World Press is Still Waiting for PLO Refugee Ship to Sail

The Palestine Liberation Organization, seeking a major propaganda coup by sailing a ship with several hundred Palestinian deportees and their sympathizers to Israel, may have a stocky public relations problem on their hands here: holding the interest and attention of the scores of foreign press and television reporters waiting for the ship to sail.

The press corps is becoming increasingly restless and dubious about the project. The vessel, still not identified, was scheduled to depart Wednesday from Piraeus, the port of Athens.

So far, the journalists have been fed plenty of anti-Israel propaganda and inflated rhetoric, but few details about the vessel or its prospective voyage. A news conference, at which all was to be revealed, was postponed four times in less than 24 hours.

When it was finally held Wednesday morning in the packed press room of the Intercontinental Hotel, virtually nothing was revealed, neither the date nor hour of sailing, the ship’s name or the flag it will fly.

Bassam Abu Sharif, director of PLO chief Yasir Arafat’s press office, who flew here from Tunis Monday to act as media spokesperson, insisted that secrecy was necessary to avoid pressure by Israel. Asked what sort of pressure he meant, Sharif claimed the Israelis were threatening the well-being of crew members and their families.

CLAIMS BOAT WILL SAIL

Asked if the ship will sail, he replied, “Yes, the boat will sail,” but refused to elaborate. He did inform the press that a reception was to be given at 7 p.m. local time Wednesday, by Greek intellectuals sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, to honor the deportees.

He also said the vessel would stop over at Larnaca, Cyprus, for eight hours to allow members of the press making the voyage to file their stories and pictures. The Larnaca stopover was announced by the PLO several days ago, after which, they said, the ship would sail for Haifa.

Meanwhile, the PLO is providing photo opportunities. The news conference was interrupted when three little Palestinian girls walked up to the speakers table carrying olive branches.

Another well-staged happening was the appearance of Msgr. Hilarion Capucci, the former Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem, who was convicted years ago by Israeli courts of smuggling weapons to terrorists. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but released after the Vatican intervened.

ISRAEL WILL BAR SHIP

Israel has already made clear it will bar the ship from entering its territorial waters, as is its right under international law.

But Israelis fear that if an attempt is made, the PLO will achieve an immense propaganda victory and gain worldwide sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

President Chaim Herzog referred to the project Wednesday as a PLO “publicity stunt.” Addressing Israeli Druze at Horfeish village, he warned, “We should not be influenced by false publicity stunts of terrorist organizations whose covenant rejects the very existence of Israel.”

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