The Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where the massacres by Christian militiamen in 1982 captured world attention, are now the focus of another violent struggle. This time the struggle may prove more difficult to end since it involves rivalry within the Muslim community -- the Palestinians against the Shiite Muslim Amal forces which control the neighborhood.
The fighting, which continued through Tuesday, was by far the most serious and sustained flare-up involving Palestinians in Beirut since August 1982. At that time Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas were evacuated from the city under a US-mediated agreement to end a 3-month-old Israeli siege. Current casualty estimates vary sharply, but all accounts put the death toll in scores and the injured in hundreds.
There are contradictory accounts of the incidents which sparked off the clashes. The situation was clearly highly inflammable and local sources had predicted that violence would break out in the camps, given reports and rumors that supporters of PLO chief Yasser Arafat were starting to stage a comeback there.
The PLO chief is probably the most hated enemy of Syria, which is currently trying to reassert its influence to prevent Lebanon from disintegrating into chaos as the Israelis pull their troops out of the south of the country.
Amal, apparently given a free hand by Syria to act in this instance, is determined to prevent any revival of the ``state within a state'' which Mr. Arafat ran in Beirut before the Israeli invasion.
``We will not permit a return to the situation before 1982,'' Amal leader Nabih Berri said Tuesday. He accused Mr. Arafat of launching a ``plot to foil Syria's plan to restore Lebanese unity,'' and flooding the camps with ``weapons which have been turned against those who fought the Israelis.''
The fierce clashes which broke out Sunday night between Amal and armed Palestinians in the camps continued Tuesday and spread to engulf the bigger Palestinian camp at Bourj el-Barajneh. All three camps are in the heavily Shiite suburbs of Beirut.
By late yesterday Amal fighters controlled most of Sabra camp. Resistance in the other two camps was fiercer.
The fact that Amal fighters encountered such fierce resistance in the camps appears to validate reports that there has been a considerable inflow of arms and even personnel into the refugee camps.
The Lebanese pound -- which plummeted to an all-time low of 20 to the dollar earlier this year -- has been remarkably buoyant in recent weeks despite the worsening political and security crisis. This is pointed to as further evidence of a sudden influx of PLO dollars aimed at restoring Arafat's once-dominant influence in Beirut.
Amal officials say the Syrians encouraged them to take steps to settle the situation. ``Arafat was getting stronger and stronger, and buying everyone in town,'' said one Amal source. ``The Abu Musa [pro-Syrian PLO] group couldn't do the job, so the Syrians pushed us to do it. It's part of the Pax Syriana for Lebanon.''
Controlling the Palestinian camps is a complex task and the repercussions go beyond the Palestinian arena.
The operation against the camps was seen as a follow-up of the violent drive by Amal last month against the Sunni Muslim Murabitoun militia, accused of preparing to help Arafat stage a comeback. This attack was deeply resented by the Sunni community, and for the first time raised the specter of serious tension between the two major branches of Islam in Lebanon. The attacks on the camps -- where most Palestinians are also Sunnis -- has exacerbated the tension, and led to fresh accusations that the Shiites are trying to dominate Muslim Beirut.
Amal's Druze allies backed its earlier drive against the Murabitoun. But this time, according to Druze officials, repeated Amal requests for help were turned down. ``We think Berri has made a big mistake, based on wrong information and bad advice,'' said a Druze source.
Berri persuaded the Lebanese Army's Shiite Sixth Brigade to back his men, which enabled them to enter the camps. But Amal met another setback when they discovered that they were fighting both pro- and anti-Arafat Palestinians. Both factions had laid aside their differences to defend the camps. ``We achieved a miracle,'' grinned an Amal fighter ruefully outside Shatila. ``We succeeded in unifying the Palestinians.''
Amal officials concede that their chances of successfully controlling security in Beirut are slim. Like many other Lebanese, they appear to envisage some sort of Syrian role in re-establishing security in the city. But that would be part and parcel of a new entente which informed sources doubt will emerge until after the Israelis have completed their withdrawal, expected by June 1.