Israel seems committed to making war on the Palestine Liberation Organization in west Beirut.
Israel's Aug. 4 armored attack on the Lebanese capital and its suburbs had the aims of inching up to Palestinian fortifications and increasing pressure on the guerrillas, Israeli officers here say. The attack might also have been the advance guard of a sustained Israeli drive against the PLO, but at this writing it seemed limited.
The main signal that the Israeli government seemed to be sending by launching the attack was: Despite American urging to lay off, Israel wants to fight.
This latest attack seemed likely to undercut peace negotiations, exacerbate American-Israeli relations, and give the PLO a situation at the end of the day that its leaders can cast as a victory over vastly superior Israeli forces. This then could bolster PLO resolve to hold out.
Israeli tanks took marginally more territory around the Lebanese National Museum and in the Ouzai and Borj el Barajneh neighborhoods. At the port, which faces the waterfront of west Beirut proper, Israeli tanks assaulted a guerrilla-held building and quickly retreated.
Israeli armor moved into west Beirut across the Museum Road crossing point from the east side during the predawn hours. Fighting continued throughout the day with rockets and artillery shells racing over the heads of residents of the Ashrafiyeh and Berbir Hospital neighborhoods. People in both east and west Beirut huddled in basements as the battle raged.
An Israeli officer told the Monitor he thought his Army's objective at this crossing point was to secure control of the Hippodrome, which is just west of the National Museum and would be a good staging area for future military operations.
From the hills of Baabda just east of the city, one could watch Israeli cannons firing at the Borj el Barajneh neighborhood, but Israeli forces were not seen advancing. These were careful artillery shots in support of Israeli troops in the area, as opposed to the wholesale barrages that occurred Aug. 1 in this area. There were distinct lulls of several minutes each throughout the day as Israeli forces in the area called in for shelling.
And at Beirut port, Israeli armor had already pulled back in the early daylight hours after advancing - perhaps feinting - toward the old hotel district of west Beirut. A young Israeli soldier here characterized the fighting as ''a hit-and-run operation.''
A Western military attache expressed puzzlement at the way the Aug. 4 attack was carried out. He said he expected either a quick Israeli blitzkrieg or a prolonged siege. The former to preempt a war of attrition, the latter to ameliorate relations with Washington, he said. The limited scope of this operation, he felt, could cause PLO leaders to feel they had halted the Israeli Army.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Aug. 4 Israel would establish a new ceasefire (it would be the 10th since early June) if the Palestinians would agree to abide by it. This was seen as signaling that Israeli soldiers had reached their immediate objectives and wanted a lull in order to consolidate their positions.
This follows an Israeli war pattern of (1) establishing a pretext, (2) attacking, (3) taking ground, and (4) calling for a break. It seems probable that Israeli armor will roam east Beirut in the days ahead and possibly mount similar hit-and-run and encroachment operations if Israeli strategy is to take Palestinian areas piecemeal.
This latest Israeli advance came just after American officials had asked Mr. Shamir to minimize the violence in order to encourage a diplomatic settlement. It seemed now, however, that diplomacy had suffered a severe setback.
American mediator Philip C. Habib had been proposing a plan by which the PLO would vacate west Beirut in stages and a multinational peace force would move in. Indications from west Beirut and Jerusalem hours before the attack began were that the PLO had rejected Mr. Habib's proposal and that Israel had found it wanting.
But Beirut newspapers reported that the PLO had actually dropped objections to leaving the capital before the arrival of the peace force. These newspapers said the PLO approved the plan but was seeking a three-week period in which to pull out instead of the 15 days offered.
Nevertheless, again citing PLO ceasefire violations (which in this case as in so many in the past nine ceasefires were largely in response to Israeli Army movements), the Israelis chose war. And war, in turn, will do little to advance the cause of peace.
PLO leaders have told the Monitor in recent days that they are confident of the strength of their military situation because city streets lend themsleves to guerrilla warfare and because the last-stand nature of the battle has fostered a sense of martyrdom-for-the-cause among Palestinian fighters. At the same time, Israeli soldiers have almost universally stopped talking about their hopes for a peaceful way out. They seem to agree that fighting the PLO is the only road ahead now.
And with these two combatants at loggerheads, the civilians of this city are caught in between. Both sides are now operating in heavily populated areas, using buildings and houses for shelter. This is drawing almost every part of the city into the destruction.
Areas of the capital that had been largely spared were shelled Aug. 4. This included the Verdun and Hamra districts of west Beirut. For the first time a shell hit the Commodore Hotel in west Beirut,where many foreign correspondents reside. There were no injuries. Shells also fell near the Hotel Alexandre in Ashrafiyeh on the city's east side, where many other correspondents (including the Monitor's) are staying. Again no one was hurt.
Since the Israeli Army has chosen the east-west crossing points to do battle, passage between the two sides of town may have been ended for the duration of the war. Thus the siege of west Beirut, in almost every grim way - water, electricity, and movement of people - may be complete.