Beirut — There is a barren dirt lot on the edge of Shatila, an eerie place with a lone willow tree and a few strands of grass struggling to survive on the hard red clay earth. In the center are a few lonely wreaths, quickly dried out in the Middle East sun.
Two scruffy black flags are drapped on the front gate of a recently constructed fence that cordons off the lot from the bustling dirt allies of this ravaged Palestinian refugee camp.
Although it carries no name, the lot is known in Beirut as ''the massacre cemetery.''
More than 300 men, women, and children who were gunned or axed to death during the massacre of Palestinian civilians were hastily buried in this lot. More than 400 are still missing.
As the Palestinians of Sabra and Shatila commemorate the second anniversary of the mass killings by Christian gunmen, Sept. 16-18, the cemetery has become a focal point and a symbol.
Two years ago, the images of the tragedy evoked a world outcry, and greatly heightened interest in the Palestinian plight. But today, the survivors have begun to wonder if their hopes of returning to a homeland have faded.
In the camps of Beirut, refugees tell the few people who bother to wander through that their last hope lies with the new effort to reunify the Palestine Liberation Organization. But even that does not trigger much optimism, for there is a strong feeling here that their movement will never be the same again.
After 15 months of a rebellion that badly divided the PLO into warring factions and diverted attention from the issues of a homeland and the status of hundreds of thousands of refugees, there are signs of detente.
PLO sources have announced that the long-delayed summit of the Palestine National Council - the Palestinian parliament-in-exile - will be held within a month.
The meeting of more than 400 members from throughout the Palestinian diaspora is expected to decide the status of chairman Yasser Arafat. His leadership and policies were the prime target of the mutiny, which began within his own mainstream Al-Fatah faction, then spread to other more radical branches of the eight-sided movement.
The breakthrough follows months of tortuous and often heated mediation, primarily by Algeria and South Yemen. But it represents only a partial reconciliation.
At a meeting in Aden in July, four factions agreed to a joint policy statement around which to rebuild the guerrilla movement. It included:
* Rejection of all American proposals, including Camp David and the Reagan plan, that do not call for full, independent statehood for the Palestinians.
* No joint political moves with Jordan that would undermine the PLO's claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
* Escalation of the armed struggle against Israel.
* Rejection of the use of arms to settle disputes within the movement.
* Termination of all political contacts with Egypt.
* Formation of a secretariat to provide collective leadership of the PLO.
The decisions represent a major defeat for Mr. Arafat. In effect, his moderate approach has been abandoned in favor of a more militant course of action that rules out the United States- and Jordanian-favored options. And his ability to manipulate the movement will now be curtailed.
Arafat's chief aides claim that once he is at the summit of the Palestine National Council, he will be able again to pull together sufficient support to reendorse his strategy. They point out that he controls the purse strings of a multi-million-dollar budget, as well as pulling in the majority of funds, and that he is recognized by the outside world as the PLO chief.
Arafat was optimistic enough to predict that 1984 would be the ''year of regrouping,'' and 1985 the ''year of harvest,'' when the PLO would be an active force in the Middle East again.
At the same time, only four groups have joined the Fatah loyalists: The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestine Liberation Front, and the two-year-old Palestine Communist Party. The Communists have never before come under the eight-sided PLO umbrella.
The Fatah rebels and four smaller movements have formed a ''national alliance'' to continue their protest. This group has said it will not take part in reconciliation or the Palestine National Council, and has received major support from Syria, which is crucial to any settlement. In effect, that would mean there will be two PLOs.
Arafat's fighting forces have also become deeply demoralized, according to Arab diplomatic sources, since their evacuation from Beirut and dispersal to eight Arab countries. There are major questions about just what percentage is still loyal to him.
At least half of the estimated 16,000 operative fighters are now in Syrian-controlled parts of Lebanon. Most are considered to be opponents of Arafat. The other 8,000 are in remote camps in Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, North and South Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. A recent Israeli report claims the guerrillas are tightly controlled in host states, and often prevented from building, training, or operating independently.
Meanwhile, the refugees, who until the Israeli invasion in 1982 received massive aid and basic services from the PLO's aid programs, have found life increasingly difficult.
Thousands of men are now unemployed in Lebanon. In March, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency stopped emergency food rationing to all but 25,000 extreme hardship cases. The agency has also said it will need $230 million to keep its current basic programs going.
Also, harassment of Palestinians has almost become a sport in Lebanon. A recent report showed that more than 100 homes, shops, and cars had been destroyed in random bombings by unknown forces between July 1983 and May 1984. Also, 60 were killed and 232 injured in shooting incidents.
One Palestinian who survived the Sabra and Shatila massacre reflected the feelings of many refugees in Lebanon on the eve of the second anniversary: ''This year there is much more to mourn than those who died here. Our hope is dying, too.''