Arafat leaves Beirut, US envoy meets al-Assad

How the curtain finally came down on PLO presence in Lebanon

Al Majalla

Arafat leaves Beirut, US envoy meets al-Assad

By the end of the summer of 1982, Beirut was shattered and desperate. The Israelis had bombed it relentlessly in their pursuit of Palestinian fighters after an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador in London.

Ringed by Israeli soldiers on land and at sea, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) militants stand alongside Syrian soldiers and fighters from Lebanese Shiite militias, but they know it is hopeless. An American envoy, Philip Habib, has been shuttling between the various parties trying to negotiate the exit of Arafat and his remaining fighters to avoid Beirut’s complete decimation.

In Parts I to 4, Al Majalla presented details of the intriguing and often secret discussions between the major parties. By August 1982, the question was not whether Arafat and the PLO had to go but how. In Part 5, the final instalment, we again draw on classified Syrian, American, and Lebanese archival materials, notably those brought to Paris from the late Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam in 2005.

The documents reveal the meticulous execution of a strategy devised by US envoy Philip Habib, which paved the way to a ceasefire and a bolstered Syrian presence in the Lebanese capital. They show the contours of the American plan to move the PLO's "leadership, offices, and fighters" from Beirut to prearranged destinations in other nations. This met an objective for the Lebanese government, which ideally wanted all foreign military forces to withdraw from the country. A contingent of United Nations monitors would oversee it.

Details of departure

All military forces in Lebanon, including the Israelis, were to allow the PLO’s safe passage, while the safety of Palestinian families choosing to stay and live in Lebanon would be guaranteed by the Lebanese and US governments.

The multinational force was due to include French, Italian, and American soldiers, who would help the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) fulfil their duties, including safeguarding the security of departing PLO members. If the PLO deviated from the agreed departure plan, the multinational force's mandate would automatically terminate, prompting the withdrawal of these soldiers within days.

Palestinian fighters raise the victory sign and carry pictures of Yasser Arafat, on a military truck as they leave Beirut for Tunisia, August 22, 1982.

The Lebanese Armed Forces were scheduled to provide seven or eight battalions for the operation, each comprising between 2,500 and 3,500 troops, with internal security forces providing additional support. The International Committee of the Red Cross was to oversee the evacuation of the wounded Syrian and Palestinian fighters using maritime evacuations to other countries.

Regarding communication, the Lebanese Army and the multinational force were to form a liaison and coordination committee, which would talk to both the PLO and the Israelis. The PLO departure was due to take no more than 14 days. Convoys were to move in daylight hours only, travelling by land from Beirut to Syria without stopping until they reached Syrian territory.

PLO fighters could travel with their pistols, rifles, or machine guns, plus ammunition, but all heavy weaponry had to be passed as a gift to the LAF, as did all information relating to the location of mines and booby traps. The International Committee of the Red Cross will receive and transfer all Israelis held by the PLO to the Israeli forces, along with the remains of any Israeli soldiers or precise information about their whereabouts.

Also leaving Beirut were Syrian soldiers who comprised the majority of the Arab Deterrent Force after an agreement was reached between the governments of Lebanon and Syria.

Departure day

On 21 August, the first 350 soldiers of the multinational force would arrive by sea at 5am and deploy across the Beirut port vicinity, readying for the initial departure of PLO by sea. At the same time, LAF units would deploy to predetermined positions around Beirut along what is designated as the demarcation line to facilitate the PLO exit. The LAF would then assume control of all previous PLO positions.

Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, on the eve of his departure from Beirut on August 30, 1982.

The first PLO contingent, mainly composed of the sick and injured, would gather at an agreed-upon point for embarkation either later that day or on 22 August. Most were bound for Jordan or Iraq. The rest were to travel in the coming days. Some were destined for Tunisia, others for South or North Yemen. Yet others were bound for Syria and due to travel by road, a route overseen by French and Lebanese soldiers.

The remaining units of the multinational force (including American and Italian troops) were due to reach Beirut between 26 and 28 August, and Syrian personnel were scheduled to leave between 29 and 21 August. Between 1 and 3 September, PLO fighters destined for Sudan and Algeria were due to leave. By 4 September, both the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Liberation Army should have left Lebanon. By 26 September, the multinational forces should have left, too.

Khaddam was later informed that these arrangements—as devised and stipulated by the Israelis, American envoy Philip Habib, and LAF commander Bashir Gemayel—were implemented in accordance with the timetable. This concluded the chapter on Palestinian military, political, and media influence in Beirut. Arafat, who had vowed to stay, was now bound for Tunisia, having declined to depart through Damascus.

After the siege

After he left, Khaddam noted that the US “remains actively engaged in orchestrating Lebanon’s affairs within the broader context of Middle Eastern arrangements aligning with its interests”. US President Ronald Reagan told Habib to tour the Middle East to discuss “Lebanon’s pressing priorities and advance Reagan’s) peace project”.

On 23 November 1982, Habib visited Damascus. Syrian President al-Assad declined to meet him, so instead, he met Khaddam, who was then the foreign minister. Six months later, on 7 May 1983, US Secretary of State George Shultz also visited Damascus to discuss Lebanon. However, the pivotal development occurred on 17 July 1983, when US National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane undertook a secret visit to Damascus, in part to discuss the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

Al Majalla

According to the confidential minutes of his meeting with Syria’s President al-Assad, McFarlane explained that President Reagan saw Lebanon’s security as requiring independence and orderly relations with its neighbours. McFarlane was, therefore, interested in discussing “a mutual and synchronised withdrawal of all external forces from Lebanese territory” and “the establishment of future relations between Lebanon and its neighbouring states, delineated through bilateral agreements.”

The US official then said that “should Syria accede to these principles, the United States commits to urging Israel to agree to them, although the American administration cannot predict Israel’s response”.

No tethered presence

McFarlane sought al-Assad’s agreement in principle. The Syrian president said: “We categorically oppose tethering our presence in Lebanon to the Israeli presence. We have informed America that we agree to withdraw from Lebanon only if Israel withdraws unconditionally and without any gains.” McFarlane asked if al-Assad “could envision a scenario where acknowledgement of Israel’s security could be entertained”.

Al-Assad replied: “Acknowledgment is one thing; the security arrangements currently under scrutiny are another. Our discourse on the latter hinges on its specifics, and the immediate imperative is for Israel to evacuate our territories devoid of any prerequisites.” McFarlane would later return to Damascus (this time as Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East) to lay the groundwork for Syrian forces' re-entry into Beirut after their withdrawal alongside Arafat in 1982.

Syrian forces would only leave Lebanon 23 years later, in April 2005, following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February of that year.

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