Five radical Palestinian commando groups have challenged the overall leadership of Yasser Arafat in a new effort to undermine his authority.

Nominally at stake, according to the joint statement issued by the radicals last week and made public yesterday, is the notion of democracy within Palestinian commando ranks.

The statement reiterated the old argument that Fatah - Arafat's power base and his claim for overall leadership - was forcing acceptance of its views, making use of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization.

Since Fatah provides some 75 percent of all Palestinian guerrillas under arms, that is scarcely surprising. The statement's unavowed aim was thought to be encouragement of the radical anti-Arafat minority inside Fatah.

The only major surprise was the signature of Nayef Hawatmeh, whose Marxist Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine had supported Arafat for the past several years.

Although the statement did not mention Arafat by name, it was clear that he was the main target. Specifically it criticized the Fatah leadership's failure to oppose Egyptian and Jordanian policies.

Another central issue was Arafat's Syrian-backed policy of preventing radical guerrillas from infiltrating back into the U.N. controlled zones of southern Lebanon - at least until Israel completes its withdrawal now scheduled for June 13.

Last month Arafat ordered the arrest of more than 100 radical members of Fatah who disobeyed orders and moved south to attempt to infiltrate Israeli lines.

Non-Fatah radicals of the rejection Front who oppose to any dealings with Israel, have sought to embarrass Arafat from the outset by openly attempting to infilitrate into the south.

The joint statement demanded a session of the Palestine National Countil, a kind of parliament-in-exile, within a month. The council is scheduled to meet in August in any case.

Rejection Front members issuing the statement include George Habbash's Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the pro-Iraqi Arab Liberation Front, the Popular Struggle Front and the Palestine Liberation Front, itself a breakaway from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Theoretically, all Palestinian groups sank their differences last December at the Tripoli summit devoted to countering Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's foundering peace initiative with Israel.

Arafat however, has carefully avoided Habbash's demands that Fatah and the PLO back the Tripoli commitment formally and put themselves on record as favoring Rejection Front extremist positions.

Unless the statement sets off further turbulence in Palestinian ranks, observers doubted that it would become more than part of the continuing effort to clip Arafat's wings, rather than depriving him of leadership.

The statement calls for collective leadership based on individual organizations rather than on their respective strenghts.