Palestinians in Lebanon warn against Arafat expulsion

Refugee leaders are holding almost daily demonstrations in Lebanon's 12 camps.

It took Hassan Issa four days to walk from his home in Hittin on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to Palestine's border with Lebanon. Within weeks, he was living in a tent two miles from the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon in a lush landscape of banana groves and orange trees known as Ain al-Hilweh, Arabic for the Spring of Sweet Water.

That was 1948. Fifty-five years later, Mr. Issa still lives in Ain al-Hilweh, though today there is little that can be described as "sweet" about the camp's filthy, cramped passageways and spirit-crushing mood of despair and futility.

With Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the verge of being deported, the road map in tatters, and a war of attack and retaliation between Israel and militant Palestinian groups showing no sign of abating, many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon see scant hope for better lives in the near term.

"We refugees are treated unfairly by everyone," Issa says. "The world sits back and watches Israel killing our people in Palestine while the refugees have been forgotten completely."

Four years ago, the Israelis and Palestinians were negotiatingthe thorny problem of who controls Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state, and the refugees. But negotiations foundered at the Camp David summit in August 2000 and a month later the second Palestinian intifada began.

Sultan Abul-Aynayn, head of Mr Arafat's Fatah faction in Lebanon, says the future of the refugees is not even on the agenda now.

"The refugees are not a priority for Palestinians," he says. "We have to solve the bloodshed in Palestine before we can deal with the refugee question."

Demonstrations in support of Mr. Arafat have been held almost daily in some of Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps since Israel announced last week its decision to expel the Palestinian leader.

Mr. Abul-Aynayn has joined the chorus of condemnation directed at Israel, but like many Palestinians, maintains Arafat won't be expelled because of the potential repercussions. "It would be a very risky adventure for the Israelis. The Palestinians would completely break free of all restraints. The situation would become much worse and involve all Palestinians - including us in Lebanon," he says.

Meanwhile, Issa and the other estimated 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continue struggling to exist in an unforgiving political environment. The refugees are confined to their camps, some ringed by Army troops, and banned from all but the most menial jobs.

The refugee status here is largely due to Lebanon's bitter sectarian divisions. The Christian community here has always feared that settling the predominantly Sunni Muslim Palestinians permanently in Lebanon would undermine the state's delicate political balance.

Rosemary Sayigh, a Beirut-based anthropologist and activist on Palestinian affairs, says the dominant Maronite Catholics did not want Sunni Muslims in government when they arrived in 1948.

"One of the very first edicts in the 1950s was a law forbidding anyone from giving job[s] to [Palestinian] refugees," shesays.

The refugees' transient status is apparent in the ban on building materials in the camps. Ain al-Hilweh is confined to the same space it was allotted in 1948, even though its population has grown from 5,000 to more than 70,000.

Unable to build outward, Ain al-Hilweh has built upward, becoming a labyrinth of gloomy, narrow passages and rubbish-strewn alleyways.

Poverty and a sense of hopelessness have contributed to drug abuse, crime, and militant politics. Ain al-Hilweh's slums have long been a haven for Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants and outlaws.

"It's a very hard life in unhealthy conditions," says Abu Mohammed, who owns a textile shop in the camp's market. "The soldiers on the checkpoints treat us like we live in a zoo. We are under siege here."

THE refugees say they wish to return to their former homes in what was once Palestine, but these statements are more knee-jerk sentiment than genuine expectation.

"Everyone says they want to go back to Palestine, but they know it will never happen. Most of all they just want this situation to end," says aPalestinian official in Ain al-Hilweh.

Yet the refugees keep their dream of the right of return alive, passing it from generation to generation.

Issa, one of the original 1948 refugees, tells his children and grandchildren stories of Hittin - the famed site where a Muslim army defeated 12,000 Crusaders on July 4, 1187 - and their family's flight during the Arab-Israeli war.

"We fought the Jews in Hittin when they came," he recalls. "But there were many massacres committed in the area and the people were afraid. I left the village with my father, mother, brother, and his wife. I had only the clothes I was wearing, everything else was left behind."

"I remember looking at the vegetables, the trees, and the ancient ruins on the hill above the village as I left.... It was my home and I grew up there."

Issa's father died during the march to Lebanon. "Golda Meir once said that the old people of Palestine will die and the young will forget about Palestine," Issa says, referring to the former Israeli prime minister. "But," he continues, "we will never forget about Palestine, neither our old nor our young."

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