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Why Palestinian refugees in Lebanon support violence rather than peace talks

With little faith in Israeli-Palestinian talks, and largely unable to integrate into Lebanon, many Palestinian refugees see violence as the only way to secure their 'right of return.'

By Correspondent / September 27, 2010

A Palestinian youth leads a donkey next to signs leading to Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank, Sept. 27. Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations hung in the balance Monday as Israel ignored international pressure to extend a 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

Mohammed Ballas/AP

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Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Lebanon

Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations hung in the balance Monday as Israel ignored international pressure to extend a 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, under pressure from the United States to stick with the talks, is expected to consult with his partners in the 22-member Arab League next week before announcing a decision. But Mr. Abbas said Sunday, hours before the freeze expired, that Israel had only one choice: "either peace or settlements.”

If the talks fail to deliver a negotiated peace, Arab neighbors such as Lebanon could be left with more than 1 million Palestinian refugees whose families fled or were forced out of their homes when Israel declared independence in 1948.

After more than 60 years, the refugees remain caught between a halting peace process that has yet to secure the "right of return" they seek and an uncertain future in Arab countries such as Lebanon, which is reluctant to allow them to fully integrate into society.

“It is the lost peace,” says Brig. Gen. Mounir Moqdah, a veteran Palestinian warlord and a senior official in Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest of 12 formally recognized Palestinian camps in Lebanon. “No one trusts the negotiations anymore. This is negotiations for the sake of negotiations.”

His words draw murmurs of agreement and nodding heads from a dozen middle-aged Palestinians sitting in threadbare armchairs lining the walls of Moqdah’s smoke-wreathed office in a white-washed building, known with deliberate irony as the “White House” in the heart of the camp.

A breeding ground for Islamist militants

Ain al-Hilweh, a teeming camp less than one square mile in size, houses 70,000 of the estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

The camps were established in 1948 during the war that gave birth to the state of Israel and the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven out or coerced into leaving their homes. Among them was Mahmoud al-Saleh, then a 9-year-old boy living in the village of Sasa, close to the border with Lebanon.

“We were being bombarded with mortars so the whole village left,” recalls Mr. Saleh, today a wizened 78-year-old with mahogany skin and a white lace skullcap on his bald head. Taking nothing with them, his parents and five brothers and sisters crossed the border with Lebanon and stayed in the village of Rmeish.

“We thought we would be away for only a few days,” he says.

After six months, the Lebanese Army moved the Palestinian refugees into the newly established camps where Saleh has lived ever since.

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