show just how skeptical Israeli leaders are about a putative departure plan the PLO is said to accept. The repeated air raids and daylong barrages of artillery - eventually curbed by the war's ninth ceasefire - underscored the conviction here that Israel intends to soften up and capture west Beirut piecemeal. Israel intends to force a cornered PLO into capitulation.
The PLO guerrillas, however, as their situation becomes more dire, give every sign of becoming all the more resolved to stand and fight, to inflict casualties on the advancing Israelis, to prolong the war of attrition, and ultimately to become martyrs for the Palestinian cause.
One thing that has been firmly established in this vicious war - now approaching its third month - has been the willful, to-the-bitter-end convictions of the leaders of Israel and the PLO. In some ways, Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat can be viewed as mirror images: both equally determined, emotional, bitter, and implacably at odds.
Israel's Begin seems adamant about showing the PLO no mercy. On Aug. 1, for instance, not only did Israeli artillery fire on west Beirut military targets with precise military skill from close range, but also Israeli guns far away in the mountains near Alayh joined in. These latter were blanket, indiscriminate barrages, given the inaccuracy at that 20-plus kilometer distance.
The latest pounding of west Beirut, therefore, dropped all Israeli pretense of trying to spare civilian areas and doubtless caused widespread fatalities among noncombatants.
The PLO, on the other hand, seems dead set against being forced out of its west Beirut redoubt and dispersed throughout the Arab world. At the very least, Mr. Arafat intends to elicit a political concession from the West in the form of recognition - most especially American recognition - of the need for a Palestinian homeland. If he cannot achieve this, then Mr. Arafat may well decide that it is best to hang on and force Israel to destroy the PLO and much of west Beirut before the eyes of a horrified world.
Moreover, the PLO continues to avoid stating outright that it recognizes the state of Israel without conditions. PLO hard-liners today, as in early June, promise to fight the Israeli Army ''street to street, house to house,'' as Al-Fatah's Abu Iyad repeated late last week.
Frighteningly, that seems the course events are taking - with tragic cost to this city and its people.
The Aug. 1 shelling awoke residents at 3:15 a.m. and did not cease until 5 p.m. Israeli jets swooped low over the city, their bombs clearly visible as they fell. Cannons and tanks fired countless rounds. Other times, Israeli ''Vulcan'' Gatling guns chewed into buildings with a mechanical whine. Buildings crumbled from the airport area north to the Corniche Mazaraa and beyond into Beirut proper. Fires blazed out of control, smoke blanketing the city skies.
By the end of the fighting Israeli troops seemed to have captured the whole of Beirut's international airport and were in Ain Rummani. Some reports said the Israelis were inside Borj el Barajneh, one of the three largest Palestinian neighborhoods south of Beirut.
A score of Israeli armored personnel carriers were massed near Khalde early in the day when I passed, and many others were on side roads. Toward noon they moved toward the airport. Israeli soldiers blocked our route back into Beirut. A three-hour detour through the mountains ensued, and it was in the mountains that artillery was heard firing at Beirut from its positions far from the capital along the Isreli-Syrian ceasefire line.