This article was written by a special correspondent.
Residents of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have been cautiously peeking out of their prison-like camps after nearly a decade of sieges and assaults. But looking out is now fraught with anxiety. There is no future in the camps, residents complain, and few means of earning an income where unemployment for Palestinian refugees may be as high as 40 percent.
The dismal outlook is only compounded by the recent PLO-Israel peace accord, which unambiguously signals the final abandonment of the refugees in Lebanon. Ironically, it is this same community that credentialized Arafat and the PLO’s representation of the Palestinian people and were the mass base supporting its operations in exile.
It is a further irony that with mobility often limited to camps of a few square kilometers, Palestinians speak easily of a plethora of elsewheres — Denmark, Canada, Australia, the United States — indexing a shift further into exile. Return has lost much of its political and rhetorical potency. Since 1968, Palestinians in Lebanon organized around the glimmer of hope of return. No one seriously entertained the notion that they would return to Palestine in their lifetime. But as long as the resistance existed and represented them, return was in the future, however remote. Now they are not even on the agenda. While they remain in their dilapidated and severely damaged camps, the distance between them and Palestine is expanding. Even the glimmer of hope has been abruptly shattered.
In 1982, refugees in Lebanon accepted the PLO’s departure as beyond their control. After facing years of siege, massacres and assaults by various militias, acting with Syrian and Lebanese government complicity if not encouragement, and now a peace accord which seals their abandonment, they curse the PLO. Umm Muhammad, a mother of five martyrs, spits in the dust of Shatila camp at the mention of the movement. Her tirade against the Arab governments “who conspire against us and want to see us live like this” and who “have taken our children and slaughtered them,” includes the PLO. In her mind and the minds of many Palestinians in Lebanon, there is now little to distinguish the PLO from other Arab states in their betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Equally distressing is the sense of loss of Palestinian unity, not necessarily in terms of political ideology, but in terms of identity and shared experiences of subordination and resistance to occupation. The differences between those Palestinians dispossessed and made refugees in 1948 and those who came under occupation in 1967 has now been highlighted and exacerbated in very real and concrete ways. Palestinians in Lebanon feel they have been cast out of the community.
Palestinians in Lebanon were well aware that a deal was hatching that would leave them out. Upon the signing of the agreement, they took to the streets in mass demonstrations. Underlying the protests were very real concerns about possible futures. They were already experiencing large-scale emigration to Denmark, Canada and the US. Shatila camp, with a pre-1982 population of approximately 20,000, was reduced in the summer of 1993 to an eerily silent 2,500 people. Rumors fly of their removal through favorable immigration policies, of the granting of Lebanese citizenship to a select propertied few, of transport elsewhere in the Arab world. The latter two scenarios are rumored to be sweetened with the possibility of compensation from the Israelis for properties lost, but in exchange for renunciation of all claims to 1948 Palestinians lands. These scenarios are met with outrage and claims that “We will never move unless it is to go back home!” While adamant in their refusal to become disposable, their maneuvering room is exceedingly limited. They are no longer major players on the Palestinian, let alone regional, scene.
A once thriving, prosperous and fairly autonomous community now unimaginably impoverished and under unrelenting surveillance and control, Palestinians in Lebanon can do little more than protest. Much hinges upon possible agreements between Israel and Syria and between Lebanon and Israel. Their options minimal, for now, the future holds little except uncertainty and anxiety.