Expectations of a regional settlement have exacerbated the always bad security situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Possible unilateral Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon has intensified regional competition to control the “Palestinian card,” particularly in the South where more than half the refugee population lives. This has upset a balance of regional and Palestinian forces that had remained — with whatever local variations and occasional violence — relatively stable since the year of “pacification” (1991), when militias were disarmed and the Lebanese Army returned to the South. The main effect of the latest events — and even more so the rumors and media wars that have accompanied them — has been to further “insecuritize” Palestinians here.
Well before the Arafatist takeover of Ain Helweh (July 1999), Sultan Abu Aynayn, Fateh loyalist boss of Rashidiyeh camp, was received by Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. This visit could not have pleased the Syrians, as it indicated flaws in their control of Lebanon and its Palestinians. It also pointed to an upping of the ante in the competition between the Palestine National Authority (PNA) and the pro-Damascus factions for leadership of Lebanon’s Palestinians. That Arafat was able in July to reassert control of Ain Helweh, the largest camp in Lebanon, rested on a momentary coincidence of interests between the Lebanese state and the PNA, and behind them the Syrians and Israelis. For Lebanon and the Syrians, Fateh’s control of the southern camps was the least bad option, promising some stability in a period likely to be disruptive. For Arafat, it was a major move towards recapturing representation of the refugees in Lebanon.
Unlike the camps of Beirut, the North and the Bekaa, all firmly controlled by the pro-Syrian factions, the camps of the South have been open to every Palestinian, Islamic and regional influence. Their location, size and potential mobilization makes them — though only in the short term — a bargaining chip in the negotiating strategies of the PNA, the Syrians and the Lebanese vis-a-vis Israel. Hence the competition to control these camps; hence also the consensus to prevent escalating competition.
By launching militia training courses in Ain Helweh and bragging about his intentions to form fifty fighters a week, Abu Aynayn overstepped his role, bringing rapid retribution. Last October 27, a hastily convened Lebanese military court sentenced him to death for forming an illegal army. Speaking for the president, Minister of Interior Michel al-Murr spoke of a “red line” that the Lebanese Army would not allow to be crossed. The siege on Ain Helweh was intensified, and on November 25 two of Abu Aynayn’s officers were arrested on murder charges. Syria was not necessarily behind these moves, though certainly not opposed to them. Syria requires Lebanon’s close support in its negotiations with Israel, while, in return, President Lahoud enjoys a certain autonomy in dealing with Lebanon’s Palestinians.
These events were accompanied by ferocious media campaigns, with much of the Lebanese press accusing the PNA of playing Israel’s game and abandoning the refugees, while the PNA press denounced the sieges on the camps and Lebanon’s denial of civic rights to Palestinians. Rumors abounded, for example, that 1,800 Fateh fighters were to be transferred from Rashidiyeh (on the South coast) to Gaza (Daily Star, 13 January). Though the sharpness of the media war declined after pacifying visits by Farouk Kaddoumi and Assad Abdel Rahman, Palestinians continue to be the target of hostile declarations and media disinformation. Ex-minister Michel Edde said, “Lebanon’s refusal of (Palestinian) settlement is a condition of our existence” (L’Orient/Le Jour, 1 December 1, 1999). The Guardians of the Cedars reiterated their slogan, “There will not remain a single Palestinian on our soil” (4 January). A phrase launched by Jibran Tueni about the camps, “islands of security” (implying their immunity from the rule of law), has become a journalistic cliche’. The famous outlaw and assassin Abu Mehjan, who controls a few streets in Ain Helweh, has been depicted by some media as representing all Palestinians. Yet Abu Mehjan has nothing to do with the Palestinian national movement, and everything to do with the various Islamic tendencies and mukhabarat (intelligence services) that compete to control the camps.
Lebanon benefits from the image of the camps as “criminal ghettoes”: it isolates the camps from their Lebanese neighbors; it dramatizes Lebanon’s burden to the international community; and it helps unify Lebanese opinion against the Palestinians. It also masks the reality that the camps are “islands of insecurity” for the people who live in them. Since 1991 the people of Rashidiyeh, al-Bass and Bourj Shemali have been subjected to tight Army siege. They cannot bring in materials to build or repair housing; all vehicles are closely searched; on a commander’s whim, furniture or equipment may be refused entry. After the murder of four judges in Sidon (June 4, 1999), the siege was extended to Ain Helweh. Living conditions in all the camps have greatly deteriorated in recent years. Facilities and habitats are miserable, and UNRWA no longer helps “hardship cases” repair their homes. Studies suggest that more refugee families in Lebanon live close to, or below, the “poverty line” than anywhere else in UNRWA’s five fields (West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.)
Meanwhile all campaigns for Palestinian civic rights, or to improve conditions in the camps, even when supported by liberal or progressive Lebanese, come up against the stonewall of a state/Army veto. The combination of unemployment, declining UNRWA services, discrimination and hopelessness is forcing Palestinians to leave Lebanon in ever greater numbers. Mafias have sprung up to exploit these would-be asylum-seekers. Travel is usually routed through third countries that easily give visas, the most popular final destination being the Scandinavian countries and, increasingly, the United Kingdom. Since some do succeed in getting through, hope is encouraged among the rest, whatever the cost and risks of failure. No one really knows the conditions in which asylum seekers live in the host countries, but most feel that nothing can be worse than Lebanon.
Most migrants so far have been young single men from the Southern camps, where unemployment is highest, but deteriorating conditions are encouraging flight from other camps, with whole families leaving. In Bourj Barajneh I met a couple with three children who had tried and failed to reach London. They said that their main motive was need for health care for their children, who require treatment no longer obtainable for free from UNRWA or the Red Crescent. Like many others, they had sold everything and borrowed to raise exorbitant agency fees (ranging from $3000 to $5000 per head) and travel expenses for a long, roundabout journey. This family’s downfall came in Sri Lanka when they tried to board a plane to London. Airport officials tore up their tickets, seized their travel documents and held them in the airport for two days, eventually returning them to Lebanon. “Since the UK is known to be letting Palestinians in, why don’t they make it legal, instead of forcing us to use these stratagems?” asked the father. “Now we have lost everything.”
Last December France returned a large group of “Lebanese-Palestinians” to Damascus, their point of embarkation, where they were held for interrogation. The Lebanese authorities make no effort to prosecute agencies engaged in this human traffic. The Palestinian factions do and say nothing.
Shafiq al-Hout, unofficial representative of the PLO, poignantly captures Palestinians’ desperation: “If Palestinians heard that any embassy is giving them entry, there would be a queue from Rashidiyeh to the embassy’s doors. But if any credible political leader promises to restore them their dignity, there would be the same queue to his door.”
Progress — or the lack of it — towards a “settlement” on both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks is the key to the present and future of “Lebanese-Palestinians.” Prior to a settlement, the Palestinians are still a “card” for Syria, the PNA and Lebanon in their separate negotiations with Israel. However, once a regional settlement is signed this game will be over. Then the mass of around 150,000 Palestinians clustered in South Lebanon will become an obstacle to “normalization.” While Palestinian and Arab leaders repeat the mantra that a true settlement cannot be reached without a solution to the refugee problem, refugee return is not a priority for Syria or the PNA, only for Lebanon, where its meaning for the refugees is highly ambivalent.
It is only recently that Lebanon has adopted the refugee right of return as first on its agenda vis-a-vis Israel. Prime Minister/Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Salim al-Hoss says that Lebanon’s turn for direct talks will come once Syria’s border demands are satisfied, and that Syria fully supports the Lebanese stand on the refugees, i.e., their total return. He is optimistic about better understanding of Lebanon’s position, in particular from France and the USA. Maybe he would scale down his optimism now, in light of America’s failure to condemn Israel’s recent air raids, and the French Prime Minister’s reference to Hizbollah as “terrorists.” In fact it remained questionable whether Lebanon will succeed in getting the refugees onto its agenda: the US is known to favor the Israeli-Palestinian “track” as proper venue for this issue, effectively excluding the host countries and the refugees themselves.
So what is the outlook for Lebanon’s refugees? Unless international pressure can change Israel’s refusal of refugee return into acceptance — which seems unlikely — “return” will translate into “transfer,” a second forced dispersion for this long-suffering community. Few “Lebanese-Palestinians” have any connection with PNA-controlled parts of Palestine, and return there would not be likely to guarantee them jobs, rights, or security. Some Palestinians believe that heightened insecurity may not be the special fate of refugees in Lebanon, but could spread to Syria and Jordan as well, where the post-settlement assimilation of the refugees might raise harder problems than did their post-Nakba reception.