The second group of Palestinian fighters leaving Beirut--including some elements of Yasser Arafat's palace guard--was delayed temporarily today when Israeli gunboats blockaded the port for several hours.
Israel said the blockade--by two missile ships and two smaller gunboats--was instituted because the Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas took 21 jeeps along with 41 rocket-propelled antitank guns aboard the ferry. The Israelis charged that the U.S.-mediated plan for evacuation of PLO guerrillas from war-ravaged West Beirut did not allow the vehicles and weapons to be transported along with the guerrillas.
The Israeli action prompted a protest from U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who said the blockade violated the accord. The incident came on the second day of what is scheduled to be the PLO's two-week withdrawal of its fighting forces from the Lebanese capital, where they have been besieged for 10 weeks by the Israeli Army.
Israeli radio reported tonight that Israel had agreed to a resumption of the evacuation after the government received a telegram from U.S. Ambassador Samuel Lewis assuring that the jeeps and heavy arms would be unloaded before the guerrillas reached their final destination of Tunisia, Washington Post correspondent Edward Walsh reported.
Israeli television, in an unsourced report by its military correspondent, said U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib, who negotiated the evacuation during the past two months, had given the guerrillas permission to load the jeeps, United Press International reported. A U.S. source in Israel said the PLO indeed had "thought they were permitted to bring the vehicles on board, but that was due to a misunderstanding."
An Israeli colonel, quoted by Reuter, said, "We decided this time to let them go because we really did not want to cause trouble . . . . But we will not let it happen again."
The ferry finally left the harbor at about 9 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT).
The blockade came as the International Red Cross ship, the Sol Phryne, was preparing to depart from the port of Beirut. The port is under the control of 350 French paratroopers, the vanguard of a 2,000-man peace-keeping force that will also include troops from the United States and Italy.
Weinberger, speaking on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM), said that according to the evacuation agreement, Israel had no right to block the ships because "the port is supposed to be under control of the French." Weinberger said that if the Israelis had any protest, it should have been directed immediately to the leaders of the international military force at the port. He downplayed the blockade, however, calling it a "little glitch."
Secretary of State George P. Shultz, on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC), also said the blockade was not a major obstacle. "Let's not play this up like it's a big issue about to bring the world down," he said. Later he added, "This is not the first problem, and it won't be the last . . . ."
The blockade triggered a flurry of diplomatic discussions today. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Morris Draper, Habib's deputy in Beirut, met with Israeli Maj. Gen. Amir Drory and officers of the Lebanese Army before the dispute was resolved. Other consultations were conducted by Habib.
In West Beirut, PLO sources expressed concern over the blockade. They said they feared that Israel's action might have been taken because some of Arafat's Fatah deputies, including his personal interpreter, had boarded the ship. The PLO has been extremely secretive about the plans of its leaders to depart.
Today's incident came after about 1,000 men of Arafat's Fatah organization were driven in a triumphal parade through Beirut, amid a deafening cacophony of gunfire and the shrill cries of distraught women being left behind.
The fighters formed the second group of the planned evacuation, which began yesterday with the departure of nearly 400 PLO fighters who sailed to Cyprus and later were flown to Jordan and Iraq.
Reporters trying to watch the events today from East Beirut were kept at a long distance from the port by Christian Phalangist militias acting on behalf of U.S. and French officials, a high-level Lebanese officer told Washington Post correspondent Leon Dash.
As today's events unfolded, Lebanon's diverse political groups were considering the country's presidential election, which is to be held by the parliament Monday.
Lebanese Christian sources said that Moslem groups' opposition to holding the election Monday "may have hardened rather than softened" since the first aborted attempt by the parliament Thursday was canceled, Dash reported. Many of the Moslems are opposed to the only presidential candidate, Christian Phalangist militia commander Bashir Gemayel, and some have threatened not to attend the meeting in the hopes of preventing a quorum.
[The dispute turned violent Sunday when police said Hassan Rifai, a member of parliament, was attacked by gunmen and seriously injured, The Associated Press reported.]
[The meeting place for the election also has been changed for security reasons to the Lebanese military academy. But the choice has raised some problems, since the academy is in Fiyadiyeh, three miles east of Beirut. The town is controlled by the Lebanese Army, but it is surrounded by the Christian heartland controlled by Gemayel's troops.]
The evacuees today and yesterday were hailed ecstatically by their leaders as heroes. They were borne through the city's shell-holed streets to their ship, much like a triumphant army, although a final Israeli assault on the city was held off only through Habib's negotiations.
Salah Khalaf, Arafat's deputy leader in Fatah, reflected this enthusiasm when he said the PLO had effectively avoided defeat despite Israel's overwhelming military superiority. He said that the PLO held off the Israelis for a longer period than all Arab armies in the past combined and that the PLO still had managed to withdraw to fight another day.
But the PLO's future is uncertain as it is forced to eight different Arab capitals and comes under the discipline of eight different leaders. The withdrawal also places in question Arafat's ability to continue to control an organization that is so dispersed.
Hospital sources reported that yesterday, as the evacaution began for the 7,100 PLO combatants and 5,000 Syrian and Palestinian soldiers who are part of the Syrian-controlled Arab peace-keeping force, at least 50 persons were injured from spent shells falling back to earth. Today dozens more were injured.
With Palestinian flags streaming from the cabs of their military trucks, the departing guerrillas were showered with rice and flower blossoms as they held aloft pictures of Arafat and struck heroic poses with their Kalashnikov rifles.
The forced exuberance and frenzy of the occasion failed to mask the sadness that hung over the departure through the port.
"That keeps them from crying," said a young Lebanese journalist as she watched the spectacle from the doorway of a smashed building where she cringed from the reverberations of machine guns being fired at random right next to her ear. "They shoot and shoot and shoot, and that makes them forget."
A gaunt 50-year-old Palestinian fighter who gave his name as Abu Samir was asked about his feelings as his truck waited in line before crossing into the port.
"I'll tell you how it feels," he said, cradling a Kalashnikov. "I feel just as I did when I left Palestine as a child in 1948 and just as I did when I was forced out of Jordan in 1970 by King Hussein. I feel sad and angry that I have no country of my own."
Another fighter, 40-year-old Suleiman Mohammed, who had been born near Haifa before the forced migrations through the Arab world, said, "Why is it we are denied a homeland and the Israelis are not? Why is it no one sees the injustice that has been done to us? Why doesn't anybody care about the Palestinians?"
A Palestinian woman who had brought her 10-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son to watch the exodus said she had come not because she knew any of those who would be departing but because she wanted to engrave the indignity of the occasion in the memory of her children.
"This is a day that will be marked forever in Palestinian history," she said sadly. "I want my children to see this and remember it because maybe they, too, will grow up to be fighters for Palestine."
Today's Fatah force was headed for Tunis, where Arafat is expected to set up PLO headquarters. Arafat did not depart today.
Other fighters will be going to North and South Yemen, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Jordan. Some injured guerrillas will be sent to Egypt. Those who do not go by ship in the coming days will join the Syrian Army brigade in Beirut and the Palestine Liberation Army brigade that the Syrians command, for a land evacuation along the Beirut-Damascus road to Syria expected to begin at the end of the week.