Why Palestinians Get Little Sympathy from Lebanese Hosts
SIDON, SOUTHERN LEBANON
As far as many Lebanese are concerned, the tens of thousands of Palestinians who fled Israel and sought refuge in their country are now safely locked away in camps, the most forgotten element of the vast Palestinian diaspora.
Many Lebanese blame Palestinian guerrillas for playing a key role in Lebanon's own 1975-1990 civil war. The Palestinians under Yasser Arafat ran a heavy-handed "state within a state" in the late 1970s, they say, and turned Lebanon into a "dumping ground" for militant and terrorist groups.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to rid the country of the armed Palestinian groups, and knocked on the gates of Beirut. And Israel still occupies a strip of southern Lebanon, which it took control of 20 years ago to thwart Palestinian attacks on northern Israel.
"Today, I don't think Lebanon and the Palestinians have overcome this, there is still a lot of resentment" says Farid al-Khazen, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. "The Lebanese feel they have endured the burden of the Palestinian problem already. It was mutually destructive for us and for them. We paid our dues."
The result has been a rejection - codified in the Constitution - of any permanent Palestinian settlement in Lebanon, though the refugees make up about 13 percent of the population. Already, Palestinians are restricted as to which professional jobs they can do outside the camps.
Building is also limited: One-story buildings are the rule, with the exception of one camp. After five decades, that means that quarters are very cramped. The UN provides the most rudimentary services, but the refugees are largely ignored by the government in Beirut.
"They have miserable living conditions," says one Western relief worker. "Palestinians in Lebanon have the most difficult situation. Anywhere else, their civil rights would be respected, but here they are denied," he says.
Compounding their problems is that Palestinians here are in a legal no-man's land. Jordan has given its Palestinians citizenship, and those living in the West Bank are "protected" by the Fourth Geneva convention because they live in an "occupied territory," notes the International Committee of the Red Cross.
All Palestinian refugees have been given assistance by the UN Relief and Works Agency since 1948. But the creation of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951 - with a specific mandate to protect and repatriate refugees - did not apply to refugee groups already cared for by a UN agency. For these 130,000 refugees, that means no legal protection, only limited assistance.
Tensions run high, in part because many of the 17 or 18 factions in the camps are still armed. The political wrangling that continues among those groups here - which outside Lebanon and Syria have very little influence these days - can spill into violence.
Those weapons are not always used for battle, despite widespread anti-Arafat and anti-Israel sentiment.
Winding through the narrow passageways of Ein el-Hilweh camp, one arrives at the home of Munir Makdah, head of the Fatah Party faction that opposes Arafat and the peace process.
A huge mural of the golden Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem covers one wall of the sitting room, and a shotgun is propped against a wall. On the couch is an olive-green flak vest with two armored plates, which Mr. Makdah says he uses while "hunting birds."
Palestinian guerrillas have carried out 260 operations against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon since 1995, he says, though military sources say the number is a fraction of that.
"As long as any part of Palestine is occupied, the resistance will continue," says Makdah, wearing a thick black beard and camouflage military leggings. "No one has the right to give up a single grain of sand of our land."
"[In these camps] our minds are focused on armed struggle," he says. "Now Arafat has reached an end and is going nowhere. He must step aside, and let us do our job."