MIDDLE EAST: Death of a Guerrilla

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Accompanied by a 17-year-old niece, Palestinian Guerrilla Leader Ghassan Kanafani, 36, walked out of his apartment in a Beirut suburb, sat down at the wheel of his Austin 1100 and turned on the ignition. The car disintegrated in a horrendous explosion that killed the occupants and shook the neighborhood. Ten pounds of plastique had been stuffed under the right front fender; a hand grenade that served as detonator was wired to the ignition.

Acre-born Novelist Kanafani (Men in the Sun, That Which Remains for You), an exile from his homeland since 1948, was an ideologist and spokesman for the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He was also editor of the organization's Beirut weekly, Al Hadaf (The Aim). It was Kanafani's office which in May dispassionately bragged of the P.F.L.P.'s role in the Lod Airport massacre for which Japanese Terrorist Kozo Okamoto was on trial (see preceding story). Kanafani's funeral last week produced the largest display of fedayeen strength and support seen in Beirut for at least two years.

Yasser Arafat, head of the overall Palestine Liberation Organization, stayed away for security reasons; P.F.L.P. Boss George Habash, who suffers from a heart condition, was forced to watch from an apartment balcony as the cortege passed. But representatives of all the guerrilla groups in Lebanon and Syria were on hand. A slow-stepping 24-piece commando band in camouflage uniforms wailed Chopin's Funeral March. Thousands of Palestinian refugees, in a half-mile-long procession, trailed the flower-smothered coffin and its gun-bearing honor guard to the fedayeen's "cemetery of martyrs."

Eulogists promised "the strongest and most cruel" retaliation for Kanafani's assassination. Expectedly, they put the blame on Israel, where some Knesset members had called for individual reprisals for the Lod attack; indeed some Israeli politicians had singled out Kanafani by name. One day after his funeral a bomb exploded in a lavatory at Tel Aviv's busy central bus terminal. There were no deaths but eleven people were injured; Israeli police arrested several Arabs as suspects and repulsed an angry crowd that tried to manhandle them.

The incidents presaged a new round of skirmishes between the belligerent P.F.L.P. and the Israelis, who have retaliated against fedayeen attacks and skyjacks with air and armor strikes at their bases inside Lebanon. The principal loser, if the confrontation escalates, will be Lebanon, which is too fragmented politically to discipline the guerrillas and too weak militarily to fend off the Israelis.