The fall of the PLO's 'state within state' in Lebanon
Beirut — On a cold, rainy winter day, the stadium from which the Palestinian Liberation Organization began its forced exodus from Beirut is silent. Its grounds are mired in mud.
Rows and rows of dump trucks, which the City of Beirut is using to cart away the rubble of the war, stand where the PLO men assembled and fired their farewell volleys.
The buildings that housed dozens of PLO offices once distinguished by armed guards at the doors and posters of martyred fighters on the walls are today marked only by photos of a smiling Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.
There is little to remind the unaware visitor that the Fakhani neighborhood of west Beirut once housed the headquarters of the Palestinian ''state within a state'' in Lebanon.
Only one PLO institution in west Beirut survived the exodus intact. The PLO Research Center, a seven-story building whose 25,000-volume library and microfilm collection were carted away by Israeli soldiers in their mid-September occupation of west Beirut, was in the process of being restored. Director Sabri Jyris, a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian lawyer who left Israel for political reasons in 1970, proudly showed visitors offices swept clean of broken glass and debris. He pulled out boxes of file cards for reordered books, including 10 inches worth of Hebrew publications.
But the tenure of even this last holdout of the PLO bureaucracy proved short-lived. On Feb. 5 a massive car bomb, placed by Lebanese right-wing opponents of the PLO, gutted the research center, killing at least 20 persons, including Mr. Jyris's wife.
The leaders of the PLO - now scattered throughout the Arab world - are only just beginning to come to terms with the meaning of the total destruction of a bureaucracy (with a multimillion-dollar budget) that some PLO sources said employed 20,000 civilians in Lebanon, and the demise of a military operation that was approximating a regular army.
PLO leaders know that no Arab state will ever again allow them to create the kind of extraterritorial institution they built up over the last 13 years in Lebanon. This was possible only because of the past weakness - to the point of near nonexistence - of the Lebanese central government.
''A certain historic phase has passed for the Palestinians,'' said Mr. Jyris, before his own center was destroyed again.
But the collapse of this vast bureaucratic structure has created enormous human pressure on the PLO leadership to find some solution for the people whom it once serviced and defended, and in one unforgettable instance, failed to save from massacre. These include both 12,000 dispersed fighters, and possibly as many as 300,000 refugees left in Lebanon, a substantial number with their men in exile or in an Israeli prison camp.
If the PLO cannot find some way to aid these people, who once composed its base, its remaining legitimacy will be thoroughly eroded.
This pressure is most graphic among the 100,000 or more refugees in eight war-shattered camps around Beirut and in south Lebanon. (Two large camps in north Lebanon are still under PLO control.) These camps had long since developed into concrete block slums with PLO factories, schools, clinics, offices, and probably at least one salaried PLO member in every household.
With all these services - and income - gone, the refugees are rudderless.''If you paralyze their institutions,'' says one PLO man who remained behind in Beirut, ''the Palestinian people are like a herd without a shepherd.''
Adds a Palestinian journalist in Beirut, ''It is like a throwback to 1948 when Palestinians could only struggle for survival.''
But the refugees remaining in Lebanon today have no clear spokesman or defender.
Two Palestinian hospitals run by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, their version of the Red Cross, are still operating at the edges of Sabra and Shatila camps, the sites of the September massacres. But the hospitals' legal status has still not been clarified by the Lebanese government. On Nov. 28 Lebanese Army soldiers confiscated $250,000 worth of medicine donated by foreign charitable agencies and governments. The Lebanese government is creating visa difficulties for foreign medical volunteers, who make up the bulk of the staff after the exodus of many Palestinian medical personnel with the PLO.
''Until now no one has asked us to close,'' says Um Walid, a handsome dark-haired woman sitting under a smiling photo of Yasser Arafat in an office in Akka Hospital across the street from Shatila Camp. She now directs Red Crescent operations formally headed by Mr. Arafat's brother, Fathy.
''We don't think the Lebanese government can afford to close us down because we are the only free medical care for poor Palestinians and Lebanese,'' adds another Red Crescent worker. But some Lebanese working at the hospital have received sinister warnings from Christian militiamen to stay away.
Many refugees, in desperation, flocked to the Beirut office of the PLO whose director, Shafik al-Hout, remained in the city with diplomatic status.
Mr. al-Hout's former office remains occupied by Lebanese Army troops who do not let him visit it. His office was reopened in token fashion on the seventh floor of the PLO Research Center.
Steady columns of old men, women, and children filed up the narrow stairway or jammed the tiny elevator in search of information about their menfolk or money for survival until the car bomb destroyed even that refuge, claiming several more refugee victims as well.
An atmosphere of fear and uncertainty has settled over the inhabitants of the refugee camps. With PLO gunmen no longer around to protect them, the refugees are once again subject to the Lebanese government.
Lebanese officials have made clear that they want to expel all Palestinian refugees except those who came in 1948 from Palestine and their descendants who are legally registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). These number 238,667. Estimates of the number of illegal Palestinian refugees, many of whom arrived from Jordan in the early 1970s, vary widely - from tens of thousands to about 150,000 - but the bulk of these are thought to have already left.
Unsourced leaked reports to the Lebanese media have outlined plans by which legal refugees would be moved away from the city and ''encouraged'' to leave until their numbers dwindled to 50,000. Such plans have not yet been implemented. The Lebanese government has too many other pressing problems and no other Arab governments are ready to take the Palestinians.
But even the thousands of middle- and upper-class Palestinians who hold Lebanese nationality - a cross section of professionals, academics, and businessmen - are tense and uneasy about their future.'
'Everyone is asking, 'What's going to happen,' and none of us knows,'' says one Palestinian businessman who has lived in Beirut since 1948 and quickly asks to remain anonymous. ''People are afraid. Suppose the government takes away our citizenship. Suppose the Christian militia comes to west Beirut and starts assassinating Palestinians.''
Formal means may not be necessary to force more Palestinians to leave. Said one worker at the PLO Research Center shortly before it was bombed, ''Getting rid of Palestinians can take many forms. You can harass people to leave by spreading panic, or you can make it impossible for families to make a living.''
In Shatila camp, sewage blocked by the mass grave at the entrance backed up onto the mud road leading into the camp.
Behind a wall topped with glass shards, against which 10 men were executed in September, Khair Mohammed, a scrawny 20-year-old, huddles over a kerosene heater with his family in a small concrete sitting room lined with fake leopard-skin couches.
Khair's four brothers and eight sisters fled the killers just in time. His father stayed behind and was shot twice but survived. His grandfather and two elder brothers were killed at Tal Zaatar refugee camp in east Beirut in 1976 in an earlier battle between the PLO and Christian militiamen. The militiamen subsequently razed the camp.
Khair never leaves his courtyard because he is afraid he might be picked up by a Lebanese Army patrol, accused of being a returned PLO fighter, and thrown into prison without trial. The Lebanese government admitted at one time holding about 1,000 detainees, approximately half of them Palestinians. PLO sources at the time claimed as many as 3,000 Palestinians might have been in custody.
The refugees today are less afraid of Christian militiamen - so long as the multinational peacekeeping force is around. But the bomb blast at the PLO Research Center, recent discovery of several dead Palestinians near Ain Hilweh camp in south Lebanon, and a bomb defused in the nick of time in an school in Borj el Barajneh camp in Beirut have sent tremors of fear through the camps.
According to PLO sources, most families were left with two to three months' salary. Refugees get food supplies from UNRWA, but resources are running low.
Moreover, refugees are having increasing difficulties in getting money from outside Beirut. Women who travel to the Bekaa Valley in east Lebanon to bring back money from PLO fighters risk being stopped at Lebanese Christian militia checkpoints, or being called in by Israeli intelligence in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon.
Without reliable banking systems, Palestinian refugees working in the Gulf who want to send money home must find someone to take it by hand. Lebanon has refused to renew expiring travel documents of many Palestinian refugees from Lebanon who have jobs in the Gulf.
While many refugees are simply focusing on survival, many more, like Khair, are searching for ways to leave Lebanon. ''I can't work,'' he says, ''so I have to get out.'' He is looking for a way to reach Germany, a common destination for many young Palestinian men.
A refugee fron Ain Hilweh camp, near Sidon, who has recently been released from the Israeli-run Ansar prison camp in south Lebanon, echoes the theme of flight: ''Anyone who has a relative outside, in the Gulf, in the United States, is pulling any string he has to get out of here before it is too late.''
The PLO opposes talk of any mass refugee exodus from Lebanon. ''The wives and families of the [evacuated] PLO fighters are supposed to stay in Lebanon until a decision has been taken on where the fighters will be based,'' says Brigadier General Yehya, the represenative of the PLO executive committee in Amman.
Senior Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan, have visited PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Tunis to discuss the withdrawal of the remaining 8,000 to 10,000 PLO fighters from east and north Lebanon in return for which the PLO wants guarantees of protection for the refugees remaining in Lebanon.
There is another kind of talk being heard in the camps, talk of accepting the idea being explored by PLO Chairman Arafat with Jordan's King Hussein of a Palestinian entity on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in confederation with Jordan.
This is a dramatic shift for refugees from Lebanon, whose inhabitants come from the north and coastal regions of Palestine and are unfamiliar with the West Bank. For this reason the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been among the strongest protagonists of a state in all Palestine, which would mean an end to the state of Israel.
Today, in a burst of pragmatism born of desperation, many of these refugees say they would settle for Lebanese passports or for a place on the West Bank. ''Of course I would go the the West Bank if there was a state there,'' said Khair. ''Here, I am too afraid of the Ketaeb [Christian Phalangist militia].''
This talk is not universal. Says a Palestinian in Beirut, ''If the refugees are pushed too far, they will dig up the guns the PLO left buried, and the fighting will start again.''
At the moment this seems like hopeful bravado only. One thing, however, is sure. If the PLO is to retain its credibility with its fighters and the support of its longtime base of Lebanese-Palestinian refugees, many of whom are the family the fighters left behind, it will have to offer them some answers soon.
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