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Lebanon fighting: PLO claims 'gains', Israel divided

The Palestine Liberation Organization claims to be growing in military strength and international support as a result of the violent clashes with Israel.

While Israel feels more and more pressure from within and without -- notably the United States -- the PLO claims to be enjoying a better political position.

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"What the Israelis are doing to us is horrible," says a PLO spokesman in Beirut. "But in a way, it's doing us a lot of good."

The spokesman, who declined to be identified, asserts that the July 17 bombing of Beirut has brought about a surge in enlistments of Palestinian guerrillas and in support in the Arab world.

He also claims that there is today greater sympathy from Lebanese toward Palestinians residing in their country. Overall, he says, the PLO is experiencing an international public relations victory.

The recruitment claim is unverifiable, since it rests on the PLO's own figures.

As for greater Lebanese sympathy, the assessment from Beirut today is that the heavy Israeli attacks -- especially the air raid on Beirut, which caused hundreds of casualties among Lebanese civilians -- is indeed producing some sympathy for the Palestinians. Middle East watchers note that the 1978 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon caused a similar burst of support for Palestinians.

But Lebanese journalists say that there is still an underlying feeling of separateness between the Lebanese and the Palestinians living in Lebanon.

The Lebanese often complain that the Palestinians are largely to blame for the lawlessness in Lebanon today. fighting between rightist Lebanese and Palestinian forces has erupted periodically since 1975. One violent flareup two months ago pitted Phalangists and (who are anti-Syrian, anti- PLO, and, at least until recently, pro-Israeli) against Syrians and their Lebanese leftist allies (partisan to, and funded in party by, the PLO).

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Meanwhile, Western analysts say the recent Israeli raids on PLO positions in Lebanon have caused moderate military losses to the guerrillas and tactical losses in terms of roads and bridges destroyed. But, they add, the PLO is funded and supplied from outside sources and could reequip easily. Shortly after the July 17 Israeli bombing raid on Beirut, for instance, Saudi Arabia promised an extra $20 million grant to aid the PLO.

The PLO is trying to give the current fighting the appearance of what PLO chairman Yasser Arafat called this week a "Palestine-Israel war." Despite Israeli air superiority, the Palestinians have continued to fire rockets and artillery into northern Israel.

This, says a PLO spokesman, gives "our guys high morale." Yet the widely acknowledged Israeli military superiority, he says, "still gives us the role of the underdog -- and the world sees this."

The fact that US special envoy Philip C. Habib is attempting to win a cease-fire between the two parties (though without direct contact with the PLO) adds to the appearance that this is a Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Mr. Habib, who in the past two days has flown quickly between Israel, Lebanon , and Saudi Arabia, is attempting to find parties with sufficient influence to act as surrogates for the PLO in indirect negotiations. The Reagan administration is applying its own pressure on Israel by delaying delivery of US-built F-16 jets and, for the first time, openly criticizing Israeli actions (as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger did July 22).

Within Israel itself, the battering the country's image has taken recently is causing uncomfortable stirrings. Israeli embassies around the world, the Monitor is informed, have been told to try to counter the political damage done by the bombing of Beirut.

Reports from Israel indicate a debate over how Mr. Begin's military policies are affecting Israel's important relationship with the US. Similar disagreement with government policy surfaced in May during the height of tension with Syria over antiaircraft missiles deployed in Lebanon. Labor Party leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Abba Ebban both criticized the Begin government this week.

Former Israeli Ambassador to Washington Simcha Dinitz said July 23 the country is at a critical stage in its relations with the United States. He said American criticism of Israel is the greatest it ever has been.

Meanwhile, PLO spokesmen claim that their organization is receiving expressions of support from around the world.

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