26 Aug. - 1 Sep. 1999
Issue No. 444
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Arafat returns to LebanonBy Graham Usher
To enter the Ain Helweh refugee camp in Sidon is to get a whiff of the ripples Ehud Barak's election win has already wrought on the region. Outside the camp stands the sand-bagged Lebanese Army checkpoint, underscoring the Lebanese government's enduring perception of those Palestinians in its midst as a "demographic threat" that must be policed for fear that they might "disturb" the delicate confessional "balance" on which modern-day Lebanon rests.
But inside the camp the guard has changed. Where a few months ago there were graffiti denouncing Oslo and avowing 'Revolution until Victory', now there is the freshly painted headquarters of "Fatah's Military Committee for Ain Helweh" and a vast poster of Yasser Arafat.
This is some turn-around. In 1993 the then Fatah leader in the camp, Munir Makdeh, pledged to kill Arafat for signing the Oslo accords and abandoning the Palestinian right to return, a response that accurately caught the mood of most of the 60,000 or so refugees who reside in Ain Helweh. Today Makdeh is "reconciled" with his boss, although demoted from his leadership position. He has been replaced by a new cadre of Fatah leaders whose essential purpose is to "emphasise control", says a Palestinian contractor in the camp, Hussein Idrish. "And they can control things," he adds.
The return of Fatah "Arafatists" to what was once known as the "capital of diaspora Palestinians" appears to be the product of a coincidence of interests between the Palestinian leader, the Lebanese government and Syria, the ultimate power broker in the country. What binds them is the view that, however tardy Barak may be about implementing the Wye agreement, it is nonetheless likely that during his term the final status negotiations will begin in earnest, including discussion of what may turn out to be the most explosive issue of all -- the fate of the 4.5 million Palestinians refugees, including and perhaps especially the 364,000 registered in Lebanon. Or, as Idrish put it, "If Arafat is again a player in the camps in Lebanon, it is because Syria and Lebanon want him to be".
Driven by the fear of the refugees' "resettlement" on its turf, the Lebanese government's motive may be that it is better for Arafat to be in "control" of Ain Helweh lest the camp become uncontrollable as the day of the "final status" approaches. This paranoia vis-à-vis any reappearance of the Palestinians as a political factor is deeply held across all the Lebanese confessions but has been fuelled by recent events that have occurred in or around Ain Helweh.
The first was the still unexplained killing of one Fatah leader and the maiming of another near the camp in May. Then came the also unresolved murder of four lawyers by two gunmen in Sidon's Palais de Justice on 8 June. Although Lebanese President Emile Lahoud blamed an Israel "sowing disorder" for the killings, it is clear that as far as his Internal Security forces were concerned it was the Palestinians in Ain Helweh who were the prime suspects. A tight siege was imposed on the camp and dozens of Palestinians arrested, especially those associated with the Islamist Usbat Al-Ansar movement. It was within days of the siege being relaxed that news came of 500-1,000 Fatah activists loyal to Arafat being "moved into" Ain Helwa to restore "order" in the camp. Like most accounts of the Palestinians in Lebanon, the "take-over" was greatly exaggerated.
"There was no mass entry into the camp by Fatah," says leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Sidon, Abu Ali Hassan. "It was more a case of the Fatah activists already in the camp going public". But he agrees that the fact that the activists were armed and presented themselves as a semi-official militia could not have occurred without the "political permission" of Lebanon and Syria. But to what end?
For former PLO executive member and the de facto representative of the Palestinians in Lebanon, Shafiq Al-Hout, the Palestinian leader's immediate aim is clear. "Arafat wants to be the representative of Palestinians everywhere, especially in the final status negotiations," he says. "But, given that most Palestinians in the diaspora are now against Arafat's leadership, to regain this status he needs to build a coalition of interests both with the PLO opposition and, in Lebanon, with Syria."
With the former, the means used are the national unity talks with the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP and DFLP) in Cairo. With the latter, the road to coordination may be through Arafat's military control of Ain Helweh and, eventually, the other camps in Lebanon. As long as this poses "no threat to Syrian interests", it is a "restructuring" of Palestinian politics in Lebanon to which Damascus may not be averse. "Syria will also want bridges to all parties involved in the final status talks, including Arafat," says Al-Hout.
The problem is that the Oslo process is unlikely to deliver anything like a just solution to Palestinian refugees given both Israel and America's opposition to the right of return. And "if Arafat has nothing to offer the Palestinians in Lebanon, why does he seek to represent them? Does he want to subdue them?" asks Al-Hout. The answers to these questions depend on who is asked.
For Abu Ali Hassan, Fatah's re-appearance in Ain Helwa is seen as an extension of the unity talks in Cairo and is positive. "The PFLP is not opposed to Fatah in Ain Helweh," he says. "On the contrary, we are engaged in discussions with Fatah about how to keep the Palestinians in Lebanon focused on the refugee issue and the right of return. Whatever our differences over Oslo, on this issue it is vitally important that the Palestinians speak with one voice and with one reference, the PLO."
Other Palestinian leaders in Lebanon are less sanguine, including those who support the talks in Cairo. "It depends on what Arafat intends by reactivating Fatah in the camps in Lebanon," says Haifa Jammal of the DFLP. "If he wants to rebuild the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians in Lebanon, then it's positive. But if he wants to impose Fatah as the Palestinians' representative by force of money and guns, then it's negative. I mean, does he see the refugee issue as a right to be defended or as a card to be traded?" The jury is still out on this, she says.
But sooner or later the verdict will come. As Ain Helweh's latest militia patrols the camp with their shining Kalashnikovs and crisp new army fatigues, some will be reminded of the golden age of the PLO in Lebanon when the guerrillas were the vanguard of the Palestinian revolution and 65 per cent of Lebanon's Palestinians were on its payroll. But other, younger generations will see these young men as eerily similar to the Oslo period in Gaza when the Fatah militias transformed themselves from a resistance force into a Palestinian Authority police force whose remit was to quell all resistance. Is this what is happening in Lebanon? And is this why Lebanon and Syria are prepared to tolerate the return of Arafat?
"Nobody knows," says Shafiq Al-Hout. He speaks from experience. "I have known Arafat for more than 30 years but I no longer know what his red lines are or the depth of concessions he is prepared to make. The only thing you can predict about him is that he is totally unpredictable. But I do know that were Arafat or any other Palestinian leader to renounce officially the right of return he would be signing his own death warrant. For Palestinians, this would be the ultimate act of treason".