An elite Palestine Liberation Organization strike force, which takes its name from a Beirut telephone extension, has become the Black September of the 1980s, according to Israeli military sources.
Calling itself "Force 17," the group has claimed credit for several recent terrorist attacks. The military sources said that, late this summer, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat gave Force 17 primary responsibility for PLO operations in Israel and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
They said that these new duties are in addition to special responsibilities that the unit handles in Lebanon and elsewhere, and that Force 17 drew the assignment partly because of what Arafat sees as the recent failures of his top military aide, Khalil Wazir, also sometimes known as Abu Jihad.
The Israeli military sources spoke on condition that they not be identified. They said their information is based in part on interrogations of Palestinian guerrillas captured in recent months.
Their comments came after repeated requests for elaboration on frequent Israeli claims that Arafat is behind a recent upsurge in anti-Israeli terrorist activity.
The Israeli charges coincide with increased Middle East diplomatic activity following a February agreement between Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein on a "joint framework" for peace negotiations. Some observers see the pact as a breakthrough that puts pressure on Israel to soften its longstanding refusal to deal with the PLO.
The picture that the military sources paint of Force 17, most of which is impossible to verify independently, clearly serves the interests of those who want to discredit the PLO as a possible negotiating partner.
Pressure on Israel
Like the old Black September, which apparently ceased operations in 1974, Force 17 provides Arafat with a means of maintaining terrorist pressure on Israel while he and his dominant Fatah faction of the PLO can disclaim responsibility, the Israeli military sources asserted. "This is a replacement of Black September," they said.
Force 17 is not nearly as notorious as was Black September, which, among other terrorist depredations, was responsible for the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
In recent weeks, however, Force 17 has been linked with an abortive car bombing in the Israeli resort community of Netanya and last week's shooting deaths of three Israeli yachters in the marina at Larnaca, Cyprus.
According to Israeli military sources, Force 17 was created in the early 1970s as an elite secret service to protect Arafat and other top PLO leaders.
"From the beginning, it was also a force available for special missions--a source of well-trained men who could be dispatched quickly where local operators couldn't do the job," the sources said.
Its first commander was Ali Hassan Salameh, who was also operations chief for Black September and the man alleged to have masterminded the Munich massacre.
Salameh was killed Jan. 22, 1979, by a car bomb in Beirut--an assassination that the military sources noted was blamed at the time on the Mossad, Israel's external intelligence agency.
The current Force 17 commander is Mahmoud Natur, code-named Abu Tayeb, long a close military aide to Arafat, the sources said.
The unit, which once numbered "several hundred" commandos, is believed to take its name from its telephone extension number at a former PLO headquarters in Beirut.
According to sources in Amman, the Jordanian capital, the commandos of Force 17 are regarded as the best fighting men in the PLO and are sometimes referred to as Arafat's Praetorian Guard. While the PLO was headquartered in Beirut, one of the responsibilities of Force 17 was to guard foreign embassies, and its members were in daily contact with the U.S. Embassy, the Amman sources said.
Broken Up, Dispersed
When the PLO was evacuated from Lebanon after Israel's 1982 invasion and siege of Beirut, Force 17 was broken up and dispersed among several Arab nations, according to the Israeli military sources. Its main headquarters was moved to the Hotel Salwa in Tunis, then to a second location in that city.
However, in the wake of his agreement with Hussein last spring, Arafat decided to rebuild the force and give it new responsibilities, the sources said. Abu Tayeb opened an office in the fashionable Jebel Hussein section of Amman last spring or early summer, they added.
The sources said Arafat took responsibility for conducting terrorist activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip away from Wazir and his so-called Western Front Headquarters after several operational "failures," including what was supposed to have been a massive action in Tel Aviv on Israeli Independence Day last April.
8 Guerrillas Captured
The Israeli military announced at the time that the navy had sunk the freighter Atavarius with 28 Palestinian guerrillas aboard somewhere off the Israeli coast on April 21. Eight Palestinians were captured, and the rest presumably drowned. The attack they were planning was conceived by Wazir, although some Force 17 commandos were among the guerrillas.
Now, according to the Israeli military sources, Force 17 is responsible for planning and organizing terrorist activity inside Israel and the occupied territories. It has also been assigned to rebuild the PLO's territorial base inside Lebanon and re-establish an infrastructure for terrorist activities abroad, the sources asserted.
On Aug. 31, the Israeli navy captured four top Force 17 commandos aboard a yacht, the Gonda, which was headed from Cyprus to Sidon. The commandos were not planning any immediate attack against Israel, the military sources said, but they had been assigned to help secure Arafat's position in the Palestinian refugee camps around Sidon so that these could be used as a base of future actions against Israel.
4 Palestinians Identified
The sources identified the four captured commandos as Maj. Faisal Mahmoud abu Sharakh, deputy commander of the unit; Mahmoud Darwish, code-named Abu Nur, a high-ranking officer; Jihad Mahmoud Suhil, and Matab Josef Khatib.
When two Palestinians and a Briton stormed an Israeli yacht in the Larnaca, Cyprus, marina last week, their demands included freedom for Abu Sharakh and Darwish, the military sources said. The trio surrendered after a 10-hour siege, but by then they had killed the three Israelis aboard the yacht.
PLO officials in Cyprus and Tunis issued statements disclaiming any involvement in the attack on the yacht.
However, the Israeli military sources insisted that the attackers, including the Briton, were either members of Force 17 or people recruited by that group. An anonymous caller to the Jerusalem office of Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, said Force 17 was responsible for the yacht attack.
Black September Recalled
"The modus operandi repeats itself," the military sources said, referring to earlier experiences with Black September. "They (Force 17) claim responsibility while Fatah and Yasser Arafat play the innocent bystanders." The military sources also said Palestinians involved in recent terrorist activities in the occupied West Bank "have received directions and money from PLO headquarters in Amman--some from Force 17." The sources said Force 17 is now thought to number "over 100" commandos.
A conflicting theory about the recent rise of anti-Israeli terrorism is that it is being carried out by radical Palestinian elements eager to discredit Arafat. In this view, it makes no sense that Arafat would order new terrorist attacks at the same time that he is trying to capitalize politically on his deal with Hussein.
"That may be true from an American perspective," an Israeli military source said. "But Arafat lives in the Middle East--not in New York or Washington."
Working on Their Own
Some diplomats in Amman said they doubt that Force 17 is responsible for any recent attacks on Israelis in the occupied territories. Those attacks are thought to be the work of Palestinians working on their own, they say.
These diplomats also doubt the Israeli military theory that Force 17 is the successor to Black September. Force 17 is clearly under Arafat's control, they argue, whereas Black September was not.
Military sources here maintain that after his defeat in Lebanon and his split with Syrian-backed hard-liners in the PLO, Arafat has ordered the latest terrorist operations in a desperate effort to keep up his credibility within the divided Arab world.
Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, among others, hold that the Feb. 11 agreement is a sign that Arafat has moderated his stand and that his dominant Fatah wing of the PLO is ready to talk peace with Israel.
Put PLO 'to the Test'
The two Arab statesmen told American Jewish leaders in meetings earlier this month that the United States should "put (the PLO) to the test" by agreeing to meet a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, including some recognized PLO figures.
Israel refuses to deal with the PLO, branding it a terrorist organization, and opposes any U.S. meeting with the joint delegation. It insists that Arafat's "moderation" is only a ploy to win recognition from the United States and that the PLO chief has no real intention of negotiating with Israel.
Jerusalem argues that the only way to broaden the peace process is to hold direct Israeli negotiations with Jordan and non-PLO Palestinians.
Also contributing to this story was Times staff writer Charles P. Wallace in Amman, Jordan.