JERUSALEM (Dec. 20)
Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat and some 4,000 of his men sailed out of Tripoli in northern Lebanon today where they had been surrounded by Syrian-backed PLO dissidents and under almost daily bombardment by Israeli naval craft.
Arafat and his loyalists were evacuated aboard five chartered Greek car ferries escorted by French naval vessels. The Greek ships, flying the United Nations flag in addition to their own national colors and the Palestinian flag, are reportedly taking the PLO fighters to safe havens in North Africa and North Yemen.
Their departure ended several weeks of suspense over whether Israel would interfere militarily with what was the second PLO evacuation from Lebanon under international auspices since the late summer of 1982. Israeli officials expressed satisfaction today that Israel had “made its point” by its constant air and sea harassment of the PLO, cornered in the Tripoli port area and had caused Arafat anxiety and discomfiture by deliberately creating doubt as to whether it intended to allow the PLO to escape unscathed.
PLO HELPLESSNESS EXPOSED
The point made, according to these officials, was that far from leaving Tripoli in triumph, Arafat and his men were exposed in their helplessness and dependence on foreign powers for rescue.
Israel Air Force jets overflew Tripoli today as the evacuation fleet departed as if to emphasize Israel’s control over the situation. But the navy gunboats that had been shelling Tripoli as recently as yesterday remained out of sight, avoiding the French Navy corvettes shepherding the Greek ferries.
Israeli officials said it had been understood all along that despite Israel’s refusal to guarantee the rescue ships safe conduct, Israel would not attack foreign merchant ships on the high seas. Once the Greeks and French decided to bring the evacuation fleet into Tripoli harbor, they had good cause to assume that there was no danger from Israel, the officials said.
U.S. DEMANDS PLAYED DOWN
The officials played down U.S. demands that Israel refrain from impeding the departure of Arafat and his men, reiterated yesterday by the White House and State Department. They implied that the Americans knew very well that it was inconceivable that Israel would attack ships of friendly foreign powers on the high seas.
The government also dismissed arguments by the Labor opposition that by first shelling the PLO force and then desisting, Israel gave Arafat the opportunity to depict his evacuation as a success that Israeli power could not prevent. On the contrary, according to government spokesmen, Arafat’s plight was evident to the entire world.
Furthermore, the PLO’s claim of responsibility for the Jerusalem bus bombing which took six lives, soured any sympathy he might have gained in world opinion, they said. The Israelis noted that there had been “no outcry” over the bombardment of the PLO positions in Tripoli.
APPREHENSION IN DEFENSE CIRCLES
Nevertheless, there is apprehension in Israeli defense circles that with Arafat and his men out of Lebanon, the dissident PLO faction headed by Abu Moussa will concentrate on terrorist acts against Israel and against the Israel Defense Force in south Lebanon.
Defense experts are also concerned that at least some of Arafat’s men will make every effort to return to Lebanon to resume operations against Israel. Israel clearly would have preferred the civil war within the PLO to have continued with both factions taking a heavy toll of casualties.
Israel conceded today that the drama surrounding Arafat’s departure from Tripoli overshadowed the safe evacuation of Christian civilians and the Phalangist militia from the Shouf mountains town of Dier Al-Kamar where they had been under siege for months by Druze forces.
CITES ISRAEL’S ‘POSITIVE’ ROLE IN LEBANON
According to Premier Yitzhak Shimir, that evacuation which Israel helped negotiate, organize and carry out demonstrated Israel’s “positive and stabilizing role” in Lebanon. He noted that the IDF’s involvement in the evacuation of Deir Al-Kamar was “accepted by all the communities involved.”
Shamir spoke at a luncheon for the ambassadors of the European Economic Community (EEC) countries here. He told them that the Lebanese factions were not themselves demanding abrogation of the May 17 agreement between Israel and Lebanon but were “under brutal pressure from the Syrians” to make that demand.
Meanwhile, a hand grenade was thrown at an Israel army patrol in Sidon and a remote-controlled explosive charge detonated nearby today. There were no injuries to Israeli soldiers but according to reports from Beirut, 10 local residents were wounded.