Outside, a cold early winter's wind was blowing off the barren Syrian plain, making the lone Palestinian flag flying over the 355 tents of this newest of Palestinian refugee camps snap like a sniper's rifle fire.
"Welcome to New Palestine," Abu Feisel told a visitor from abroad who had known him months earlier in Beirut. "I'm sorry for the cold, but that is something that we have to grow used to."
Abu Feisel, one of almost 12,000 Palestine Liberation Organization fighters evacuated from Beirut last August after Israel's summer-long siege, was strangely buoyant about the future, despite the obvious setback his cause had suffered. The 36-year-old guerrilla spoke of his determination to keep fighting until he could return to the homeland from which his parents had fled in 1948 at the founding of the state of Israel.
But Abu Feisel's ebullient faith in what the PLO calls its "military option" is no longer universal in the ranks of the Palestinian movement.
Although the image of the kaffiyeh-clad revolutionary with his Kalashnikov assault rifle is deeply embedded in PLO mythology, there is a deep sense of awareness that it is politics, not war, that offers the PLO the best chance to reach its goal of establishing its own state.
Although PLO leaders continue to hail the political gains that their military defeat in Beirut brought them, the fighters who faced the destructive might of Israel's planes, artillery, tanks and gunboats for 74 days this summer are, for the most part, demoralized and dispirited in their new homes in exile.
Evacuated to eight Arab countries under the agreement negotiated through U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib, the PLO fighters who left Beirut as heroes today are confined in isolated camps thousands of miles from their fellow Palestinians. They are angry at their leaders for having left them so far from home, distraught by news of the massacre in Shatila and Sabra refugee camps where many left their families and chafing at being kept virtually under armed guard by Arab soldiers.
The problem is most glaring at the PLO camp of Oued Zarga, 60 miles west of Yasser Arafat's new seaside headquarters at Bourj Cedria in Tunisia. In late August 850 PLO fighters were sent to Oued Zarga, an isolated former agricultural college in the barren eastern foothills of the Atlas Mountains.
Used to the city life of Beirut or the freedom and power they had in southern Lebanon, the fighters at Oued Zarga soon found camp life in Tunisia restricting and dull. The Kalashnikovs that had for so long been a symbol of their manhood had been taken away to be "stored" as soon as they arrived. Confined to a camp surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by a wary Tunisian Army, they found that even a rare permit to go into town meant a five-mile walk to the nearest coffee house.
In September, when news of the massacre in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps reached them, the men revolted.
They denounced their leaders, including Arafat, for having assured them that their families would be safe in Beirut after they departed.
The revolt was put down ruthlessly by Fatah men in the camp loyal to Arafat, according to Tunisian government sources. Ringleaders of the demonstration had their heads shaved and, according to one of these sources, were even imprisoned briefly in makeshift jails within the camp.
Such methods, however, only added to the new troops' demoralization. Desertions followed. At night, groups of 10 and 20, according to Tunisian sources, began to slip over the thin barbed wire around the camp in efforts to flee to Algeria or to Tunis, from where they sought to get papers and boat tickets to other Arab countries. Many deserters were caught by Tunisian authorities and returned to the camp. Hundreds, however, managed to escape.
By November the original 850 fighters at Oued Zarga, Tunisian officials estimated, had decreased markedly. PLO officials, embarrassed, have kept the camp off-limits to all outsiders. They admit to the demoralization after the massacres, but maintain that the departures from the camp are the result of their decision to allow many of their fighters to demobilize and take up jobs elsewhere in the Arab world.
Reports of similar problems have come from PLO camps in South Yemen, North Yemen and Algeria. In Iraq, many of the PLO fighters arriving from Beirut were jailed by suspicious Iraqi officials. In the Sudan, at the tent camp of Mashtallel Bassatin 120 miles from Khartoum, the fighters have begun to call themselves members of Polisario, the desert guerrilla army of the Western Sahara. Of the 518 fighters who arrived in the Sudan, more than a quarter have disappeared, according to latest reports.
Even in Syria, long a major, though tightly controlled, base for PLO activity, there is frustration. Most of the PLO fighters who have gathered there are garrisoned in former Syrian military training camps like the one at Beileh, south of Damascus, watched by Syrian Army guards.
"We have our own Palestinian camps," says Khalil Wazir, the PLO military chieftain who is better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Jihad.
Wazir admits that the PLO would desperately like to regroup its dispersed fighting forces in Syria or Jordan so they could once again be concentrated along the borders of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He says, however, that so far neither the Syrian government nor King Hussein has agreed to such a move.
Hussein, who has never forgotten that the PLO tried to take over his capital of Amman in 1970, has proposed, however, that he would take in up to 5,000 PLO fighters if he were allowed to screen them before entry and if they were integrated into special units under the Jordanian Army.
The proposal, which has been discussed recently by Hussein and Arafat, envisages training these men as a future police force for the West Bank if the occupied territory eventually is confederated with Jordan as envisaged under President Reagan's Middle East peace plan.
While those discussions are going on, the PLO itself is debating just what form of military arm it should maintain. Some of its leaders, like Wazir, insist that the PLO's forces, even in dispersal, should somehow be kept up as a regular army for future use, only this time under a single command, not under the command of the various guerrilla groups that compose the PLO as in the past.
There are others, like the guerrillas of the small, pro-Syrian Palestine Popular Struggle Front, who maintain that the PLO's military option must be that of a guerrilla force able to operate against the Israelis in land that Israel occupies -- be it southern Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza or Israel proper.
"We can't rebuild our forces into a classic army because if we do we are like all other Arab armies, cumbersome and ineffective and unable to face the superiorly armed Israelis," says Samir Ghoshi, the Struggle Front's leader. "Ours must be a guerrilla army because it is through guerrilla tactics and not the tactics of a classical army that we can fight the Israelis."
Though main-line units continue to exist in such areas as Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and around the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli, where Western intelligence estimates place up to 6,000 PLO fighters, their role is primarily symbolic. Like the main force PLO units in Lebanon before the Beirut war, their real worth to the organization is not so much as a threat to Israel but as an internal police force to defend their own peoples remaining in the refugee camps still under their control.
"For all our talk of using our military options against Israel," said one senior PLO official who asked that his name not be used, "the real importance of our military was to defend our civilians against the sort of thing that happened at Shatila and which has happened before to our people in Lebanon and elsewhere. Everyone is aware that as long as we were in Beirut there was no massacre at Shatila; it only happened after we left."
Because armed struggle is deeply rooted in the psyche of the PLO, it is not about to renounce the option, even if it has been made superfluous by events this summer. Despite their lack of bases along Israel's border, some PLO leaders still talk of trying to intensify operations inside Israel proper, although that is something the PLO has never had great success in doing.
"Certainly the dispersal of our forces this summer has created new problems for us," said Nayef Hawatmeh, secretary general of the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in his office in Damascus. "But so long as there are no other options, we will have to keep our military options alive somehow, and the occupied territories are the only battleground today that we have to find a solution to our problems."
The success of the effort is doubted, however, by those who know the battleground best. "We all would like to believe that there are military options, but let's face facts: there aren't any," said the ousted mayor of Ramallah, Karim Khalaf, now confined to internal exile by the Israelis in the West Bank town of Jericho. "Unfortunately, the West Bank is not Vietnam. We Palestinians do not live in isolated jungles, but in vulnerable villages and farms that are now being surrounded by settlements and towns of armed Zionist settlers."
Khalaf, who lost his right foot in 1980 when his car was blown up by a booby trap generally believed to have been set by extremist Israeli settlers, says that Israel now has so many settlements and camps spread around the West Bank that within two minutes of any alert its soldiers can cut off every road and artery, making guerrilla operations all but suicidal.
It is realistic thoughts such as this that have demoralized even the most committed and determined of the PLO's fighters.
"I have been fighting for 18 years now," said one veteran PLO commander who led a Fatah unit all summer from the Burj al Barajinah refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Beirut. "I am a military man and will continue to be one, but I think we all have to realize our limits. It is time for us to talk, not shoot."
In moments of optimism, PLO leaders like to think that the dispersal of their forces somehow will prove a strength, not a weakness. It is, they argue, a chance for the PLO to carry its message to the people of the rest of the Arab world whose leaders never rallied to support them in their hour of need this summer.
Arafat even jokes in private that his dispersed army is more powerful now because no Arab nation can control it. "In fact," he said in a recent interview at his headquarters in Tunisia, "what we have now is more bases in the Middle East than the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force. Maybe we should call our army now the PLO Rapid Deployment Force. When we need it, we will just call it up."
Such jocularity, however, only masks the deep, brooding depression many of his soldiers are gripped in these days, far from their homes and families.
The trauma was evident one bleak night recently in the smoke-hazed television room at the Hotel Salwa in Tunisia, where Arafat has anchored his new headquarters. There 150 men of his staff, from illiterate street fighters normally on guard duty to the college-educated intellectuals who run his offices, had gathered to watch an Italian television documentary on the Beirut massacres beamed from Sicily.
As the stark, stop-frame images of death and grief flickered on the ghostly television screen that grim night the audience stood in stunned silence. There were no shouts of rage, no cries of sorrow. The only noise that could be heard in that room that night was the faint whisper of disturbed breathing punctuated by the odd muted exhalation of a gasped breath.
At the end, after the shock of the film had worn off, a depressed Fatah fighter in the hotel coffee shop said: "We Palestinians only want to be allowed to live in peace. Instead, we are being left to die in pieces."