Israeli troops consolidating their grip around Beirut have orders not to attack Palestinian headquarters in the densely populated city center, senior Israeli officers said today.
The apparent Israeli decision to halt the advance without hunting down the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization in West Beirut would remove the threat of a bloody attack by the Israelis on the residential neighborhood and refugee camps where the PLO leadership has its offices and command posts.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Army command announced Thursday night that 214 soldiers were killed in the war in Lebanon, or more than twice the number reported at the time the cease-fire on all fronts went into effect last Friday. Details on A27.
Previous statements by Israeli leaders, including Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, had left open the question whether such an attempt was part of Israeli planning. And the statements of the senior officers today made it clear that Israel would welcome and perhaps support an all-out assault on the Palestinians by Lebanese Maronite militiamen.
As Israeli artillery and naval gunfire periodically bombarded Palestinian refugee camps, particularly near Beirut's international airport, U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib worked feverishly to rescue the shattered cease-fire and to help establish a viable government of national unity for Lebanon, Washington Post correspondent Jonathan C. Randal reported.
According to unconfirmed reports tonight, Habib established contact with a top PLO official. A State Department spokesman in Washington said the department had no information that would confirm the report and said U.S. policy has forbidden direct meetings with PLO officials except in cases where the physical safety of Americans was involved.
The Israeli officers' comments made it plain that Israel still views elimination of the PLO leadership as a major goal and that Jerusalem would be pleased if Lebanese Christian allies, the Phalange militia, launched an attack on the guerrilla movement from Christian East Beirut.
"We shall not take military action inside the capital," said Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv, a former head of military intelligence who briefed correspondents in northern Israel. "It is up to the Lebanese government, or someone else--the Phalange for example--to do something about it."
Fears of a possible Israeli strike into the heart of Beirut to crush what is left of the PLO military potential and its leadership had aroused concern in Washington, particularly for the civilian casualties such an assault could cause. Yariv hinted it was this concern that prompted Israeli restraint at this point, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin is in the United States.
"For obvious reasons it is politically impossible for our government to give the order to go into Beirut, into the heart of Beirut," he said. "We have a clear order not to do anything about it."
A tour of Israeli positions around Beirut demonstrated clearly, however, that Palestinian guerrillas and their Syrian allies are caught in a relentless circle from which they cannot escape without passing through Israeli lines. Invasion troops have occupied a wide arc stretching from the Khalde intersection near Beirut International Airport eastward into the mountains overlooking the capital and joining Phalange forces in mostly Christian East Beirut.
"The Palestinians and the Syrians--I don't know what they want to do--but they're cut off by the Israeli Navy by the sea, and we are joined with the Christians in a continuous presence, and the Palestinians and Syrians are caught inside," said Maj. Avner Tamon, a paratroop commander speaking in this Beirut suburb a few hundred yards from the Lebanese presidential palace.
Tamon said any Syrians who sought to pass through Israeli lines on the way to the Syrian border would be allowed to pass. Palestinian guerrillas, however, are another matter, he said. Israeli officials have said guerrillas are being arrested and taken to internment camps in Lebanon or Israel itself.
A drive through Israeli-held sections of the Lebanese capital--mainly the southern and eastern suburbs--showed the extent to which Israeli forces have free run of Beirut except for the central western sections of a few square miles, in which Palestinians and Syrians still held out. Israeli jeeps moved freely in Christian East Beirut and throughout the mountainside villages in the suburbs.
Aside from a few bursts of small-arms fire, the Israeli hold on Beirut appeared relaxed. Christian Lebanese were clearly friendly, haggling with Israeli troops over the exchange rate between Israeli shekels and Lebanese pounds and shouting "Shalom!" to passing cars with Israeli plates.
This correspondent was able to pass from the Israeli-held suburb of Hazmiyeh across the traditional crossing point between Christian and Moslem Beirut at a now deserted museum and into the surrounded areas of West Beirut where Syrians and Palestinians still rule.
The entire trip--back and forth in separate taxis from Moslem and Christian areas--took about 40 minutes. Syrians at a checkpoint about 300 yards from the crossing point--and only a five-minute drive from Israeli armored personnel carriers--waved the taxi by nonchalantly while their fellow soldiers sipped coffee in the afternoon sun.
Correspondent Randal added the following from Beirut:
Habib said nothing in public about his mission. But Lebanese observers were struck by the growing American effort to rescue the remnants of Lebanon's government from looming disintegration while at the same time countenancing Israel's military aims.
A clearly audible background of periodic Israeli artillery and naval gunfire barrages against targets primarily in the Palestinian refugee camps lent urgency to what many Lebanese consider Habib's race against the clock to save the city.
Habib's carrot-and-stick tactics were credited with their first political success today. He persuaded Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to leave his ancestral stronghold in Mukhtara in the Israeli-occupied Chouf mountains for Beirut in an embassy car escorted by an American diplomat.
Meanwhile, in the fighting, Israeli artillery was concentrated against the Bourg el-Brajneh Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut's closed airport and against its runway.
In the evening Palestinian positions in the mountains southeast of the airport were under heavy Israeli artillery fire, according to official Palestinian sources.
The only new reported Israeli thrust on the ground was toward the Druze city of Aley, just off the Beirut-to-Damascus highway 10 miles southeast of Beirut. There "fierce fighting" was reported by the Palestinian news agency Wafa.
Despite Jumblatt's move, it was still unclear whether the nominal leader of 13 largely discredited and loosely affiliated political and military organizations known as the National Movement, had agreed to join the National Salvation Council.
President Elias Sarkis appointed the council Tuesday in a desperation effort to force Lebanon's warring factions to come together for the first time since 1975. But wrangling so far has prevented the council from meeting.
The council's first task would involve deploying in the capital units of the renascent 21,000-man Lebanese Army, which disintegrated along Christian-Moslem lines in the 1975-1976 civil war.
Although the council's highest priority is to create an Army presence in West Beirut--both to reestablish sovereignty over the area long under Syrian and Palestinian domination and to protect the now-threatened guerrillas--it is understood that some troops might have to be sent into the Christian sector. That would save face for the National Movement, long opposed to an Army presence in West Beirut on the ground that the armed forces favored the Christian sector.
Still unresolved, according to insiders, was the Palestinians' attitude toward the Army in West Beirut since at least radical George Habbash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is on record as opposing its deployment there.
Underlining the key American role this week in Lebanon were the frequency and number of Habib's consultations with government ministers and politicians at the hilltop residence of Ambassador Robert S. Dillon here.
Meanwhile, the state-run Voice of Israel radio said Israel was considering a proposal suggested by Habib for a complete cessation of hostilities in Lebanon for 48 hours to allow Palestinian guerrillas to lay down their weapons. The radio said the Israeli Cabinet discussed the plan today.