Arafat messages al-Assad as Beirut burns

The PLO chairman now knows that he must leave Lebanon as his fighters are surrounded by the Israelis. The Syrian president is no friend, but agrees to take them in.

Al Majalla

Arafat messages al-Assad as Beirut burns

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon for a second time after the attempted assassination of its ambassador in London. Following a three-pronged attack, Israel’s forces reached the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in a matter of days before laying siege to the city. Palestinian fighters had built a strong base there, operating autonomously, like a state-within-a-state.

Al Majalla has obtained access to what has become known as the Khaddam Files, which shed light on this turbulent period in Lebanon. Abdul Halim Khaddam was Syrian's foreign minister at the time.

Later, he became Syria's vice president and served under Hafez al-Assad and then under his son Bashar until he became disillusioned with the Syrian regime, abandoned his post and fled to France in 2005, taking with him secret documents detailing regional events during his time in office.

Al Majalla is relaying the events in a five-part series.

In Parts I, 2, and 3, we published details of the negotiations to end the Israeli siege of Beirut. This stipulated Arafa'ts exit from Lebanon of Yasser Arafat and his PLO fighters in the summer of 1982.

Alongside some Syrian soldiers and Lebanese Shiite militias, they come to be known as ‘the resistance’ but face far superior Israeli firepower. With American envoy Philip Habib pressing for Arafat’s ouster and the Israeli net tightening, options appear limited.

As detailed in secret correspondence between Damascus and Lebanon, Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Arafat reluctantly begins to accept that he and his men will have to leave Lebanon to save Beirut from total destruction.

In Part 4, we cover the secret messages between Arafat and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in the days leading up to that. Al-Assad has said he will host 1,200 Palestinian fighters plus some PLO leaders, but the two men are not known to like one another.

First letter penned

Arafat first reached out to al-Assad on 7 August, discussing the “decisions of Jeddah” and the “intensive talks between us and the Lebanese government regarding the withdrawal of Palestinian forces in Beirut.” According to Khaddam, it was Arafat's first-ever contact with al-Assad or Syria.

In the letter, the PLO Chairman struck a cordial tone, vowing to cooperate with Damascus, referring to Syria as “our sister country” and to a recent “fraternal meeting between the Palestinian leadership and your Excellency.”

He said he hoped that Syria “will accommodate those who cannot go to another country even temporarily until places are secured for them,” adding: “We are confident that the national ties between the Palestinian revolution and Syria will enable us to face this situation with a unified stance and shared responsibility.”

Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat (left) meets with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus on April 24, 1988. This was Arafat's first visit to Syria since 1983.

The Syrian leadership responded on 9 August, and al-Assad asked Khaddam to keep the Palestinian factions in Damascus abreast of the communication.

Clarifying the boundaries

“Regarding the message from brother Abu Ammar (Arafat)... there is no truth to Syria agreeing to accept 1,200 fighters... based on the principle that fighters should remain where they are to face the enemy,” it read.

This document, which outlines internal Syrian considerations, refers to “the goals of the US-Israeli aggression on Lebanon” being “the liquidation of the Palestinian revolution... transforming it from a problem for Israel into a problem for Syria by transferring the current situation to Lebanon to Syria”.

The US-Israeli goal, it continued, was to “create conflicts on Syrian soil between Syria and the Palestinian revolution”. It also noted that “some Palestinian voices were sceptical of Syria’s stance while Syria was fighting and making significant human sacrifices, with thousands of Syrian fighters injured and significant material sacrifices amounting to billions (of dollars)”.

In a less-than-subtle dig, it referred to “Arab countries that did not provide assistance,” adding: “Some not only remained silent but were even complicit with the Israeli enemy.”

The document then notes the “fraternal and revolutionary relations between Syria and the Palestinian revolution,” adding: “We are in the same trench and have one cause, which obliges us to have one strategy in confronting this enemy... the Zionist entity, American imperialism, and its allies.”

Al-Assad writes back

In response to Arafat, the Syrians asked for “the number of fighters who will leave Beirut and have no destination to head to, and the nationalities” of the fighters. It also suggested that the PLO “take action in accordance with Article 6 of the Charter of the League of Arab States by calling for an urgent and immediate meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the exit from Beirut”.

The Syrian notes also suggest “the adoption of an Arab decision to organise this matter in order for everyone to share the national responsibility”, in reference to the distribution of Palestinian fighters being shuttled out of Lebanon.

Khaddam recalled that “the next day, the leadership of Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party convened to discuss Palestinian fighters’ exit from Lebanon. It was decided to inform the PLO that Syria welcomes them regardless of the number and that they will find in Syria the same refuge and support as they did in the past”.

Afterwards, President al-Assad called the Palestinian representatives in Syria to convey the decision and “to address the issue of security and discipline, saying ‘it must be clear to Arafat, I am not President Sarkis, nor King Hussein,’ referring to the events of ‘Black September’ in Jordan that led to Arafat and his fighters’ first expulsion in 1970”.

We welcome the PLO to Syria, but it must be clear to Arafat that I am not President Sarkis or King Hussein.

Hafez al-Assad

Arafat replies

Two days later, on 11 August 1982, al-Assad received a telegram from a grateful Arafat, who "received with great appreciation and satisfaction your decision and the decision of the Syrian leadership regarding the transfer of all your brethren mujahideen in besieged Beirut who wish to go to Damascus".

Arafat urged al-Assad "to exert your efforts alongside your Arab brethren leaders to unite this (Arab) nation against the imminent threat from all directions".

He signed off by saying: "I thank you, on my behalf, on behalf of my mujahideen brethren, on behalf of the PLO, and on behalf of the Palestinian people, for this kind gesture, which we are accustomed to receiving from you and our sister country Syria. It is a revolution until victory."

Despite the pleasantries, al-Assad and Arafat still distrusted one another. Arafat spurned the offer to vacate Lebanon through Syria, and al-Assad supported Arafat's Palestinian rivals in Damascus.

Al-Khatib meets Khaddam

On 12 August, Khaddam received Sami al-Khatib, an envoy from Lebanese President Elias Sarkis, who conveyed the details of talks with US envoy Philip Habib regarding Arafat's evacuation "to save Beirut".

"What remains of Beirut to be saved?" al-Khatib asks sarcastically. "The tragedy of Beirut is a terrorist tragedy. The Israeli occupation and siege is aimed at booting Palestinian leadership and fighters from Beirut and Lebanon."

He told Khaddam they had come up with "a structured plan that may garner the approval of the concerned parties" and were awaiting final sign-off. According to the plan, the Palestinians would leave Lebanon for "predetermined destinations," triggering a ceasefire.

Talks with Habib had focused on the deployment of multinational forces to Beirut to support the evacuation and departure of Palestinian fighters, with the Lebanese and US governments responsible for the safe exit of Palestinian civilians.

Al-Khatib explained that every detail of the departure, including groups, times, routes, and procedures, was being considered—all overseen by the multinational force under an extendable one-month deadline.

Bachir Gemayel's Lebanese Armed Forces (Kataeb), with 3,500 soldiers, was to accompany the multinational force for the evacuation, bringing the number to 5,000 soldiers in total. Liaison officers would talk to and coordinate with the Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinian fighters carry pictures of Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat as they leave Beirut on August 27, 1982.

Exit plan

The departure would be carried out over the span of 15 days, and the Israelis would clear the way for the convoys to pass through Lebanon to Syria. The Palestinians could take individual weapons and ammunition but had to leave all heavy weapons behind. Furthermore, the Palestinians would tell the Lebanese army where mines were planted and would hand over any living prisoners, remains of prisoners, or information about deceased enemy combatants to the International Red Cross.

Khaddam asked: "Is there a difference between prisoners and captives?" Al-Khatib replied: "The word in the plan before me is 'prisoners.'"

Regarding the Arab Deterrent Forces (ADF) in Lebanon, which was composed mainly of Syrians, this was decided to be "a separate issue from the Palestinian story, discussed separately between the governments in Damascus and Beirut".

Alongside the Palestinian fighters, the Israelis had wanted to extract Syrian soldiers from Beirut too. To save the city, the Lebanese government agreed to "immediately redeploy ADF currently in Beirut to other places in Lebanon".

Khaddam asked if there was "any commitment to an Israeli withdrawal," as demanded in several UN Resolutions. "We have no guarantee," replied al-Khatib. "We believe that everything we do will help us withdraw Israelis from Beirut, then from Lebanon."

The Syrian foreign minister said the country would accept Palestinian fighters and leaders but not their families "because this is the displacement of Palestinians".

Beirut burns

Al-Khatib, commander of the ADF, stressed the urgency. "For two and a half months, (Ariel) Sharon has been destroying Beirut, and no one can do anything about it," he said. "They've now reached Jbeil. The air strikes in Beirut today were for about 11 hours, from three warships and 15 artillery batteries."

He also recalled to Khaddam an incident in which he was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint in East Beirut and refused permission to pass or even to make a phone call. Permission was still denied even when the Israelis found out who al-Khatib was.

"We found this unacceptable. Sharon has made himself a ruler and wants to destroy Beirut and the resistance to make himself the king of Israel," al-Khatib said. The bombing was so intense that Philip Habib cancelled his meetings. "He couldn't continue."

Israeli bombing of areas in western Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, July 30, 1982.

The commander told Khaddam that "ordinary citizens are overwhelmed and are starting to get bored with this life", adding that presidential elections in Lebanon had been set for 23 August—with no quorum requirement.

Talk between the two men then turned to Bachir Gemayel, the man who would stand unelected for the presidency days later. A Maronite Christian, his father Pierre founded the right-wing Kataeb Party (also known as Phalanges). Using force, he united the Christian militias under the slogan of "uniting the Christian rifle".

Khaddam knew that Gemayel took a dim view of Syrians in Lebanon. "He used to tell people how elections would take place under Syrian occupation. Now, what will he say about elections held under the Israeli occupation?" he asked al-Khatib.

The commander replied with his own question. "How is it that Beirut is being destroyed, and Bachir Gemayel is blaming the Palestinians? At least he should have considered them partners in the calamity that befell Lebanon.

"Palestinians are being bombed and slaughtered, and they (Kataeb) don't say a word to condemn the occupation. How will they live in Lebanon? That's if they don't become refugees in the Arab world. We have become convinced that the countdown has begun for Israel's existence."

No good options

On Gemayel's Christian militia, al-Khatib said: "They started dealing drugs and hashish as well as theft and looting. They stole the leadership from me, stole a colonel's shoes, attacked the free area, completely looted it, cleaned it out, entered a supermarket in Baabda, and took everything."

"Saad Haddad's group cursed Bachir (Gemayel). Then, the Israelis entered Saad Haddad's area in Shouf (in south Lebanon). Now Bachir's group put up a sign reading 'last checkpoint for the Lebanese forces.' I saw it with my own eyes."

Al-Khatib said he wished Khaddam could see the situation in Lebanon for himself. "Destruction, humiliation, theft. They burned our homes, cars, taxis. They promoted hashish and sold clothes. Israeli soldiers now buy in Shekels (the Israeli currency)."

"Mohammad Atwi was supposed to accompany me today, but at 3am, a shell hit them and pierced Mohammad's abdomen. He started screaming... parts of his intestines came out. They rushed him to the hospital... You would no longer be able to recognise the streets. It's all destruction. Beirut does not look like Beirut anymore."


Tomorrow: Episode 5 Al Majalla publishes the fifth and final part, as Arafat leaves Beirut and US envoy Phillip Habib makes a secret visit to Damascus.

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