Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon Say Peace Deal Abandoned Them
Many say Arafat has traded their birthright for limited autonomy
BEIRUT — PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's visit to Gaza has stirred widespread resentment among many of about 250,000 Palestinian refugees left in Lebanon.
Far from feeling any benefit from the current peace process, some say it has aggravated their daily problems and reduced their hope of returning to homes in what is now Israel.
Many also feel used and forgotten by the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership, which used the refugee camps here as a springboard that eventually catapulted Mr. Arafat to Gaza. They fear that they - whose families fled Palestine in 1948 when the state of Israel was created - may end up paying the price for his deal with the Israelis.
``Arafat's slaughtered us with his agreement for [the West Bank town of] Jericho and Gaza,'' says Taghrid Musa, a young mother of four, as she prepares to lose her home for the sixth time in recent years. ``We, the refugees of 1948 - what's to become of us? We have no houses, no land, no jobs.''
Mrs. Musa, whose parents fled from the Safad area of northern Israel in 1948, is among an estimated 30,000 Palestinian refugees who are about to become homeless again by Lebanese government order. They are being evicted this month from buildings where they have been squatting, having lost their homes in refugee camps that were destroyed or overrun during the 1975-90 Lebanese conflict.
``Arafat's visit to Gaza was a big blow for us - and that's the result,'' says neighbor Emile al-Khouri, pointing to a pile of newly packed cardboard boxes holding his family's belongings in another of the apartments.
He and others believe that, by ignoring the refugees who fled Palestine in 1948, the current peace process has encouraged the Lebanese government - always a reluctant host - to do its best to ensure that the Palestinian exiles will not become a permanent feature.
In April, Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez proposed that 20 percent of the Palestinians in Lebanon should go to the occupied territories, 25 percent be reunited with families elsewhere, and the remainder distributed in such countries as Canada, Australia, and the United States.
But the evictions are also tied up with the government's efforts to reconstruct Beirut and restore normality. Shiite squatters are also being evicted.
Virtually all of the refugees in Lebanon trace their origins to 1948 Palestine - meaning that their former homes lie in ``Israel proper.'' Their right of return, enshrined in dusty United Nations resolutions, is not mentioned in the current peace process.
``Before there was hope. Now they say we're on our own. Arafat hasn't just sold us, he's sold our land in Palestine,'' says the elderly Mr. Khouri, whose father owned a large tract of land just across the border in northern Israel. ``Gaza and Jericho were the price. As Palestinians and landowners, we can't go there, and we're not accepted here. Where are we to go?''
Palestinians have never been given passports, and their civil status remains tenuous. Palestinian officials say the authorities issued only 200 work permits last year. Even if they have a permit, many Palestinians say employers discriminate against them.
``One of my sons has a degree in hotel management, but he is lucky to have a job as a driver,'' says Fatima Musa, who was one year old when her family fled Israel in 1948. ``As soon as they hear a Palestinian accent, they say the vacancy is filled.''
Both international and PLO funds have been diverted to the occupied territories because of the peace process, so social services and other resources have dwindled for the refugees here.
There is much bitterness in the Beirut camps that Arafat ruled from 1970 until he and his fighters were driven out by the 1982 Israeli invasion.
``They used us, they took money and a political role in our name, and now they are the leaders in Gaza and Jericho while we are forgotten,'' says one camp resident.
Only one of the 12 refugee camps housing an estimated 170,000 of the Palestinians in Lebanon is controlled by factions still loyal to Arafat - Rashadiya, near Tyre, in the far south.
Other camps are controlled by pro-Syrian factions, or, like the biggest camp, at Ain Hilweh near Sidon, by officers from Arafat's Fatah movement who rebelled against his political line.
While Syria's criticism of the autonomy accord may make opposition to it expedient for the Palestinians in Lebanon, there is no mistaking the authenticity of their own sense of grievance and their anxiety for the future.
``How can the world accept that I, an owner of land in Palestine, am condemned to rot in a refugee camp with no right of return, while my land is given to someone else?'' asks Fawzi Abd al-Aal, who lives in the Beirut camp of Borj al-Barajneh, but still holds the title deeds to his family property near Acre in Israel.
Arafat will clearly have his work cut out to prove that he has not traded their birthright for the limited autonomy deal.
``If the Palestinians do not end up with their own independent state and the right of return to it, the seeds of a future round of violence ... will be sown, because our people will not feel that their national rights and ambitions have been satisfied,'' says Suheil Natour, a Beirut official of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a faction critical of the current process.