Sharp Questions, Criticism Raised over the Government’s Handling of the PLO Situation in Lebanon

The government’s handling of the situation which culminated in the safe evacuation of Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat and some 4,000 of his men from Tripoli, northern Lebanon yesterday, raised sharp questions in the Knesset today and criticism in the press.

Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens responded to doubts expressed over the wisdom of a policy that called for relentless sea-air pounding of PLO positions in Tripoli coupled with tough rhetoric about punishing the terrorists but which, in the end, allowed Arafat and his loyalists to escape unscathed with at least a portion of their weapons.

That policy, critics contended, implied confusion of purpose on Israel’s part, tarnished its image and, by its seeming illogic, gave rise to speculation that there were serious differences between the Premier and the Defense Minister. Shamir and Arens vigorously denied this.

Both sought to explain why Israel refused to guarantee safe conduct to the Greek car ferries that carried Arafat and his men to safety under the United Nations flag, with a French naval escort. The Israeli position had implied a threat of military interdiction to block the evacuation.

EXPLANATIONS ARE OFFERED

Arens explained that the government decided to articulate, as vigorously as possible, its objections to the UN-sanctioned rescue of the terrorists in ships of a friendly foreign power. At the same time, it would hit the PLO “as much as possible” before their departure. But, Arens stressed, it would not have been “proper” for Israel to force a confrontation on the high seas with naval forces of a friendly power or to attack the Greek merchant ships after the PLO had embarked.

Both men insisted that Israel would continue to strike at PLO forces remaining in Lebanon and Israeli warplanes in fact attacked today PLO bases near Baalbek in the northern Bekaa Valley which is under Syrian control.

Arens said Israel would “not allow the terrorists to establish themselves” in the areas of Lebanon vacated by the Israel Defense Force last September. It would “continue to demand of the Druze” that they oust PLO terrorists from the areas they control. Arens also warned that if the Syrians do not “restrain” the terrorists under their control, those terrorists would come under constant attack.

REPORTS OF CONFUSION AND RECRIMINATION

But despite the clarifications in the Knesset, reports persisted today of confusion and recrimination in political and military circles over the handling of the Tripoli episode. Yediot Achronot, Israel’s largest daily, today quoted sources who felt that the Navy’s bombardment of the PLO in Tripoli before the evacuation reflected “uncertainty and confused policy-making” by the government.

Those sources said, according to the newspaper, that the naval bombardment, while it exacted some retribution for the December 6 Jerusalem bus bombing by the terrorists, failed to prevent the PLO’s evacuation and lent some credibility to Arafat’s claim that the evacuation was a victory over Israel.

Similarly, the critics said, the naval action drew down on Israel an angry public reprimand from Washington and created the impression that Israel backed off under American pressure.

Arens insisted that Israel’s action was correct in that it established the “basic fact that we had the power to hit them (the PLO) in Tripoli and we had the power to prevent them from leaving.” The decision as to how far to exercise that power was a matter of broader political expediency, the Defense Minister indicated.

ARENS IRRITATED WITH SHAMIR

But according to one report circulating today, Arens was irritated by Shamir’s alleged signaling to the U.S. that Israel would give the rescue vessels safe passage while publicly the government perpetuated doubts as to its intentions.

Arens denied that he had at any time contemplated attacks on the rescue fleet. Shamir, for his part, stated flatly in the Knesset that “there are not, nor were there, any differences between us”, meaning between himself and the Defense Minister.

AIR STRIKES AGAINST PLO DISSIDENTS

Today’s Israeli air strikes were against the Syrian-backed PLO dissidents who, more than Israel, had forced Arafat out of Lebanon. A military spokesman said the main target of the raid was the Sheikh Abdullah camp one kilometer south of Baalbek, a former Lebanese army encampment taken over by militant Shiite Moslems backed by Iran.

The base was a training area and jumping-off point for the suicide truck bomb attacks on the American and French military headquarters in Beirut last October 23 and the November 4 attack on Israeli military headquarters in Tyre, the spokesman said. French aircraft attacked the same base last month.

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