Officials and partisans of the Palestine Libertion Organization believe the recent upsurge in fighting between Palestinians and Israel and the widespread condemnation of Israel's bombing of Palestinian targets in Beirut have been a tremendous boon to the guerrilla cause.
After months of eclipse, the Palestinian issue is back in the headlines of Western media and is the focus once again of international concern, they say, while the divided and squabbling Arab nations are rallying around the PLO and vying with each other to show solidarity with new gifts of money, arms and political support.
[PLO chairman Yasser Arafat suggested yesterday that the fighting also forced Israel to deal with the PLO, even if only on the battlefield. "There is a dialaogue through this confrontation," he said on the interview program "Issues and Answers" (ABC, WJLA). "What does this mean."]
Furthermore, the fighting has been enormous morale booster for the guerrillas, their leaders and supporters say. The PLO troops have not only withstood two weeks of heavy Israeli air, artillery, naval and ground attacks with comparatively few military losses, they maintain, but also have kept up a steady day-and-night shelling and rocketing of Israeli villages.
To the Palestinians and, indeed, most Arabs, the willingness to stand up and fight what they regard as the superpower of the region is far more important than the battering and casualties suffered in the process.
The Palestinians and their Lebanese neighbors have taken heavy civilian casualties -- 300 dead and 700 wounded in the Beirut bombing alone -- and had by PLO count 383 houses destroyed in southern Lebanon. But officials and partisans alike are quick to remark that such destruction has been the Palestinian lot for years and that manpower is the one thing they have in abundance.
"The guerrillas have always been able to absorb casualties easily," said one.
Rarely, their leaders say, have the Palestinians done so well militarily against the Israelis, inflicting the kind of damage and toll in civilian lives that the guerrillas are used to receiving.
"This is the first time we have had such a density of [artillery and rocket] attacks on Israel," said one PLO official. "All the so-called settlements in the north have been hit."
The Palestinians take particular pride in the rebuff of several Israeli commando raids by air and sea that killed one high-ranking Israeli officer, wounded at least seven and reportedly led to the capture of one.
Particularly in the aftermath of the Israeli strike onthe Iraqi nuclear reactor -- viewed as a humiliating blow to the entire Arab world -- the Palestinian show of tenacity has taken on a special significance.
"After every attack on Israel, we get stronger and stronger because the Arabs give us more weapons," remarked Mahmoud Labadi, the PLO spokesman. "It shows the PLO is the only military force fighting the Israelis. This will give us more prestige."
Israeli gunners and warplanes hammered guerrilla positions, supply lines and road linka across southern Lebanon for two weeks in a concerted attempt to disrupt PLO operations. But as reporters touring the region saw, the Israeli tactics had limited success, affecting local economic life more than guerrilla war capability.
Rapidly built detours and makeshift bridges assured the flow of traffic along the main coastal road and across the Litani and Zahrani rivers, despite repeated Israeli bombings. On the Zahrani, the Labanese public works department brought in a bulldozer to put up an earthen bridge along the edge of a bomb crater. After the Israelis returned and bombed that structure, a second bypass was built the say way.
When the main bridge was totally destroyed across the Litani, the Lebanese simply cut two detours through the orange and banana groves of an adjacent farm and built two narrow causeways across the river. The Israelis later knocked out one but not the other, which was scarcely visible.
Throughout the Israeli pounding of southern Lebanon, reporters saw dozens of Palestinian trucks fitted with antiaircraft guns and vehicles filled with guerrillas or their Lebanese leftist allies running up and down the coastal road. This indicated that the Israelis were having little, if any, effect on PLO links to the southern border region.
A network of circuitous secondary mountain roads has enabled civilian, as well as guerrilla, trucks and cars to travel to and around southern Lebanon. There is no evidence that the Israelis touched the so-called Arafat Trail, a major supply route from Syria through the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon into the southern Lebanese mountains.
Whether this was because of the risk to Israeli warplanes from Syrian SA6 missiles deployed along the Syrian border and in the Bekaa Valley was not clear.
The most serious visible effect of the Israeli bombing was a gasoline shortage created after jets hit and badly damaged installations around the Zahrani refinery, including 500 yards of pipeline belonging to the Arabian-American Oil Co.
The main victims, however, were probably not Palestinian guerrillas, who were served first at stations and have their own supplies, but the Lebanese. Long lines and knots of arguing, hot tempered Lebanese could be seen around every open gas pump all the way from downtown Beirut to Tyre in the south.