The fight to succeed Arafat

LINDA MCQUAIG November 21 1983

The fight to succeed Arafat

LINDA MCQUAIG November 21 1983

The fight to succeed Arafat


In the aftermath of Arab suicide bombings on U.S., French and Israeli targets in Lebanon, all sides seemed to be gearing up last week for a major escalation in the fighting. Syria called up 100,000 reserves, bringing its military strength to 350,000. Then Israel followed up its air strikes on Palestinian bases in Lebanon with its annual testing procedures for recalling its own reservists. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir quickly went on national television to assure Syria that it had no aggressive plans. But Deputy Prime Minister David Levy claimed that Syria had received massive arms shipments recently from the Soviet Union and that it is training terrorists to attack Israel. Added Levy: “We have told the Syrians they would be well advised not to take any military action.” At the same time, U.S. aircraft flew reconnaissance missions over foreign-held areas in Lebanon, raising concerns that Washington is preparing to fulfil President Ronald Reagan’s promise to avenge the 239 servicemen killed in the bombing of Marine headquarters in Beirut last month.

Thirty U.S. warships are massed off the Lebanese coast, and the United States sent four F-14 fighter bombers late last week over Syrian-held territory in Lebanon. The Syrians fired at the jets, but they returned to their base unharmed. The White House called the forays by the U.S. jets “routine reconnaissance missions.” But 24 hours later Syrian anti-aircraft guns again fired on U.S. aircraft, heightening tensions further. Israeli aircraft also flew reconnaissance missions, while the London Times reported that U.S. marines had made a secret trip into the mountains overlooking Beirut to pinpoint Druze and Syrian artillery positions. Syria charged in the United Nations that Washington and Jerusalem are planning a new Lebanese offensive aimed at Damascus’ forces. “Syria is not Grenada; we will defend our Arab land,” said Syrian delegate Dia-Allah al-Fattalhe. The United States denied any such intention. But one Western diplomat in Beirut said that he found an atmosphere of fear everywhere: “I expect something to happen.”

At the same time, the Palestine Liberation Organization faced its worst crisis in 15 years. With his back to the sea in northern Lebanon, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat tried to fight off a fierce rebellion from within his own ranks. The rebels, who are supported and

armed by Syria, drove Arafat and his supporters from the Syrian-controlled Beka’a Valley last summer. Then, last week the rebels shelled the Nahr alBared and Baddawi refugee camps and the port of Tripoli itself, killing at least 200 and forcing Arafat to retreat still farther. At the end of the week a tenuous ceasefire crumbled. Arafat’s forces in Tripoli exchanged artillery fire with rebels outside the city. And a stunned Arafat faced the agonizing decision of whether to leave Tripoli, to spare its inhabitants from further bombardment, or to fight on. The PLO chief said that he would leave if authorities in Tripoli requested him to. But when Tripoli’s mayor, Ashir al-Daye, promptly asked him to go, Arafat said that he could not do so “while my volunteers are facing death daily.” In response to al-Daye’s appeal, Arafat’s

supporters moved heavy weapons from the encircled Baddawi camp to the city’s northern outskirts and rained rocket fire on nearby Syrian positions.

Clearly, as the six-month revolt against his leadership neared its climax, Arafat was postponing a painfully difficult choice. For its part, the Italian government offered two warships, part of its multinational force contribution, to evacuate the PLO leader and his 8,000 men from Tripoli.

There was a sense of frightening familiarity about last week’s fighting

around Tripoli. The deafening pounding of artillery shells and the deadly rush of mortars, the massive clouds of black smoke from high-rise apartments and small concrete shanty-homes, the bitter, acrid smell of burned cordite all recalled last year’s Israeli siege of Beirut and the ensuing Palestinian evacuation. Casualties flooded Tripoli’s hospitals, which were short of medical supplies and blood. The morgue at one facility was so full that workers had to stack bodies two feet high in a second room, then cover them with ice. Children were dumped at the top.

Arafat blamed the rebellion solidly on President Hafez al-Assad of Syria. When he was questioned about a possible ceasefire last week, he replied, “Do not ask me, ask President Assad.” Syria, for its part, blamed Arafat for the conflict. The state-controlled Syrian

press claimed that Arafat and his followers were “massacring the Palestinian people by refusing to take part in dialogue.” But simultaneously, Syrian officials closed Arafat’s main office in Damascus.

Arafat issued daily pleas for help to Arab and Islamic leaders and nonaligned countries. But the rebellion at Tripoli may destroy his leadership beyond recovery. Certainly it appears to have ended his reign over a united Palestinian movement. Arafat’s greatest achievement since he took over as chair-

man of the PLO in 1968 has been to bring together the disparate Palestinian groups under one umbrella. It was a difficult operation: the PLO’s eight main factions range across the political spectrum, from right-wing Islamic fundamentalists to extreme left-wing pro-Soviet militants. But Arafat managed to maintain control through his own relatively moderate Fatah faction, the largest and most influential PLO group.

Now, Fatah itself has turned on its leader. The revolt first surfaced last May, but its roots are much deeper. To many in the West, Arafat’s unshaven face remains symbolic of the campaign of international terrorism that he conducted against Israel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But Arafat has recently resorted to a greater reliance on diplomacy to achieve his aims—an approach that his opponents regard as

fruitless. Their disaffection actually began in 1974 when the PLO’s parliamentin-exile, the Palestine National Council, implicitly suggested that it would accept Israel’s right to exist if Jerusalem provided the territory—and tolerance— for a Palestinian state. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Arafat and his representatives travelled widely to win recognition for the Palestinian cause. They were notably successful with the European Community and the Vatican.

The Israeli invasion and the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut provided the

extremists with the rationale they needed to unseat Arafat. Arafat contended that the 11,000 PLO fighters’ evacuation-weapons slung over their shoulders—was a triumphant step on the path to a Palestinian homeland. But it quickly became clear that in fact the PLO had been greatly weakened.

Arafat again angered the disaffected officers when he refused to automatically reject the Mideast peace proposal that Reagan advanced. Reagan’s plan called for a Palestinian entity on the West Bank linked to Jordan—a concept that hard-line PLO members rejected because, they said, it compromised PLO independence. Arafat, on the other hand, was willing to consider the Reagan plan as one possible basis for negotiations and he began talking to Jordan’s King Hussein about the issue. Negotiating privately with Hussein, Arafat agreed last April to conditions that even many of his strongest supporters later contended gave too much control over the Palestinians’ fate to Jordan. For the first time in PLO history, its executive—and even the central committee of Fatah—repudiated Arafat.

As well, Arafat’s contacts with Hussein alienated Syria’s Assad, who regards Hussein as a rival influence in the Arab world. At the same time, Assad wants to extend his own control over the PLO. In the end, Arafat declined to sign the agreement that he had worked out with Hussein. But the damage to PLO unity, and to Arafat’s relations with Syria, could not be repaired. In May, when Arafat made several unpopular military appointments, the PLO dissidents, backed by Syria, rebelled.

Many of the rebel leaders were high in the ranks of the PLO and Fatah itself. One of the key dissidents, Abu Musa, 56, was former deputy chief of staff of both groups. The defection of Musa, who directed the PLO’s defence of Beirut during the Israeli siege last year, shocked many analysts. They had considered him to be a staunch Arafat loyalist. Another key leader, Abu Saleh, who is now the rebels’ chief political strategist, was one of the oldest members of Fatah’s central committee. But Saleh has clashed openly with Arafat for years and traditionally he has been the most militant figure within Fatah. Earlier this year Arafat suspended Saleh’s membership in the Fatah hierarchy and placed him under virtual house arrest.

Khaled al Fahoum was another highranking PLO official who joined the rebellion. As head of the Damascus-based Palestine National Council, Fahoum is pro-Syrian and easily manipulated by Damascus. Because of his record of being able to work with all eight PLO factions, he has emerged as a strong contender to replace Arafat

as chief of the entire movement.

But Arafat remains extremely popular with many mainstream Palestinians. In Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps, where militant Christians murdered hundreds of refugees in September of last year, the occupants followed last week’s fighting closely. They told reporters that they remained loyal to Arafat. And on the Israeli-occupied West Bank dozens of prominent Palestinians voiced their support for the PLO chief. Abu Ghazalla, deputy mayor of the West Bank city of Nablus until Israel removed him last year, accused Syria of finishing the assault on Palestinians that Jerusalem launched last

year. And on the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, Palestinian students at an Islamic college burned portraits of Assad. Not only that, but at week’s end Arafat received strong backing from Moscow, where Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko told visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel-Halim Khaddam, “We consider extremely urgent the need to restore unity in the Palestine resistance movement.” The Soviets are firm supporters of the guerrilla chief.

Syria’s involvement in the internal

Palestinian fighting was evident. As well, Damascus also continued to play a major role in the Lebanese reconciliation negotiations in Geneva. Formal talks have been suspended while Lebanese President Amin Gemayel tries to find a compromise over the controversial Israeli-Lebanese accord, which set out the terms for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. He was scheduled to meet Assad this week. But Syria strongly objects to the agreement, because it argues that it is too favorable to Israel. Still, there was progress last week by a follow-up committee on the key issue of reforming Lebanon’s 40year-old constitutional pact, under which the Christian minority has dominated Lebanese politics. In last week’s tentative agreement, warring Christian and Moslem factions agreed in principle to parity of representation in parliament.

Despite those positive developments, fears of renewed international tensions remained high. Israel moved to seal off southern Lebanon, and Beirut newspapers speculated about U.S. plans to avenge the Marine deaths. But Washington received a message of restraint. During a Western European tour last week, at least three of its allies cautioned Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Kenneth Dam against a major U.S. retaliatory strike. Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti said that retaliation “could set off an uncontrollable mechanism in a zone that is already very hot.” And both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson made it clear that they did not want their multinational peacekeeping forces in Beirut to be drawn into a broader conflict.

Still, at week’s end attention remained focused on Arafat’s fate. After years of surprising cohesion, the PLO seemed destined to split into moderate and even more militant factions. That division could lead the West Bank moderates to reopen the dialogue with Hussein—a discussion that many of them argued should not have been interrupted. Unlike the militants who live in Arab lands, Palestinians in the Israelioccupied West Bank want to win a greater measure of freedom, even if they cannot achieve full independence. The militants, on the other hand, are determined to take all of the land that is now Israel. With militant PLO, Israeli, Syrian and U.S. forces all poised for action, that wish seemed to ensure a bloody future for the Middle East as a whole, as well as for the war-torn state of Lebanon.

David Bernstein

Jerusalem, Michael Posner

Robin Wright

LINDA MCQUAIG in Toronto, with David Bernstein in Jerusalem, Michael Posner in Washington and Robin Wright in Beirut.