Uum Mustapha, an elderly woman with a white kerchief framing her sun-baked face, gingerly stretches out her hand through the looping barbed-wire border fence that separates Lebanon from Israel to touch the sister she hasn't seen in 52 years.
"How many long years it has been!" she says, her voice cracking with emotion. Her sister Fatmeh - who didn't want to give her last name - replies, "Thank God we are alive and well."
In the wake of Israel's evacuation of southern Lebanon two weeks ago, thousands of Palestinians like these sisters are flocking to gaze at the land they fled, or were forced to flee, during the 1948 war that created the state of Israel. Yesterday, a Palestinian guerrilla group, the PFLP-GC, reiterated that they would resort to violence if Palestinians weren't allowed to return to their homeland.
"The Israelis don't want us to go back to our homeland in Palestine [now Israel]," says Uum Mustapha (an honorific title meaning "mother of Mustapha"). "And the Lebanese don't want us to remain in Lebanon, either. Where shall we go?"
Experts validate these women's concerns. "No more than a symbolic number ... will ever be permitted to return to historic Palestine permanently," says Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "Five thousand would be my guess."
For now, Uum Mustapha (who also asked to remain anonymous) and most of her extended family live in the Al Rachidia refugee camp outside the Lebanese port city of Tyre. Its temporary cinder-block dwellings with leaky, corrugated metal roofs have survived the family's nearly two generations in exile.
She, her husband and their three children fled Palestine one eventful night in 1948, abandoning a home, orchards, fields, and family, never to return.
This almost forgotten human tragedy remains a burning issue to the 350,000 Palestinian refugees that live in Lebanon, scattered across 13 overcrowded and often squalid camps. Most have never been to Palestine and their tattered lives are the lasting legacy of a war few remember.
Palestinians refer to their dramatic departure in 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel as al naqbah, or "the catastrophe." UN resolution 194, which Israel refuses to apply, stipulates that Palestinian refugees have the right to return home. Israel thinks they should be resettled elsewhere, but host countries like Lebanon don't want them, either.
The presence of Palestinian guerrilla groups in Lebanon, attacking Israel from across the border in the late 1970s and early 1980s, helped to ignite civil war in Lebanon and triggered two Israeli invasions, one in 1978 and the other in 1982. Few Lebanese forgive the Palestinians for what happened, and most would prefer to see them leave.
For the Lebanese government, forced to shoulder the brunt of the Palestinian refugee problem for so long, settling these refugees elsewhere has become a long-term goal. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has told the international community repeatedly that there can be "no lasting peace in the region" until a solution is found for the refugees.
For his part, former Lebanese Foreign Minister Fouad Butros tells the Monitor that he does not expect any quick solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, despite Israel's recent withdrawal from southern Lebanon. "If and when Syria, Lebanon, and Israel get around to signing a peace treaty," he says, "there will, no doubt, have to be an international conference consecrated to the Palestinian refugee problem, so that Lebanon does not have to bear the burden of their presence alone."
Many Lebanese, especially Christian Lebanese, are concerned that the long-term presence of 350,000 mostly Sunni Muslim Palestinians will disrupt the fragile religious balance in their nation.
Sunni Muslims represent the majority sect of Islam throughout the Middle East, but are a minority in Lebanon, where Shiite Muslims make up nearly 70 percent of the Muslim community and 40 percent of the entire population.
No census has been taken in Lebanon since 1932, but Lebanese newspapers often put the composition of the population at two-thirds Muslim and one-third Christian. The country has long been ruled under the abiding fiction that half the population is Christian and the other half Muslim.
While the Middle East awaits a long-term peace agreement between Israel, Lebanon and Syria, Palestinian refugees eke out a meager existence, wondering what the future beholds.
Abed Amr, Palestinian refugee in his early 30s, works at the deli counter in a Beirut grocery store. His family fled from the Jaffa region of what was then Palestine in 1948.
"In Lebanon," he says, "Palestinians can spend their entire lives accumulating diplomas, but they can never work as doctors, lawyers, professors, or architects." Palestinians here are banned from any of 12 major professions.
Wissam Hijazi, a 20-something Palestinian who works in a Beirut cafe, says he was excited about seeing Palestine for the first time from the Lebanese side of the border this past weekend. "It was like a dream," he says. "I did not think I would ever live to see Palestine," he adds jokingly. "And there it was, right in front of my eyes, but I couldn't get there." Coils of barbed-wire border fence prevent people from crossing the Israeli-Lebanese border and most border posts are now closed. "I don't think the Israelis are ever going to let us return," he says with a pensive look on his face. "I suppose I wouldn't either, if I were they.... I am trying to emigrate to Canada. I have a brother there, and I hear there is lots of work."
Abou Hani al Assadi, head of the Palestinian Social Committee in Sidon's 60,000-strong Ain Heloue Palestinian refugee camp says most Palestinians will probably be resettled abroad.
"In our hearts, we all want to go back to Palestine, of course," he says. "But, realistically, with our minds, we know most of us are going to be settled in Canada, Australia, Europe, or the United States, once there is a final Arab-Israeli peace deal."
Abou Hani adds that his married daughter lives in the US. He imagines he, too, will end up there one day soon.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society