Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are seeing their chances of returning home dwindle. Mohalhel Fakih reports from camps across Lebanon
Thousands of war-toughened refugees took to the streets of the country's 12 largest Palestinian shantytowns to mourn the assassinated leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi. Demonstrators blamed his killing on US President George W Bush, whom they accused of condoning Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy of assassinations in the occupied territories and seeking to implement "a new Balfour Declaration".
"Bush's declaration is tantamount to a green light for Sharon to do whatever he wants," Othman Haboub, a 58-year-old Palestinian plumber from Yaffa, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Like nearly all of the older generation of Lebanon's estimated 350,000 refugees, Othman arrived here in 1948. He still hopes to return to Yaffa, which is in present-day Israel. The Israeli government, now backed by the Bush administration, refuses to acknowledge the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their 1948 hometowns.
Othman is a plumber at the Shatila refugee camp, an overcrowded shantytown of tin-roofed concrete houses on the fringes of Beirut. Shatila has been witnessing an unprecedented reconstruction and development drive following the destruction of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Refugees regularly demonstrate against Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, but this time their protests had an added sense of urgency following President Bush's public support for Mr Sharon's "disengagement" plan and the threat of the right of return vanishing forever.
"The assassination of Dr Al-Rantisi is definitely the result of Bush's meeting with Sharon. This new Bush gave the Zionist entity unlimited backing for assassinations that are taking place against our people. He announced the new Balfour Declaration that also annulled the right of return for refugees," Haj Salem Zoubi, the secretary-general of Fatah-Intifada in Beirut told the Weekly at the Shatila camp.
Refugees and the many Palestinian factions that vie to represent them have been repeating charges that the agreements made last week between Bush and Sharon are parallel to the 1917 statement by Britain's Lord Balfour which conveyed British approval of Jewish aspirations for a national homeland. Balfour is a byword for betrayal among Palestinians who blame their plight on the subsequent increase in Zionists immigrating to Palestine culminating in the 1948 creation of Israel.
"We've been in this plight since 1948. The world is controlling us and cannot see what has been happening to the Palestinian people. They only see one side," Othman said as he puffed a cigarette in one of the narrow alleys that zigzag across Shatila's teeming neighbourhoods.
Like other men in the camp, Othman was preparing to squeeze into jam-packed mini-vans transporting hundreds of refugees to downtown Beirut to participate in a rally protesting against Al-Rantisi's killing. The assassinated leader's pictures deck the walls of Shatila, next to those of his predecessor Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Sheikh Yassin's killing was still fresh in the minds of camp residents when news of Al-Rantisi's death spread. Both leaders were branded "terrorists" by Israel.
Al-Rantisi became a symbol of resistance for Palestinians here, following his expulsion by Israel to Lebanon in 1992. He was among 415 Palestinian activists that were kept stranded at Marj Al-Zohour near the Israeli-Lebanese border for a year, until Israel allowed their repatriation to Gaza.
Hamas's Damascus-based political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal, was threatened by Israeli Cabinet Minister Gideon Ezra, who said that he might meet the same fate as Yassin. Meshaal was chosen as Hamas's chief outside Gaza upon Yassin's violent death. Ezra's threat was likely to stoke concerns here about another spillover of violence into Lebanon and Syria.
Lebanese leaders have strongly condemned Israel's assassination of Al-Rantisi and also denounced President Bush's stance on the right of return. Top officials said they would resist any attempt to permanently resettle Palestinians within Lebanon on the grounds that such a move could upset the country's delicate sectarian balance and bring about renewed civil strife. Lebanese Maronite Christians have been staunchly opposed to a potential permanent resettlement of the mainly Muslim Palestinian refugee population within Lebanon.
Caught in the middle of this are the refugees themselves. Authorities here ban Palestinians from dozens of professions and place restrictions on their civil status with the declared aim of preventing their permanent settlement. Fatah's Beirut official, Zoubi, told the Weekly that Beirut must ease their living conditions. But he agreed with a unanimous Lebanese position to reject resettlement.
"Israel tried to plant fear in the hearts of our leadership in the interior and abroad, to get rid of the resistance, but we are pressing ahead in our struggle and will step up the Intifada," Zoubi said. "There is a need to open the border not only from Lebanon but from all Arab countries that surround the enemy so that not only Lebanon carries the burden," he added. However, most non- Palestinian Lebanese would be decidedly unreceptive towards Zoubi's appeal for Lebanon to allow its frustrated Palestinian refugee population to cross into Israel.
Clashes on the Lebanese-Israeli border caused or provided a pretext for repeated Israeli invasions. Many blame Israel's occupation of part of South Lebanon until May 2000, and the civil war itself, on the Palestinian presence. Security forces have effectively sealed off the border region from Palestinians, not allowing them near the volatile frontier, which overlooks Israeli towns and farms.
Hizbullah, the Lebanese Muslim Shia group, which has a strong military presence along the border, agrees that "armed resistance remains the only path to restore rights," but does not back Palestinian attacks from Lebanon. Israel has given Hizbullah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah notice that he too was slated for extra- judicial execution. He was Hizbullah's leader during its armed campaign that forced Israeli troops to withdraw from South Lebanon. His group has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US.
Nonetheless, it remains defiant, and held the US "directly responsible" for Al-Rantisi's assassination. Hizbullah had vowed backing for Hamas and attacked Israeli posts in the occupied Shebaa Farms, along the Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli border at the end of March in response to Sheikh Yassin's assassination. Many observers are now expecting some attack from Hizbullah in reaction to Al- Rantisi's killing. However, the group remains attentive to Lebanese sensitivities regarding the Palestinian presence, and rejects their resettlement within Lebanon.
Othman Haboub told the Weekly that Palestinians will not stay here indefinitely. "From the young children who do not know Palestine to the elderly refugees, they all want to return home," he said. Across the street from the hustle and bustle of the main vegetable market in Shatila, Um Rashid, who was also expelled to Lebanon in 1948, agrees. She is from what is now known as Kiryat Shmona on the Lebanese border.
"Our resolve is only strengthened by the killings," she told the Weekly from a dark pathway where streaming water from a nearby sewer separates her one-room shack from dozens of concrete makeshift concrete structures, towered by bombed-out buildings, which took the most damage at the bloody apex of the civil war, when Israel launched a full-scale invasion in June 1982. The camp is infamous for the events of 15-18 September of that year when Maronite militiamen backed by the Israeli army massacred hundreds of civilians here and at the neighbouring Sabra camp.
Before moving here, Um Rashid had lived in five other camps in various parts of South Lebanon, leaving them as strife spread in the region. In the run-up to the civil war, increasingly confident and well-armed Palestinian organisations were accused of running a "state within a state" in the camps of South Lebanon.
Um Rashid's only hope now is to cross the border to a promised land. She insists that the Palestinians have the sole right to decide how they will achieve that goal. "Our only representative is the Palestinian people. They will make their own decisions," Um Rashid loudly proclaims.
International Response to the Bush Declaration on the Palestinian Right to Return