PLO pullout proceeding on time

The Palestine Liberation Organization evacuation from Beirut is rolling along without a hitch - even in the overland route the Palestinians had been so worried about.

More than 9,000 guerrillas have already departed for eight Arab countries. Though the land route has posed no ''threats'' so far, the PLO leadership has chosen the sea route.

The very loose outline of the exit called for the guerrillas to travel either by the Beirut-Damascus highway or by sea in the first few days. But the Palestinians did not go by road until last Friday, the seventh day of the evacuation.

With a white Italian armored personnel carrier leading the convoy, the first two overland exits began on time. The first 12 miles of the twisty two-lane highway are controlled by the Israelis. Fighting between the Israelis and Syrians flared up briefly in the Bekaa Valley near the highway on the fourth evacuation day, the day before the first troops were to go by land.

Lebanese political sources said it was never a major problem, but rather one final prod by both sides for more reassurances that all would go as planned.

The American-negotiated plan called for the Israelis to be well out of sight during the trip. However, on the first day the Israeli commander of the northern front Maj. Gen. Amir Drori rode behind the caravan.

The encounter was far from sinister or humiliation, as the man who had directed the attack on Lebanon exchanged the ''V'' for victory sign with Yasser Arafat's men.

The scene, if anything, was bizarre. Trucks flying PLO flags full of men brandishing AK-47 assault rifles and posters of Mr. Arafat steamed past Israeli flags hanging from occupied Lebanese villages.

The Lebanese themselves stayed at home - at least in the villages dominated by the Christian Phalange which is allied with the Israelis.

Crossing into the first village which was bombed by Israel, the PLO men got more of the hero's treatment west Beirut had showered on them.

In the end, the two major fears that hung over the idea of evacuating by road appeared unfounded. The Palestinians thought the Israelis and Phalangists would attack them. The Israelis were concerned the Palestinians would stop behind Syrian lines in the Bekaa Valley and resume the fight.

But Lebanese government sources and long time political scene watchers had not shared these preoccupations.

''In Lebanon we have lots of ceasefires. Nobody, not even the Israelis, pay attention to those. But once a deal is made, it's made,'' said one Arab observer - a veteran of every conflict in this tiny Mediterranean country since the American marines first came in 1958 to help put down a leftist rebellion.

The reasoning does not apply to the Palestinian leaders.

The first Palestinian exit, by sea, was obviously a trial balloon. After that every group going out by sea had some leaders with it. Many of those were not world famous names, but they were names known to the Israelis and names vital to maintaining the PLO structure in its rerooting outside Lebanon.

All have slipped out quietly.

George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), sailed Saturday to the Syrian port of Tartous. The Israelis have wanted him for many years and he is generally thought to be the mastermind behind a triple aircraft hijacking to the Jordanian desert in 1970.

PFLP politburo member Bassam Abu Sharif and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine Leader Naif Hawatmeh also chose the sea route to Syria.

The one departure the world is waiting for is Yasser Arafat's. PLO official sources said a public exit would be on the cards if the United States provided iron clad guarantees for his safety.

Even before the Israeli invasion, Mr. Arafat's comings and goings from the country were never announced until after the fact.

How he will go is a matter of great speculation. Virtually every hour a new rumor surfaces in west Beirut about how the elusive chairman will leave.

PLO officials do not believe he will wait until the very end as originally said. Mr. Arafat last week reappeared in public for the first time in more than two weeks.

He has been saying his farewells to Muslim Lebanese leaders and Palestinian civilians being left behind. As in the beginning of the war, one could easily bump into the chairman in the street of any Palestinian neighborhood.

Officials in Tunisia are said to be preparing a guest residence for Mr. Arafat. Reports included speculation that he would travel first to Damascus after leaving Beirut. Another news report said he would first go to Athens via ship with a multinational naval escort including US, French and Greek ships.

PLO officials said Mr. Arafat was forced by his security people to go underground during recent weeks. The officials said it was obvious the Israelis were trying to get him in the last air strikes and through car bombs.

The family of Mr. Arafat's chief bodyguard died in a building bombed by the Israelis and a car bomb blew up nearby while rescue workers were still digging for bodies.

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