SLOWLY but surely, by air and by sea, Palestinian guerrillas have been slipping back into refugee camps in Lebanon. Their hope is to regain the military and political foothold they held there before their humbling ouster at the hands of invading Israelis in 1982. The return of the Palestinian fighters underscores the powerlessness of the central government to evict them, and the unfortunate reluctance of potential peacekeeping nations and international organizations to get re-involved in Lebanon.
The return of the Palestine Liberation Organization has also led to one of the strangest opposition alliances in the Middle East. Both Syria and Israel, while making no mention of their shared goal, are eager to prevent the resurgence of a PLO base in Lebanon.
Most of Lebanon's varied Shiite militia also oppose it. But the moderate, Syrian-backed Amal force, viewing the PLO as a threat to their own strength and an invitation to stepped-up Israeli attacks on their country, has taken the lead in fighting the Palestinians in camps around Beirut and in southern Lebanon. The more radical, Iranian-backed Hizbullah has been holding back; it views Israel as the primary danger and the PLO as a help in that struggle.
Since 1982 the PLO has been on the move, unwelcome in virtually every nation now from Tunisia to Jordan. Its strength has been sapped by factionalism. Syrian-backed factions have worked hard to undercut support for Yasser Arafat's leadership, favoring a more decisive stance against peace with Israel. But the Amal and Israeli attacks in the 19-month old ``camp wars'' have, at least temporarily, served to unite Palestinian forces. Well organized, well trained, and well supplied with arms, the PLO has been not only holding its own but winning some battles.
The resurgence of Palestinian strength in Lebanon has also had a spillover effect on Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories where Arab-Israeli tension and violence have been particularly high in recent weeks. Many Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, strongly loyal to Mr. Arafat, have been very skeptical of recent efforts of Jordan's King Hussein to woo them with a new development plan. The resurgence of Arafat's PLO in Lebanon and its relative success under attack to date has bolstered the morale of many Palestinians in the occupied territories.
While few others cheer its return, the PLO has come back to Beirut because it has no place else to go. Its forces are fighting with what Lebanese expert Augustus Richard Norton calls the ``inspiration that comes from desperation.''
Another Israeli invasion on the scale of 1982 would be most unwise. Fortunately it is also unlikely. Acting as a brake: memories of the strong adverse reaction at home as well as abroad to the 1982 invasion. Israel's key role in the still unraveling US-Iranian affair should make Israel even more cautious. External efforts to broker a PLO-Amal truce, so far unsuccessful, must be continued.
Lebanon, once one of the region's most beautiful, prosperous, and literate nations, has been ravaged by almost constant civil war for the last 11 years. Private militia essentially control the country. The trend is still downward.
Despite the recent pullback in French forces, the UN peacekeeping team remains a valuable buffer force. Still, if Lebanon is to return to any semblance of normality, it must find a way to develop a functioning central government; and the international community must come to its aid with a major reconstruction effort.