WHAT ABOUT those Palestinian refugees in

Lebanon? To ensure that no PLO guns return to the border zone, the Israelis largely leveled six camps housing at least 20,000 refugees, and they are keeping their former inhabitants from returning. Further north, Israeli officials are resisting setting up tents to shelter Palestinians displaced by the June 6 invasion, lest new permanent camps again grow. In the local Lebanese inhabitants and the national Lebanese leaders who also object to a Palestinian presence, they see a possible partner with whom perhaps to move the whole Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon--several hundred thousand people--out of the country.

On one level, the Israelis have a point. Over the years, the Arabs states have played on the nationalistic passions of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and have held refugee camps open in order to keep the Palestinian-Arab grievance against Israel raw. Far larger numbers of refugees, absolutely and proportionately, have been absorbed elsewhere. Relatively few of the refugees in the camps in Lebanon and elsewhere, not to speak of Palestinians who live productive lives in the diaspora, could be absorbed in the West Bank and Gaza even if those areas became a Palestinian homeland today.

As a nation at war, Israel can hardly be expected to cooperate in maintaining refugee camps. These camps symbolize and perpetuate the Palestinian grievance, spawn hate and provide breeding and training grounds for guerrillas. The camps in southern Lebanon, furthermore, helped the PLO to fire guns and deploy raiders directly against Israel.

There is, nonetheless, something profoundly troubling and wrong about Israel's approach to the refugees in Lebanon. The degree of Israel's responsibility for their or their forbears' first displacement, from Israel in 1948, is certainly arguable. But no one has given the Israelis a right to march across a border and to uproot many of them within Lebanon, or conceivably from Lebanon, a second time.

Ideally, the terms of the refugees' life in Lebanon would be established and enforced by the Lebanese government. Even before Lebanon's civil war of the mid-1970s, however, the Beirut government lacked the means to regulate the refugee flow and presence. Reconstituting a government is now a priority project but successes will be at best slow in coming. That puts upon the effective power in the southern half of Lebanon--Israel--a difficult burden: as long as it is in charge, it must demonstrate a humane respect for the civilian Palestinian victims of the latest turmoil. To be sure, the distinction between civilians and combatants is not easily made in the camps, where 13-year-old boys are known to be given Kalashnikovs. On Israel's success in making the distinction, however, a considerable part of its standing elsewhere will ride.

It remains urgent that authority in the parts of Lebanon swept by Israel be restored to Lebanese authorities, first to local ones and then, as fast as they are constituted, to national ones. In the interim, a new role awaits the United Nations peacekeeping units remaining in southern Lebanon. Against determined PLO and Israeli forces, they could not hold the line. But since the PLO as a military force has been reduced to a core group now negotiating its departure from Beirut, UNIFIL should henceforth be capable of doing a proper border-policing job. Without a PLO threat in southern Lebanon, Israel could have no possible reason to stay there.

The immediate answer to the plight of the refugees in Lebanon is for them to be sheltered and cared for, under conditions posing no security threat to Lebanese or Israelis, wherever the space and facilities for them are available. Certainly they should not be hustled and hounded and deprived of shelter by Israeli soldiers. The middle-term answer is for a Lebanese government worthy of the name to take the responsibility of a sovereign state for allpeople residing on its territory. The long-term answer to the problem of the refugees, in Lebanon and elsewhere, lies in a political settlement that allows the camps -- and the grievance and wound that they embody -- to dry up.