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Elite PLO Unit Blamed for Attacks : 'Force 17'--To Israel, It's Black September of 1980s

September 29, 1985|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

The Israeli military announced at the time that the navy had sunk the freighter Atavarius with 28 Palestinian guerrillas aboard somewhere off the Israeli coast on April 21. Eight Palestinians were captured, and the rest presumably drowned. The attack they were planning was conceived by Wazir, although some Force 17 commandos were among the guerrillas.

Now, according to the Israeli military sources, Force 17 is responsible for planning and organizing terrorist activity inside Israel and the occupied territories. It has also been assigned to rebuild the PLO's territorial base inside Lebanon and re-establish an infrastructure for terrorist activities abroad, the sources asserted.

On Aug. 31, the Israeli navy captured four top Force 17 commandos aboard a yacht, the Gonda, which was headed from Cyprus to Sidon. The commandos were not planning any immediate attack against Israel, the military sources said, but they had been assigned to help secure Arafat's position in the Palestinian refugee camps around Sidon so that these could be used as a base of future actions against Israel.

4 Palestinians Identified

The sources identified the four captured commandos as Maj. Faisal Mahmoud abu Sharakh, deputy commander of the unit; Mahmoud Darwish, code-named Abu Nur, a high-ranking officer; Jihad Mahmoud Suhil, and Matab Josef Khatib.

When two Palestinians and a Briton stormed an Israeli yacht in the Larnaca, Cyprus, marina last week, their demands included freedom for Abu Sharakh and Darwish, the military sources said. The trio surrendered after a 10-hour siege, but by then they had killed the three Israelis aboard the yacht.

PLO officials in Cyprus and Tunis issued statements disclaiming any involvement in the attack on the yacht.

However, the Israeli military sources insisted that the attackers, including the Briton, were either members of Force 17 or people recruited by that group. An anonymous caller to the Jerusalem office of Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, said Force 17 was responsible for the yacht attack.

Black September Recalled

"The modus operandi repeats itself," the military sources said, referring to earlier experiences with Black September. "They (Force 17) claim responsibility while Fatah and Yasser Arafat play the innocent bystanders." The military sources also said Palestinians involved in recent terrorist activities in the occupied West Bank "have received directions and money from PLO headquarters in Amman--some from Force 17." The sources said Force 17 is now thought to number "over 100" commandos.

A conflicting theory about the recent rise of anti-Israeli terrorism is that it is being carried out by radical Palestinian elements eager to discredit Arafat. In this view, it makes no sense that Arafat would order new terrorist attacks at the same time that he is trying to capitalize politically on his deal with Hussein.

"That may be true from an American perspective," an Israeli military source said. "But Arafat lives in the Middle East--not in New York or Washington."

Working on Their Own

Some diplomats in Amman said they doubt that Force 17 is responsible for any recent attacks on Israelis in the occupied territories. Those attacks are thought to be the work of Palestinians working on their own, they say.

These diplomats also doubt the Israeli military theory that Force 17 is the successor to Black September. Force 17 is clearly under Arafat's control, they argue, whereas Black September was not.

Military sources here maintain that after his defeat in Lebanon and his split with Syrian-backed hard-liners in the PLO, Arafat has ordered the latest terrorist operations in a desperate effort to keep up his credibility within the divided Arab world.

Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, among others, hold that the Feb. 11 agreement is a sign that Arafat has moderated his stand and that his dominant Fatah wing of the PLO is ready to talk peace with Israel.

Put PLO 'to the Test'

The two Arab statesmen told American Jewish leaders in meetings earlier this month that the United States should "put (the PLO) to the test" by agreeing to meet a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, including some recognized PLO figures.

Israel refuses to deal with the PLO, branding it a terrorist organization, and opposes any U.S. meeting with the joint delegation. It insists that Arafat's "moderation" is only a ploy to win recognition from the United States and that the PLO chief has no real intention of negotiating with Israel.

Jerusalem argues that the only way to broaden the peace process is to hold direct Israeli negotiations with Jordan and non-PLO Palestinians.

Also contributing to this story was Times staff writer Charles P. Wallace in Amman, Jordan.

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