The Palestinian guerrilla leadership, overriding objections from militants, has decided against swift retaliation for yesterday's Israeli air raid on commando positions in Lebanon, Palestinian and other Arab sources said today.
The policy of restraint provides a new test for the leadership of Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and his ability to control radical PLO factions chafing under a U.S.-engineered cease-fire for nine months and outraged anew by the Israeli bombing and rocketing that killed more than 20 persons.
It demonstrates a conclusion reportedly reached by Arafat that the limited attack, having inflicted relatively little military damage, can serve a useful political purpose if the PLO does not respond and that one of its goals may have been to provoke the guerrillas into giving Israel a reason for more massive attacks.
Arafat told an overnight meeting of the PLO leadership that the two-hour Israeli raid was "an ambush" and that the guerrilla movement should be smart enough not to walk into it, officials at the session said.
But PLO sources said Arafat and his more militant colleagues agreed that any further Israeli attacks would prompt immediate retaliation.
Palestinian guns trained on northern Israel from southern Lebanon, thus remained silent throughout the night and today despite Israeli fears that reportedly sent Jewish settlers into bomb shelters.
Artillery and rockets with enough range to reach northern Israeli villages easily make up the chief guerrilla retaliatory threat aside from individual commando raids into Israel or attacks against Israeli installations or personnel abroad.
Despite the silent artillery, Palestinian and Syrian antiaircraft batteries opened fire in Beirut and southern Lebanon several times during the day as Israeli jets flew over on apparent reconnaissance passes.
In an apparent result of the frequent reconnaissance missions, Israeli pilots bombed and rocketed guerrilla emplacements with visible accuracy during yesterday's raids. At the same time, some targets seemed of limited military value.
Syria, which lost two planes during a challenge to the Israeli raiders, renewed its determination to resist such attacks on PLO positions in Lebanon but also held its fire.
Expressing fears of more such Israeli attacks, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fuad Butros conferred with U.S. Ambassador Robert Dillon in search of assurances that Washington will pressure Prime Minister Menachem Begin to hold back. Dillon, leaving the meeting, expressed hope that the U.S.-sponsored cease-fire can remain in force. "The cease-fire has clearly been violated," he said.
Israeli officials said the raid was in retaliation for the killing of an Israeli soldier and the wounding of a second yesterday morning by a land mine that the officials said was planted by Palestinian guerrillas in violation of the cease-fire.
Egypt reacted mildly to the Israeli air raids, The Associated Press reported from Cairo. Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali said he hoped the actions were "limited."
William Claiborne of The Washington Post added from Jerusalem:
Israeli officials appeared sanguine about the PLO threat to retaliate for yesterday's air strikes, with one official saying "So, we wait and see. It totally depends on them whether there will be a next step."
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Walter Stoessel met with Prime Minister Begin to discuss the cease-fire, after which he said that he believes that both sides have an interest in maintaining the agreement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said on Israeli radio that there was no direct link between the air strikes and the Cabinet's decision yesterday to continue on schedule the Sinai withdrawal.