Departing PLO sees Syria as short-term staging ground

There is a common refrain uttered by Palestine Liberation Organization officials in the few quiet moments they have had in the last several days.

''There will never be another Beirut,'' said an official of the Marxist-oriented Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). Sitting in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel, he was chatting philosophically in the wee hours of the morning about the wider consequences of Israel's push into Lebanon.

Relaxed, unguarded moments such as that will be hard to come by in Syria, where the bulk of the PLO will go, he said.

In the last week alone, the Palestinians have talked less about the final details of the Habib plan for leaving and more about what the PLO does next.

The various factions and levels of the PLO speak of the same general game plan for its future. It comes from the mainline guerrilla group Al-Fatah, from the DFLP, from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), from guerrillas guarding bombed-out buildings in the Fakhani neighborhood, and from bodyguards of the leadership.

The Palestinians are not yet ready to go on record with that assessment, but chairman Yasser Arafat obviously has given his men a rough outline.

The bulk of the PLO, but especially Arafat's Al-Fatah guerrilla group, will go to Syria. Al-Fatah is the driving force of the PLO.

''We have to be in a state bordering Israel and in a state where there is a large Palestinian population,'' said the DFLP official.

Syria is a double-edged knife for the PLO, however.

President Hafez Assad will police the Palestinians even more carefully than he does his own people, which is going some, the Palestinians say. They almost wince physically at the thought.

Some Palestinians say frankly that they want to topple Mr. Assad to get even for what he didn't do in Lebanon to help the PLO - militarily and politically.

''The Syrian people are good and they don't like him either. Put them together with our people and maybe Assad will have to think twice about who will win the next round,'' said an American-educated PLO member who splits his time between being a guerrilla and an assistant information spokesman.

Almost in the same breath, that PLO man and many others admit that surviving in Syria will be a tricky business. Many PLO members are wanted in Syria, and the regime certainly doesn't intend to be overshadowed and overpowered by the Palestinians as the Lebanese government was.

''Syria is a short-term move,'' said a PFLP official. ''We will stop over there and use it as a staging ground for returning to Jordan.''

Jordan exploded into civil war in 1970 over the PLO. King Hussein won and tossed the guerrillas out.

Syria and Jordan have been on the outs with each other since December 1980. Just before Lebanon erupted, there was serious talk in Syria about closing its border with Jordan.

''If we can survive Syria, maybe we can get the Syrians to help us into Jordan,'' said a PLO official.

Some Palestinian sources say among the guerrillas going to Jordan are ones selected to be new Palestinian leaders.

The old leaders, of course, are well known to Jordan's King Hussein. Although the monarch's relationship with Mr. Arafat publicly appears to have improved, there are many other PLO leaders King Hussein would fight tooth and nail to keep out, Palestinian sources said.

As usual the key to making this grand scheme work is Mr. Arafat and his coterie of right-hand men.

''It was clear in the last bombing raids on west Beirut that the Israelis were trying to get the leadership. We have taken great pains to make sure they don't,'' said the DFLP official.

Throughout most of the invasion, Mr. Arafat popped up frequently, touring Palestinian neighborhoods and visiting Lebanese officials staked out by journalists.

After Israeli planes Aug. 6 caused the collapse of a multistory apartment building just one block from west Beirut's main street, Hamra, Mr. Arafat literally went underground.

Even among PLO officials, only a select few have seen ''the old man,'' as they call him.

Israelis apparently thought someone important was in the building and apparently they had come close.

But the Palestinians say Mr. Arafat will have to temper his diplomacy with a bit of underground movement.

''Many people will have to pay for what happened to the Lebanese and Palestinians here. Uncle Sam and the Arabs are at the top of the list,'' the DFLP official said.

Monitor correspondent John Yemma reports from Beirut that Lebanese sources say the PLO evacuation will begin Aug. 21. It is expected to begin a few hours after the arrival of the French vanguard of a multinational supervision force.

Over the ensuing five days, 2,500 Palestinians are supposed to depart west Beirut by sea from the international port. By Aug. 26-28, the entire 2,100-man French-Italian-American force will be established within Beirut's 'green line' which separates east from west. Some time around Aug. 28, the remainder of the PLO will leave overland to Syria.

Israeli officials say the entire exodus can be completed in a fortnight.

What remains unresolved is the status of the 600,000 Palestinian civilians left behind in Lebanon. Some 300,000 are believed to be in west Beirut, another 300,000 are in Lebanon's north and east, still out of Israel's reach.

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