Lebanon is where Palestinians were most loved and most hated, said Shafiq al-Hout, a former PLO Executive Committee member and now the top PLO official in Lebanon, at the 1983 PNC Algiers meeting. Listeners could not have missed the reference to the cold-blooded massacre of about 2,000 Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Seventeen years after al-Hout’s remarks, prominent journalist Robert Fisk reiterated the conclusion: Lebanon is where the Palestinians “have endured their greatest suffering, their greatest victories and their greatest defeats.” Always a pawn in the cruel games of Middle East actors, Lebanon and its Palestinians may witness the most dangerous summer in 2000, as the region awaits the fallout from the planned Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, Lebanon is debating the Palestinians’ right of return — to anywhere except Lebanon. “The right of return has been transformed into the right to leave Lebanon,” said Fisk.

Fisk forecasts a dangerous summer courtesy of Israel, which may seek to teach Lebanon and Syria a lesson if its troops are attacked while retreating from Lebanon. After twenty-two years of occupation, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, has decided to withdraw his forces in partial compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978, which calls for immediate and unconditional withdrawal from South Lebanon. The planned July withdrawal will be neither immediate nor unconditional, leading to fears of Hizbollah reaction and Israeli retaliation against both Lebanon and Syria.

Fisk spoke at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine (CPAP), as part of a speaking tour sponsored by MERIP in mid-April. He also spoke at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. Author of Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War and other books, Fisk has reported from Lebanon for 24 years for papers on both sides of the Atlantic and now writes for The Independent (London). He has received many awards for his excellent coverage.

Refusal to Accept Responsibility

The Lebanese, who lost 150,000 citizens in the long and destructive civil war, still refuse to admit their responsibility for the conflict, which they call “the war of the other. Everyone — Israel, America, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the United Nations, the Palestinians — was responsible” for it, except for the Lebanese themselves, Fisk said. There is very little, if any, self-criticism of what occurred in Lebanon, where the revision of history has become an art form. Many books on the civil war, including Pity the Nation, are banned in Lebanon. The seeds for the seemingly unending Lebanese conflict were sown in the 1920s, when the French, ignoring the people’s wishes to remain Syrian, drew the country’s borders so as to separate it from Syria. Ever since, Lebanese have fought over their identity. “How we love drawing lines on maps, we Westerners. How easily we support nations of convenience,” declared Fisk. Britain’s failure to resolve what Churchill called the “hell-disaster” of Palestine produced Israel, which created the refugees in Lebanon and, “for the Maronites,” the provocation for the civil war.

“A garbage tip” hides the mass grave of 500 Sabra and Shatila victims, where “Shiite Muslim” children now play. As Fisk said, the brutal war did not alter the entrenched sectarian political structure. “The hierarchy of the za`im, the great family patriarch, still exists, though it has been replaced by…a world of technocrats and soldiers.” Like in other Arab countries, the technocrats are accused of corruption. The Ta’if agreement, which was supposed to radically overhaul the system, “provided first aid relief, Band-Aids on the worst Lebanese sores.” The agreement did not change the basic power dynamics among the various political factions. “Sectarianism does, of course, provide a balance, a balance of fear.” The resulting vulnerability necessitates constant foreign involvement in the country.

“Terrorists” and Soldiers

UN Security Council Resolution 425 (1978) calls for the immediate and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Hizballah fighters who have fought Israel on Lebanese territory — in effect to implement 425 — are called “terrorists” by Western governments and media, while the Israeli occupiers are called soldiers or commandos. The 10 percent of Lebanese territory that Israel has occupied since 1978 has become “Israel’s security zone, [the] most insecure part of the Middle East,” a phrase from Israeli jargon that has became the norm for the Western media. After 22 years of occupation, the planned Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, “can scarcely be immediate,” and the “unconditional” withdrawal has been saddled with a “host of conditions: early warning stations inside Lebanon…and a few changes in the border between Lebanon and Israel,” which will not be to Lebanon’s advantage. And when Lebanon opposes these conditions and calls for a peace agreement on both Syrian and Lebanese fronts, Western media announce that Lebanon and Syria “do not want peace.” Israel has lost the war and wants to leave Lebanon now because its soldiers there “are bleeding, at the rate, sometimes, of six Israeli dead in a week. They are not bleeding on the Golan. And they are thus not in a hurry to leave the Golan,” Fisk added. Without an agreement on Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, Israeli soldiers will continue to be attacked even while retreating, risking Israeli retaliation directed at Lebanese infrastructure.

This coming summer, Fisk concluded, “is going to be among the most dangerous in Lebanon’s modern history. A fighting Israeli retreat out of Lebanon will mean war.” Syria, Lebanon and Hizballah will surely be blamed by the State Department. To Lebanon, it is a “cruel equation, for Syria will allow Lebanon’s people and its land to be used as battleground for the return of the Golan,” Fisk averred. Syrian intervention in Lebanon in 1976, he added, came at the request of Lebanon’s Christians. The US and Israel approved, provided Syrian troops did not cross the Litani River.

Lebanon’s Forsaken Palestinians

According to UNRWA figures, about 400,000 Palestinians refugees remain in Lebanon. A Democratic Front study puts the number at 175,000. Due to many conditions, which made their stay in Lebanon unbearable, a great majority of the 225,000 left to overseas countries — Scandinavia, Germany, Canada and Australia — and about 85,000 received Lebanese passports. This new reality, Fisk argued, has reduced the refugees’ long-held hope of return. Instead of “yes,” they now say, “God willing” when asked if they will return to their homes in Galilee, not far from where they have camped since 1948.

Language as a Weapon

The pursuit of peace in the Middle East, Fisk contends, has “involved semantics and the use of language” to blur the real issue — the return of the refugees. Security Council Resolution 242 omits the word “all” territories from which Israel was supposed to withdraw. But neither does it say “some” of the territories, he added. General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948) calls for the right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees. Resolution 242 “reduced the demand of 194 … to ‘a just settlement of the problem of the refugees.'” The Oslo accord further diminished the internationally supported right of return to a “request.” The right of Sabra and Shatila refugees to return “was no longer a legitimate, inalienable right…[but] merely a Palestinian demand” within the larger Arab-Israeli “dispute.”

In the US and most of the world, Oslo has reformulated the “peace” efforts into a “peace process,” not a “peace plan,” and Israel is now urged to “hand the territories over, or give them up” instead of returning them. Occupied West Bank and Gaza, have become the “territories” or “disputed territories,” like neighbors’ dispute over the “alignment of a boundary fence.”

No Palestinians Allowed to Stay in Lebanon

The longest-suffering Palestinians — Lebanon’s refugees — have now entered the zone of non-entity. Forsaken by all, their fate is being debated with no input from them. They are not wanted in Israel since they may upset the “Jewish character” of the state; the Palestinian Authority, like other Arab governments, discusses them only as a formality. When Fisk called journalist friends in Cairo and the United Arab Emirates about their governments’ stand on the right of return, the Egyptian said in laughter, “Well, of course we are for it, but I cannot remember it ever being debated.” “We accepted this like we accepted the PLO as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” said his Emirates friend. Also laughing, he added, “now the PLO has made peace.”

Ironically, the only Arab nation that still debates the Palestinians’ right of return is Lebanon, the land where they endured the greatest of their suffering, victories and defeats, Fisk said. But the Lebanese government seeks merely an expedient way of ridding Lebanon of Palestinians, not a political principle. “The Palestinians cannot stay in Lebanon,” Fisk cites Salim el Hoss, Prime Minister of Lebanon, as saying. “Those who would most like their absence are those who most fervently support their right of return. Their antagonists are now their allies — because of their antagonism,” said Fisk. “Denuded of rights, stripped of their right of return — transformed into a wish to return by the Oslo agreement — the Palestinians of Lebanon are to be resurrected one final time to frustrate Israeli plans for Lebanon.” While their identity is still intact, “it is no longer tied to the idea of return.”

Ineffective Arab-American Lobby

Fisk did not limit his comments to the worsening conditions in Lebanon’s refugee camps, but also criticized the Arab-American lobby for its ineffectiveness. With “a few honorable exceptions, the Arab-American lobby is not a very brave lobby,” he said. Speaking at Boston University’s Right of Return conference, he wondered “how closely it — the Arab lobby — is in touch with the reality in the Middle East, how much it understands the nature of hopes diminished and destroyed in the ash heaps of Sabra and Shatila.” His biting criticism has caused an uproar in Arab-American circles with some accusing him of being “angry” and “arrogant.” Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian from Chicago and a monitor of media biases, recently wrote The Independent editors accusing Fisk of being “ill-informed and self-righteous.” Fisk’s behavior in the US, he said, was “like a colonial colonel,” trying to “knock us — Arabs — into shape.”

How to cite this article:

Ghassan Bishara "Lebanon’s Most Dangerous Summer," Middle East Report Online, April 25, 2000.

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