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PLO Reports Its Lebanon Forces Are Larger Than Before ’82 Israeli Invasion

Times Staff Writer

Four years after the costly and divisive Israeli invasion of Lebanon, there are now more Palestinian fighters in that war-ravaged country than before the Israeli undertaking, a senior Palestinian official said Sunday.

Most of the Palestinians are now confined to areas around Beirut refugee camps, the official said, where they have been engaged in two weeks of heavy fighting with the Shia Muslim militia group known as Amal. The Palestine Liberation Organization has been providing new arms to thousands of returning fighters, he added.

“Israel failed in Lebanon,” Khalil Wazir, the PLO’s deputy military commander, said in an interview with The Times. “They haven’t destroyed us--we’re still alive. They haven’t thrown us out--we are returning to Lebanon. We are still working against Israeli targets. Everything is as it was before 1982--perhaps we’re even better organized.”

600 Servicemen Killed

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Israel lost more than 600 servicemen in the Lebanon war, which was launched June 6, 1982, with a cross-border assault called Operation Peace for Galilee that was supposed to be over in 24 hours. A large Israeli force remained in Lebanon until last summer, and Israel still maintains a narrow “security zone” on the Lebanese side of the border.

By PLO estimates, 14,300 fighters were evacuated from Beirut during the Israeli siege in August, 1982. Of that figure, 10,000 men were from Lebanon, according to a PLO count, the rest consisting of Syrian army regulars; PLO fighters from Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and volunteers from Muslim countries.

Wazir said he has given orders for all PLO fighters with relatives in Lebanon to return to the country from bases in such faraway places as Tunisia, South Yemen and Iraq.

In addition to several thousand who returned to Lebanon, Wazir said, thousands of young people who were forced to stay on in the refugee camps when the PLO left have joined military organizations.

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The total, Wazir said, is “much greater now than before 1982.”

Unlike 1982, the PLO has not sought to rebuild military bases in southern Lebanon, eschewing heavy artillery in favor of more mobile weapons useful in the defense of the refugee camps, Wazir said. The PLO maintains bases near Sidon, while various smaller groups keep bases in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley under Syrian army control.

“We are strong in Lebanon,” Wazir said. “It will be very, very difficult for anyone to smash us again in the refugee camps.”

Speaking of Israel’s goals in the war, Wazir noted that published Israeli memoirs have described the destruction of the PLO as the ultimate objective of the 1982 invasion. He recalled promises by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin that northern Israeli settlements would not be attacked by PLO-launched Katyusha rockets for another 40 years.

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‘Everything Has Changed’

“But now, after only four years, everything has changed,” said Wazir, who is also known as Abu Jihad. “The message of the Katyusha is continuing to tell him that he has failed,” he added, referring to the fact that a few rockets have fallen on northern Israel since the bulk of Israel’s forces were withdrawn from Lebanon.

Despite the changes reflected in Wazir’s statements, the PLO finds itself in a considerably weakened state after four years in exile from Lebanon, where it had created a “state within a state” that at its high point made the Palestinians the dominant military force in Lebanon’s Muslim community.

Since its evacuation from Beirut, the organization has been convulsed by internal struggles that have left some factions under the control of Syria and opposed to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

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Arafat’s leadership is under continuing pressure from both internal and external forces, with Jordan suspending its joint peace initiative with the PLO and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suggesting publicly that the Palestinians may have to find new leadership if the PLO continues to refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

On Sunday, a former PLO intelligence chief called Abu Zaim summoned reporters to a Jordanian camp to declare that he has taken over the responsibilities of both Arafat and Wazir within Fatah, Arafat’s mainstream guerrilla faction, and he claimed the support of 400 Fatah members. While widely regarded as part of a Jordanian plan to squeeze the PLO, Abu Zaim’s move revealed another crack in PLO unity at a time when Arafat’s adversaries appear to be composing their differences.

According to Wazir, who is in contact with PLO commanders in Beirut, at least 16 people have died in the last two days of fighting around the Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut.

Amal militiamen were using Soviet-supplied tanks, while Palestinian gunners in the Druze-controlled mountains above the city showered artillery down on Shia areas of the capital in an effort to relieve the siege. The Druze belong to an offshoot sect of Islam.

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The PLO believes that the renewed fighting, similar in ferocity to a devastating confrontation between Amal and defenders of the refugee camps last year, has been inspired by Syria.

While the 1985 fighting was aimed at deflecting peace moves, Wazir said, the Syrians are now trying to punish the Palestinians for holding talks with Lebanon’s Maronite Christian president, Amin Gemayel.

PLO officials met with Gemayel in Tunisia last month, ostensibly to discuss renewal of documents for thousands of stateless Palestinians who once lived in Lebanon. But Gemayel and the PLO have both angered Syria, and they were widely expected to make common cause against their enemy.


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