Pawns, victims, and an obstacle to peace

For many Lebanese, the issue of Palestinian refugees in their country constitutes a major problem as well as a bad memory. There is wi! despread sympathy in Lebanon for the Palestinian cause and the refugees’ terrible living conditions. But when it comes to recognizing the basic human and civil rights of the impoverished Palestinians in Lebanon, there is very little support. The issue becomes even more complicated when the issue of weapons in the refugee camps is intermittently raised. A few thousand armed Palestinians who live in these camps belong to various factions representing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other leftist and Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The bitter memory of the 15-year civil war is still very fresh in the minds of most Lebanese, who blame the PLO for sparking it back in 1975. Thus the Palestinian refugees who brought with them the armed Palestinian factions are still blamed today by a majority of Lebanese for the anguish they had to endure until 1990. Later, after the civil war ended, the Palestinian refugees and armed factions in Lebanon were used as a bargaining chip by both Damascus and Beirut at peace talks with Israel.

The Syrian-influenced Lebanese governments that ruled Lebanon until the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April did not take any action to disarm the Palestinian factions. They practiced a policy of containment by sending Lebanese troops to surround the refugee camps and man all points of entry to the shantytowns. Beirut has linked the fate of Palestinian arms to the signing of a comprehensive peace treaty between all the Arab countries and Israel that would include a solution for the refugees in Lebanon.

The Palestinian refugees constitute a demographic and economic problem for the Lebanese. Some 17 religious sects live in Lebanon and almost all are vying for power. Since the Palestinian refugees, who number at least 200,000, are mostly Sunni Muslims, in addition to some Orthodox Christians, they will tip the demographic balance if they are resettled in favor of the Lebanese Sunni community, which of course does not suit either the Shi’ites or the Maronite Christians (the largest Christian sect in the country). Since most of the Palestinian refugees live below the poverty line and largely depend on aid from the United Nations, they would likely become a burden on the already ailing Lebanese.

The possibility of repatriating Palestinian refugees to their homeland is diminishing by the day with the ongoing expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and lack of support from the West, especially the United States, on this issue. The new Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is gradually changing its tone on the question of repatriation and has referred in some statements to the right of return to "the Palestinian state", which would not include Israel proper. The hard reality of never returning home has started to sink into the minds of many Palestinian refugees in the Arab world, although it remains a precious dream to most.

Therefore, the possibility of having to deal with the question of resettling Palestinian refugees is becoming increasingly real to the Lebanese. The declared desire by the US administration of President George W. Bush to create a suitable atmosphere for an independent Palestinian state next to Israel necessitates resolving the refugees’ problem. Thus many analysts and observers expect Washington to exert pressure on Arab states, including Lebanon, to help resolve this matter.

To most Lebanese politicians (and even the public), the best solution to the refugees’ problem is to move them anywhere outside Lebanon. Most Lebanese Christians, primarily Maronites, want this to happen today, while many Muslims, especially pro-Syrian Shi’ites, want this linked to a comprehensive Middle East settlement. So the Palestinian issue remains an element of division among Lebanese despite all that has happened. The Lebanese government and the Shi’ites have linked the fate of Palestinian arms to the fate of Hizballah’s weapons, which is also connected to the peace process. Hence the Palestinian refugees have become pawns in the ever-complicated Lebanese and regional political machinations, with no clear end in sight for their suffering.

The best way out of this dilemma is for the PA to disengage the Palestinian refugee problem once and for all from the internal Lebanese conflict. This could be achieved through a bold move by Abbas to order PLO guerrillas in Lebanese refugee camps to hand over their weapons to the Lebanese authorities in line with UNSC Resolution 1559, which calls among other things for disbanding all armed militias in Lebanon. The Lebanese government would have no choice but to accept the new facts and become responsible for the internal security of these camps that have become a safe haven for gangsters and Islamic fundamentalist groups.

The second step must be taken by large western countries that are still accepting immigrants, such as Canada, Australia and even the United States, to absorb most of the Palestinian refugees from Lebanon. As for those few thousand Palestinians who have been in Lebanon since 1948–many married to Lebanese women–and have become well established with families and businesses in the country, the Lebanese must accept them and even naturalize them.

But this is the Middle East: ideal solutions do not come easy, and when they do they take time to be implemented. Until a suitable solution is found to the Palestinian refugees’ problem in general, and those in Lebanon in particular, the Lebanese government ought to ease their suffering by allowing young Palestinians to work like any other Arab expatriate living in the country, and give them a chance to live decent lives. The international community could also do more in providing much needed aid for better education and living conditions. The Palestinian cause is as much about the fate of hundreds of thousands of displaced people as it is about land, and therefore priority should be given to resolving the problem of the refugees as a way to settle the Arab-Israel conflict.