Whatever happened to Yasser Arafat? In the summer of 1982 the redoubtable chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization was driven out of Lebanon by Israeli invaders, and his forces scattered throughout the Arab world. The elusive Arafat skipped to Tunisia, where he pursued the P.L.O.'s diplomatic and military strategies, including a failed joint peace effort with an old adversary, Jordan's King Hussein. Now Arafat's P.L.O. has returned to Lebanon with vengeance. In the bloodiest fighting since rival Christian factions clashed a year ago, Arafat is struggling to regain his former stronghold in the strife-torn country. And an array of his enemies—Israel, Syria and the Lebanese Shi'ite Amal militiamen aligned with Syria—so far seem powerless to stop him.
Day after day last week, Amal militiamen pounded away at Palestinian guerrillas holed up in refugee camps outside Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. Off the Lebanese coast, Israeli gunboats delivered a barrage of rockets at the refugee camps near Sidon. At least 400 people have been killed and 900 wounded in the savage fighting since Nov. 24, when P.L.O. forces seized strategic hilltop positions from Amal defenders in Maghdousheh, 25 miles south of Beirut. In retaliation, Shi'ite militiamen mounted a tank-and-artillery attack on the Shatila refugee camp south of Beirut. Arafat promptly appealed to Arab leaders to help stop the "dangerous and beastly aggression," which he blamed on another old enemy, Syrian President Hafez Assad.
The Israelis, who had previously assaulted the Palestinian settlements from the air, soon encountered troubling problems closer to home. Palestinian students staged a demonstration at Bir Zeit University, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Restive Israeli troops fired on them, killing two youths and wounding twelve. The next day Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 14-year-old Palestinian near the city of Nablus after he threw stones at them. Once again, tension in the West Bank was running high.
Apart from his desiring to re-establish a base in Lebanon, the fighting serves Arafat's purposes by obscuring the differences between his branch of the P.L.O. and the Palestinian groups based in Syria. Says Arafat's deputy Khalil Wazir, who is better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Jihad: "All fighters from all factions are fighting in the same trench for survival." In recent weeks Abu Jihad has met with rival Palestinian Leader George Habash in Moscow, Prague and Algiers in an effort to achieve a reconciliation among the Palestinian groups. The Soviet Union has strongly backed the idea.
Syria, on the other hand, regards the return of Arafat's P.L.O. as bad news. Beset by economic problems and rising Western opposition to Syrian-sponsored terrorism, Assad still wants to dominate both Lebanon and the Palestinians. In resisting Assad's efforts, Arafat is working to reunite the Palestinian factions, though he suspects that the Damascus-based groups may demand his ouster as the cost of reconciliation, and he is not ready to pay that price. Meanwhile, he flits restlessly around the Middle East, directing and planning the comeback of the P.L.O. Still, after four years in the political wilderness, Arafat's fighters are back in Lebanon, and their enemies are as divided as ever.