Beirut — The Palestinian refugees return by day to Shatila camp to sift through their wreckage or look for mementos of their families. ''But everybody leaves at night ,'' says Abu Jamil, whose family survived the Shatila massacre but returned to find their house destroyed. ''We are still afraid the killers will return.''
The situation of 300,000 to 500,000 Palestinian refugees remaining in Lebanon is extremely precarious. In refugee camps and in the cities they wait anxiously for the government of new President Amin Gemayel to clarify its policy on their presence in Lebanon. Following the expulsion from Lebanon of their protector, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), by the Israelis, they are all too aware of powerful popular and political pressures here for the ouster of all foreigners, including stateless Palestinians.
A rash of arrests inside the camps by the Lebanese Army, and several attacks by Lebanese Christians and unidentified gunmen inside camps in southern Lebanon, have fueled the fears generated by the massacres.
So far Mr. Gemayel has not spelled out his policy on the Palestinian issue. But his Phalangist Party, a bitter enemy of the PLO during the past eight years of civil strife, does not hide its desire to evict all Palestinians from Lebanon. One senior Phalangist military source said bluntly: ''Nobody wants the Palestinians, not even the Lebanese Muslims, because of all the immoral things they did. There would be no problem in moving them out of Lebanon.''
But seasoned Lebanese politicians note that any decision on the Palestinian question must take into account the sensitivities of other Arab countries and the entire problem of Lebanese reconstruction as well. Said one Lebanese politician, ''Where would we send them?''
Yet there is no doubt that with the ouster of the PLO the refugees are vulnerable. Since 1969 an inter-Arab arrangement called ''the Cairo agreement'' had legitimized PLO rule over the camps and in south Lebanon and kept out the Lebanese Army and intelligence service. This created a virtual ''state within a state.'' With the PLO gone, the Lebanese government plans to abrogate this ''agreement.''
President-elect Bashir Gemayel, Amin's brother who was murdered just before taking office, had softened the Phalange policy slightly following his election. He told Time magazine that his government would ''not endanger the Palestinian population here,'' which would ''be under the law, control, and protection of the Lebanese government.''
However, immediately after Bashir Gemayel's death, the Palestinian massacre occurred. Israel has accused Phalangist militiamen, who have denied the charge. On Tuesday, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, which has spearheaded revelations about the slayings, wrote that Israeli intelligence reports contend that the objective of the killings was to create a panic that would provoke mass exodus of refugees toward Syria and persuade remaining Palestinians that they could not live here safely.
The Lebanese Army, now in charge of law and order in west Beirut, has this week been rounding up Palestinians with no proper papers or residence permits. Residents of Borj el Barajneh camp reported scores of arrests, including men whose papers were in order. Some have been released, but others have been taken away to unknown destinations.
The French-language daily l'Orient-le-Jour said Monday that Lebanese officials are already studying plans to limit the number of Palestinians in Lebanon to 50,000. Informed political sources here say any such government decisions are still far off, but such stories are being floated either to test the waters, or perhaps to further convince the refugees they should leave.
Records of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which runs services in the camps) show 230,000 registered refugees in Lebanon, which includes those who arrived from Palestine in l948 and their offspring. This does not include thousands of Palestinians who fled here in l970 after Jordan drove out PLO fighters in a bloody civil war. Nor does it include thousands of middle-class Palestinians in the cities, many of whom have obtained Lebanese citizenship.
L'Orient and the Arabic daily An Nahar reported this week that the Lebanese government wants to relocate refugee camps outside Lebanese urban areas in order to protect the Lebanese public from taint by politically active Palestinians. The reports said the Lebanese government wants to keep them in tents, however, to avoid permanently resettling the Palestinians here where they would upset the delicate Muslim-Christian population balance.
For the immediate future, refugees from Shatila camp and Borj el Barajneh are slightly reassured by the presence of Italian and French troops from the newly arrived multinational force. But work cannot begin on reconstructing the camps without government approval, which becomes part of a complicated political equation.
''I'm definitely in complete darkness about what will happen,'' says Magnus Ehrenstrom, director of UNRWA for Lebanon. UNRWA Commissioner General Olof Rydbeck arrived in Beirut Sept. 29 to take up these problems with the Lebanese authorities.
Moreover, refugees long dependent on a complex economic and military PLO infrastructure are now left jobless and without many social services.
The situation is highly uncomfortable for Palestinians in south Lebanon. Israel, which still controls the area, recently gave UNRWA permission to distribute 11,000 tents to refugees in camps near Sidon and Tyre. But the Lebanese authorities, according to Mr. Ehrenstrom, have not yet agreed to their use, leaving refugees without shelter as winter comes on. Antonia Handler Chayes , former under secretary of the US Air Force, had a major responsibility for the MX program.