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Lebanon's Palestinians struggle to cope

There are no posters of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel in the Shatila refugee camp. Lebanese flags don't adorn the the sprawling cinder-block ghetto of Palestinians and Lebanese.

Although such signs of growing Lebanese nationalism and unity show up increasingly in both east and west Beirut, they are conspicuously absent in Palestinian neighborhoods. There aren't even pictures of Yasser Arafat, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman.

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Palestinians in Beirut have nothing to celebrate and little to look forward to. Against the backdrop of the three-day massacre in Shatila and adjacent Sabra last month, the current moves by the Lebanese government are viewed darkly by Palestinians here.

Relief workers have recovered and identified more than 300 bodies, and some have estimated that 1,000 are missing. Residents say thousands were killed by the uniformed Lebanese militiamen who entered the camp Sept. 15 to 18. But it is clear now that no one will ever know how many died.

What is not so clear is the future of the Palestinians in Lebanon. In the recent weeks of calm in Beirut, as the Lebanese Army has increasingly exerted its new-found strength, the Lebanese - including many Muslims in west Beirut - have found in the Palestinians a convenient scapegoat for eight years of conflict.

Others say that while the Palestinians - specifically the PLO and its guerrillas - deserve much of the blame for the fighting and destruction, the Lebanese conflict was too complex to accurately determine and parcel out degrees of responsibility. Certainly, they say, the Lebanese, the Syrians, and the Israelis also played major roles.

Nonetheless, it is a bad time to be a Palestinian in Lebanon.

In its effort to reestablish government authority, the Lebanese Army in the past two weeks has sealed off section after section of west Beirut to search for arms caches and illegal residents. The Army says it has found and confiscated ''tons'' of guns and ammunition and that it has arrested 350 persons who did not possess the proper residency papers. Local press reports put the arrest totals at more than 1,000. Most of those arrested are said to be Palestinians.

Though a clear government policy regarding the Palestinians has not yet emerged, the Lebanese Army in its search operations and roadblocks is arresting those Palestinians who do not have identification papers issued to original 1948 refugees. (These papers were issued by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to Palestinians who fled from the south after the creation of Israel.)

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Of an estimated 500,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, about 230,000 hold these refugee papers. Most of the others fled to Lebanon either from Israel after the 1956 or the 1967 Arab-Israeli wars or from Jordan following the 1970 Jordanian Army attack on Palestinians there. It is these Palestinians who are considered illegal by the government and who, according to the Lebanese Army, will be deported.

One question yet to be resolved is: To what country does one deport a nationless people? There have been reports that some of those arrested have been put on planes out of the country, while others were trucked to the Bekaa Valley and deposited behind Syrian lines.

Meanwhile, residents in Shatila complain that even people with proper 1948 identification papers are being detained. ''It depends on the one who stops you, '' a Palestinian youth explains.

The Palestinians say they are afraid to go outside the camp for fear they will be arrested and taken away. There are stories of people going out shopping and not returning, as well as stories of men being taken away by the Army and not returning. A group of residents is compiling a list of missing relatives to be presented with an appeal for help to the French Embassy.

The actions of the Lebanese Army and subsequent protests of Muslim leaders have led diplomats from France, Italy, and the United States - the three countries contributing to the multinational force in Beirut - to seek assurances that the rights of the detainees and of Palestinians are not being violated.

An official familiar with Sabra and Shatila says the Palestinians in the camps have little understanding of how the massacres shocked the world and have brought increased sympathy for the Palestinian cause. The official notes that the Palestinians here are still just trying to survive and that he is amazed at their ability to cope.

''They've seen it all before. Maybe there is a certain adaptation to it that's been instilled in them since 1948,'' he says.

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