NICOSIA, CYPRUS — The implications of the Lebanon battles and the besieging of Palestinian refugee camps by the Shia Amal militia are of greater long-term significance than the events themselves, violent as they are and as much suffering as they have caused.
The siege of the camps has brought new Soviet involvement in the chaotic Lebanon situation and raised questions about the effectiveness of the United Nations agency that is supposed to be the guardian of the refugee camps.
Contrary to appearances, it is Amal and not the Palestine Liberation Organization that will emerge the loser. When Nabih Berri, the Amal leader, ordered his men to lift their blockade of the two camps in Beirut on Feb. 13, it took five days before the militiamen deigned to obey. The main reason for Berri's loss of authority is that he and his family have been living in Damascus for the last four months. In that time he has not once visited Beirut, and has said, quite frankly, that his life is in danger there. What he did not say is that he is most in danger not from the Palestinians, but from his Shia Muslim antagonists. Groups like Hezbollah are angry at Amal because of its prolonged campaign against the Palestinian camps--the current fighting is the fifth camp battle since mid-1985.
Berri's authority has also been diminished because the fighting in Beirut and near Tyre has enabled local Amal commanders, acting on their own, to gain power. Daoud Daoud in the south and Akel Hamieh in the Beirut suburbs are now independent Shia barons.
Ever since the camp battles began, under Syria's sponsorship and perhaps on its direct orders, the Soviet Union has expressed disapproval, sometimes openly and in strong words. In December, 1986, Moscow ordered its very loyal Lebanese Communist Party to correct a wobble toward Syria and Amal--to stop giving them verbal support.
Last week Moscow went further, ordering the local party to resist, with violence if need be, Amal's attempts to encroach on Communist fiefs in West Beirut. The fighting has been fierce, with most of it carried out by Druze militiamen, the Communists' allies. Thus the strain imposed by the prolonged camp battle and siege has produced clear splits--among Moscow and Amal and Syria, among Amal and Lebanese Communists and Druze.
Iran, the Shias' mother country and Syria's closest ally, has also opposed the camp battles since they began and has been openly at odds with Syria. Iranian mediators were busy in Beirut during January trying to bring about a settlement. But they were defied by the undisciplined local Shia gunmen, and when an Iranian diplomat escorted a food convoy into a camp, he was shot and killed by Shia soldiers of the Lebanese army's Sixth Brigade.
Thus Amal and Syria have antagonized all their friends, locally and internationally--even Libya, Syria's only Arab ally. But it is difficult to talk of "Amal" any more because the movement has splintered into at least five different groups, largely because of the camp battles. This is not a good omen for release of the foreign hostages in Lebanon because now, even less than before, there is no single valid interlocutor with whom to negotiate.
The way the Shias of Amal have conducted the battles and the siege have taught other Lebanese communities a grim but valuable lesson. They have seen, month after month, how cold-blooded and brutal the Shias can be toward those who oppose them, even noncombatant civilians, women and children. This offers the Lebanese a preview of the fate reserved for any opposition in a Shia-dominated Lebanese Islamic Republic, which Hezbollah and Islamic Amal propose with increasing openness and boldness. Out of a determination to oppose the imposition of a Shia regime, the Druze, the Communists, the Sunni Muslims and the secular Syrian National Social Party have joined together in battle against Amal.
Use of the weapon of famine has at long last brought world condemnation down on the Shias. Unfortunately, it was only after the possibility of cannibalism in the camps was mentioned that world opinion awakened to a tragedy that had been going on for more than four months in the south and more than three months in Beirut. One reason for the delay was that most media representatives are Westerners, whose news agencies monopolize the flow ofinformation in the non-communist world. The fate of a score of Western hostages, including the Anglican envoy, Terry Waite, received more coverage than the sufferings of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Their agony is seen as an old story.
A further contributing factor to media silence was the organization charged with looking after the Palestinian camps, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). It should have been loudly proclaiming their plight but it is headquartered in Vienna, 2,000 miles from where its charges live and, too often, die.