Lebanon's restive refugees alarm hosts

Recent unclaimed attacks into northern Israel are linked to Palestinians eager to join the fight.

Young Palestinian men in Lebanese refugee camps, fired up by 24-hour television reports of the raging conflict in the West Bank and Gaza, are clamoring to be allowed to join in the battle. And a recent flurry of attacks by Palestinian militants across Lebanon's southern border into Israel – the first in years – has raised concerns among United Nations officials and Lebanese that a precedent has been set.

Some 350,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, most of them in refugee camps. As a result of Israel's recent West Bank incursions, Palestinian leaders say it is increasingly difficult to prevent angry refugees from taking revenge against Israel into their own hands.

"The more that happens [between Israel and the Palestinians] the more there is enthusiasm among the men of the camps to go down to the border and fight," says Abu Khaled Hosni, the south Lebanon commander of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), a hardline faction based in Damascus.

For two weeks earlier this month, the Lebanon-Israel border witnessed the worst bout of violence in almost two years. Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas struck at Israeli outposts on an almost daily basis in the Shebaa Farms, a narrow mountainside running along Lebanon's south-east border with the Golan Heights. But more alarming was a series of unclaimed rocket and machine-gun attacks against Israel itself which came close to provoking devastating reprisals from the Israelis.

For the Lebanese, the prospect of Palestinians launching attacks across the border rekindles bitter memories of 30 years ago when Palestinian guerrillas based in south Lebanon routinely fired rockets into northern Israel. The often disproportionate Israeli retaliation brought misery to the southern Lebanese and fostered the anti-Palestinian feelings that in 1975 helped spark Lebanon's 16-year civil war. The Lebanese have no desire to repeat the experience.

"We are talking about the Lebanese border, and it's up to the Lebanese to decide whether to open the border [for attacks into Israel], not the Palestinians," says Boutros Harb, a prominent Maronite Christian politician.

Palestinian leaders in Lebanon balance sympathy for Lebanese concerns with their own commitment to the Palestinian cause.

"We appreciate that we are guests here and there are laws that we can't break. But sometimes we can't stop enthusiastic individuals," Mr. Hosni says.

The Lebanese government is taking no chances, however. It has tightened its security measures in the volatile border district. A 1,000-strong force of soldiers and police search cars at checkpoints and patrol remote sections of the border.

Several Palestinians have been arrested and charged with firing rockets at Israel. Yet some individuals continue to slip through the security cordon.

In one recent incident, gunmen fired shots through the border fence at an Israeli army patrol. In another incident, two Katyusha rockets were fired toward Israel, but exploded short of the border.

Last week, Lebanese troops found three Katyusha rockets ready for firing toward Israel, six miles to the south.

Timur Goksel, the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, said there was a widespread concern about Palestinians conducting attacks into Israel. "No one expects an offensive from the Palestinians. But there is a potential for destabilization along the border if they continue to carry out individual attacks," he says.

Abu Mujahed, a former fighter with the PFLP, runs a youth center in the cramped slums of Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. He said that he has watched the youngsters in the camp become increasingly drawn emotionally into the 19-month Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

"I ask children to draw things, whatever they like. I expect houses, trees. But I get Palestinian flags, scenes of bombings in Jerusalem, destruction in Jenin," he says.

Maher Shehadi, a tall, lanky 20-year-old resident of Shatila, says that he and his friends were all eager to participate in the Palestinian resistance. "The Arab governments are restricting us, so we are forced to stage demonstrations instead," he says. "But the only solution at the end is that we fight."

The answer, according to Mr. Hosni of the PFLP-GC, is for the governments of Israel's Arab neighbors – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt – to turn a blind eye to Palestinian militants seeking to stage attacks across their borders.

"Our young people have heard us talking about our suffering for the last 50 years and we have been telling them that they have the right to return to Palestine and the right to struggle," he says. "And now we tell them that they can't fight?"

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