The military leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization today disputed the State Department's contention that the fragile PLO-Israeli cease-fire bars guerrilla attacks on Israel from Syria and Jordan as well as Lebanon.
The swift Palestinian response seemed to be an attempt to get on the record the PLO's own understanding of the cease-fire, which has been in effect since July 24, to avoid blame in the recriminations likely to accompany any new PLO raid on Israel or any Israeli attack on PLO positions in Lebanon.
The move also betrayed irritation among the PLO's leaders that the State Department seemed to be leaning toward Israel's interpretation of the controversial cease-fire after seven months of deliberate vagueness by the U.S. diplomat who worked it out, presidential envoy Philip Habib.
"We have announced before that the cease-fire is only for operations from Lebanese territory," said Khalil Wazir, the PLO's top military commander, at a press conference here. "The Palestinian revolution has the right . . . to continue resistance inside the occupied territories. We have not committed ourselves to a cease-fire through any other borders."
State Department spokesman Dean Fischer told reporters in Washington yesterday that "any hostile action originating from Lebanon but going through Syria and Jordan into Israel would be a violation of the cease-fire." Responding to questions, he acknowledged that the Reagan administration was interpreting the accord "somewhat more precisely" than in the past.
The American interpretation has taken on new importance here following repeated threats from Israeli leaders that they may attack PLO forces in Lebanon because of what they describe as Palestinian cease-fire violations. The likelihood and timing of an Israeli attack are a frequent subject of conversation among diplomats, Palestinians and Lebanese in this palpably nervous city.
Habib in the past repeatedly refused comment on contentions by Israeli leaders that any Palestinian attack on Israel--whether across Lebanese, Syrian or Jordanian frontiers--would violate the cease-fire. But yesterday's State Department statement apparently was drawn up by Habib on the basis of his latest round of discussions with Middle East leaders.
United Nations sources here said Habib achieved the cease-fire by keeping its conditions purposely vague. The accord was not written down, they noted. Instead, it consisted of separate oral agreements between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Lt. Gen. William Callaghan of Ireland, the commander of U.N. peace-keeping forces in Lebanon, and between Habib and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
When he announced the cease-fire, Habib said only that "all hostile military actions between Lebanese and Israeli territory, in either direction, will cease." He avoided use of the word "cease-fire" and, in public at least, left open the question of PLO attacks from other borders.
Since Lebanon is the only country where PLO guerrillas have freedom of movement, virtually all PLO actions orginate here. All major commando groups have their headquarters here. Although Syria and Jordan have banned attacks on Israel from their soil, commando teams have in the past slipped by Jordanian patrols, most recently for a raid Jan. 28 that was intercepted by Israeli border guards on the West Bank near the Jordan River.
Almost from the beginning of the cease-fire, Israeli leaders have asserted that the accord applies to such attacks. Following a stopover by Habib in Jerusalem early this month, Israeli sources said he had expressed agreement with the Israeli interpretation. But Fischer's statement yesterday marked the first public U.S. endorsement of the Israeli position.
Disputing the statement, Wazir said the PLO had agreed to a cease-fire only on condition that Israel halt all "aggressive actions" by land, sea and air; that Israeli-backed forces in Maj. Saad Haddad's secessionist border enclave also cease military activities, and that PLO forces retain the right to conduct operations across borders other than Lebanon.
Yasser Abd Rabbo, a PLO executive committee member who appeared with Wazir at the news conference, also denied Israeli claims that the accord placed any limits on Palestinian weaponry or movements in southern Lebanon.
Seeking to counter Israeli charges of Palestinian violations, Wazir listed 193 incidents he said PLO officials had logged as Israeli cease-fire violations. They included allegations of 68 Israeli overflights, 38 incursions by patrol boats, 32 shellings by Israeli or Haddad's artillery, 17 machine gun attacks by Israeli or Haddad's forces and 8 kidnapings or forced entries into houses in U.N.-controlled Lebanese areas.
The PLO leaders also denounced Israel's dissolution yesterday of the El-Bireh city council on the occupied West Bank. They said the PLO's U.N. representative in New York has lodged complaints about the action.
Palestinians hurled rocks and gasoline bombs in El-Bireh Friday and began a general strike in the West Bank to protest the city's takeover by Israeli authorities, The Associated Press reported.
[About 40 Arabs emerging from El-Bireh's mosque after noon prayers threw rocks and gasoline-filled bottles and erected barricades of boulders and burning tires before Israeli troops routed them with tear gas.]
[Defense Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the Israeli action Thursday, saying city officials had refused to cooperate with Israeli civilian authorities.]