Lebanese eye Palestinian posts

Now that Syrians have left, Lebanese want Palestinian militias to leave, too.

On a lonely wind-swept plateau high above Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, a commander in a militant Palestinian faction defiantly rejects disarming his men and dismantling the outposts scattered along the remote mountainous border with Syria.

"We have many posts in the Bekaa but we are not going to leave any of them because the Palestinian issue has not been resolved. Resistance is our right while our land is occupied by Israel," says the commander who identifies himself as Abu Abdullah.

The mountaintop position, some 3,000 feet above this village, is one of several in the Bekaa Valley manned by the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC).

Syria's withdrawal of its last troops from Lebanon a week ago has focused attention on a handful of previously unobtrusive Palestinian military posts.

Most Palestinians in Lebanon live in crowded refugee camps - some of which are heavily militarized. Although the refugee camps are ringed by Lebanese Army troops, they lie outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese state.

Lebanese authorities are clearly reluctant to deploy troops in the heavily populated camps to forcefully disarm the Palestinians.

But the small isolated military outposts lying outside the official refugee camps are another matter. Many residents in Qussaya and elsewhere insist these positions be dismantled. Damascus withdrew its forces from Lebanon in compliance with United Nations Security Resolution 1559. That resolution also calls for the disbanding of all "Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias," a reference to the Hizbullah organization and armed Palestinian groups.

Although the debate over Hizbullah's military wing will probably top the political agenda following parliamentary elections next month, many Lebanese are uneasy at the lingering presence of armed Palestinians, especially the military posts like the one above Qussaya.

The outposts, some of which have been in Lebanon since the 1970s, are known today more for their heated anti-Israeli rhetoric than for actual cross-border attacks against Israelis.

Most Palestinians in Lebanon are confined to some 12 refugee camps. Although the camps are ringed by Lebanese Army troops, they lie outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese state.

"I would love them to leave now but we can't get them to leave by force because we are too weak. We need the government to get rid of them," says Kheir, a resident of this Christian village who declined to give his full name.

The PFLP-GC outpost is spread over an undulating grassy plateau, reached by a steep winding dirt track. A swing gate blocks the entrance to the encampment. Wind-tattered and sun-faded Palestinian flags snap in the stiff breeze. Tracks criss-cross the area and huts and tents can be seen in the distance.

A tiny hut beside the swing gate provides shelter from the icy wind to the commander and six other militants. An AK-47 rifle hangs from the tin sheet roof with two magazines bound together with yellow tape. An old military radio set connected to car batteries sits on the table next to a small red portable television. The hut is lined with beds made from cinder blocks covered with thin mattresses and gray blankets.faded Palestinian flags snap in the stiff breeze. Tracks crisscross the area and huts and tents dot the horizon.

A tiny hut provides shelter from the icy wind to the commander and six other militants. An AK-47 rifle hangs from the tin sheet roof with two magazines bound together with yellow tape.

"This is an administrative position," says Abu Abdullah, denying the existence of any military equipment. "We have 25 logistical specialists and a small clinic. We don't carry weapons and we don't wear military uniforms."

But local residents and goat herders say that the PFLP-GC base is expanding with several new tracks crossing the border with Syria.

"The number of Palestinians is increasing," says goatherd Jafaar Hassan, pointing at an old Syrian military jeep inching down a steep track a few hundred yards away. He says that the camp contains armored vehicles.

On Wednesday, PFLP-GC gunmen at the same position fired warning shots and barred access to a UN team verifying the Syrian troop withdrawal.

The UN soldiers were investigating reports that Syrian soldiers were present in the base.

Hamzi Bishdawi, a PFLP-GC official, says that the incident was an "unfortunate minor misunderstanding."

"We didn't know that the UN was coming," he says. "We welcome them to come and inspect all our positions."

Would the PFLP-GC abandon their posts if requested by the Lebanese government? Bishdawi responds that the group "respects the sovereignty, independence, and freedom of Lebanon."

"It's not about a few arms," he adds. "These arms are only directed toward the Zionist enemy."

But Lebanese Information Minister Charles Rizk says that the Palestinians have no right to carry weapons in Lebanon. "We do not recognize any other armed group except the Lebanese Resistance," he says, referring to Hizbullah.

The Lebanese government was formed two weeks ago to ensure parliamentary elections are held on time. Other issues, like dismantling the Palestinian military positions, were not a priority, he says, although he adds, "We will try definitely to limit" the Palestinian military presence.

The PFLP-GC are not the only Palestinians manning military outposts along the Syrian border. In a secluded wadi just a few hundred yards from the open border with Syria, four old men, members of the small Fatah Intifada faction, sit in a hut, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. It is a lonely posting for these wrinkled veterans of the Palestinian revolution. Their green military uniforms are crisp, and one Palestinian wears freshly polished army boots. But their fighting days are long over.

"We're going to leave here soon," says a gray-haired lieutenant colonel, leaning on a cane. "When we are sure the [refugee] camps are not in danger, then we will disarm."

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