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PLO's Arafat caught in political sandstorm in Middle East

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian guerrilla movement, partly through Mr. Arafat's own seesaw diplomacy and the occasional free-lance gangsterism of his fighters, seems to have set up a possible backlash from nearly all sides of the Middle East arena.

Grass-roots violence from the disadvantaged Shiite Muslim community threatens the Palestinians in LEbanon, their major Arab sanctuary since Jordan's King Hussein drove them out in a 1970 civil war.

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Other religious communities and the Lebanese government and military -- luckily for Mr. Arafat, still badly weakened from the 1975-76 civil war -- are also showing increasing signs of impatience with a guerrilla presence that has prompted escalating Israeli counterstrikes against Lebanon.

Israel, itself, is often less than discriminating in choosing targets for raids against "terrorist bases" inside Lebanon -- a strategy, in the eyes of many diplomats, purposely directed at deepening civilian resentment of the Palestinians' presence.

Syria, the Arab neighbor whose troops turned on the Palestinians to end the Lebanese civil war and then stayed on, seems once again to be leaning on Mr. Arafat.

The Syrian regime is facing serious internal unrest of its own. As Arab diplomats and other Beirut analysts see things, the Damascus leadership is concerned that the mercurical Mr. Arafat will either join a Middle East peace process isolating Syria, or manage to provoke on untimely war with Israel.

Thus on May 18, the government-controlled Syrian newspaper Al-Baath accused the Palestinian guerrilla movement of maintaining ties "with those are ready to follow the Camp David agreements."

Palestinian sources have also given credence to a June 6 report in a Paris-based Arabic magazine that Syrian authorities in Damascus had recently detained two local officials from Mr. Arafat s Al-fatah guerrilla group, but this could not be confirmed from Damascus.

Some Palestinians now fear that Syria may seek to take advantage of the recent violence in Lebanon between young Shiite Muslim militiamen and the Palestinian fighters.

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Arab diplomats report guarded uneasines as well in the oil regimes of the Gulf that maintain outward harmony with Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Vocally hard-line Iraq, they maintain, sees Mr. Arafat as a potential spoiler of its historic dreams of regional leadership.

More moderate regimes like Saudi Arabia see the PLO as a snag to eventual overall Middle East peace.

None of these threats is particularly new. Israel and the Palestinians are fighting for the same homeland. The Arab countries, who failed in their 1948 war to head off the birth of the Jewish state, have ever since seemed more concerned with keeping the Palestinians on official rein than with establishing them as an independent political and military force.

Jordan's civil war a decade ago, Lebanon's civil strife five years later, and Israel's 1978 invasion of Palestinian-dominated southern Lebanon have afforded ample proof that no foreseeable combination of forces is capable of bearing out Zbigniew Brzezinski's theatrical 1977 "bye-bye to the PLO."

But an increase in outside pressures on the Palestinian guerrilla movement would inevitably complicate what many Arab analysts are convined is Mr. Arafat's ultiamte aim -- full world political recognition and the eventual establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

In this regard, there seems no greater danger to Mr. Arafat than the prospect of another full-scale conflict in LEbanon involving the Palestinian guerrillas. This is especially so at a time when growing Palestinian militancy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, expanding sympathy for the Palestinians in West Europe, and political divisions inside Israel have led many Palestinian officials to argue that time is now on their side.

Lebanon's Shiite Muslims -- its largest, yet most impoverished, religious community -- backed Mr. Arafat during the 1975-76 civil war. During the subsequent fighting on Lebanon's southern frontier with Israel, the tens of thousands of Shiites in the area have maintained at least a teeth-gritting neutrality toward local Palestinian guerrillas.

The equation seems to be changing.Beginning in late May, Shiite Muslims affiliated with a pro-Palestinina militia formed during the civil war turned against the Palestinians and Lebanese leftists in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

The partly Israeli-armed Christian militias in eastern Beirut did not get involved, contenting themselves for a time with what they say as a vindication of their own civil-war campaign to drive out the Palestinians.

In south Lebanon, community leaders say Shiites from the village of Zifta took on Palestinian guerrillas in the most serious of a series of such conflicts in the border area -- finally gunning down several dozen of the guerrillas after the village had been subjected to Palestinian shellfire.

"Is this [shelling] the way to liberate Palestine?" asked a sardonic statement released by the villagers. "By shelling us as if we were the Israelis?"

In the southwest Lebanese port of Sidon, recently bombarded by the Israelis, the generally more well-to-do Sunni Muslim community also seems to be reconsidering its traditional acceptance of the Palestinina guerrillas.

Following a clash between Palestinian-allied leftists and Lebanon's fledgling post-civil war Army, Sidon residents issued leaflets protesting that, "After suffering for your [Palestinians'] sake, this is how you treat us. You support every violation of security. . . . Your heavy weapons are here. Are you fighting us or the [Israeli] enemy?"

Most Lebanese Muslims still seem to sympathize with the Palestinians' political grievances, with their desire to establisha state of their own.

But two complaints are increasingly heard, especially from the put-upon Shiite poor:

* First, that the Palestinians' "armed struggle against the Zionist enemy" has served mostly to convert Lebanon into a ready target for Israeli artillery, warplanes, and gunboats.

* Second, that at least some of the young guerrillas sometimes act more like warlords, or gangsters, than freedom fighters. They run protection rackets, many Lebanese charge; they bully the local; and they refuse to accept the authority of a Lebanese government and military that are painstakingly trying to recover from civil strife.

Some Palestinian officials have admitted "excesses" among a guerrilla minority, but that has done little to stem the growing resentment of the Palestinians.

How serious this resentment will become is impossible to say. But the leading Beirut newspaper, An-Nahar, drew a parallel June 5 between the Palestinian-Shiite clashes on the southern edge of the capital and the Palestinian-Christian fighting that preceded the 1975 civil war.

The newspaper spoke of a "psychological mobilization" among the new set of foes and said that, while PLO officials dismiss comparisons with 1975 as unduly alarmist, the Palestinians are nonetheless "worried."

Officers in the Shiite militia, whose swelling ranks seem to attest to growing grass-roots resentment of the Palestinian fighters, insist they want to head off further clashes.

"We don't want that," said one militia leader. "And we beg Arafat to prevent it from occuring.

"But we find it hard to control our people."

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