Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon Divided over Representation, United on Demands

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon Divided over Representation, United on Demands

Article excerpt

After a 13-year hiatus in diplomatic relations, the re-opening of a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Beirut could have been a dream come true for Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, who desperately need a representative to effectively negotiate their numerous demands with Lebanese authorities.

The nearly 400,000 refugees-an estimated 10 percent of Lebanon's population-have been without a representative since 1993, when Shafiq al-Hut resigned in protest of the Oslo accords. The office's reopening on May 15 of this year, however, only reinforced the divisions among the various Palestinian factions in Lebanon. The marked absence of representatives from Hamas and other Palestinian groups during the high-profile event accentuated the dispute over the crucial issue of Palestinian representation in Lebanon.

Despite the many differences dividing the Palestinian groups, however, there is a general consensus that the issue of who will represent Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is one that must be resolved. "Clearly there is a problem over Palestinian representation in the country," explained Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon. "There are those who insist the PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinian people, even though some main Palestinian factions have not been part of the PLO since it was founded, such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad [which did not then exist]."

Other groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), left the PLO over objections to certain actions taken by the PLO leadership. In adddition, the 1992 alliance against the Oslo accords includes a number of factions outside the framework of the PLO.

Despite its international recognition as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, the PLO is viewed by several of the 17 existing Palestinian groups in Lebanon as being in desperate need of reform in order to meet the challenges and realities on the ground-including the Hamas victory in January parliamentary elections in the occupied Palestinian territories and its resulting control of the parliament and government.

Because the majority of Palestinian groups agree with Hamdan that "a referential framework for Palestinians in Lebanon that would embrace all Palestinian factions should be formed," negotiations are underway with Fatah leaders to convince them of this approach.

Establishing such a framework, Hamdan maintained, would prevent agreements with the Lebanese government from being infringed. And considering the crucial issues dividing the Palestinian factions in Lebanon, many of these accords could easily be broken. The most immediate issue at hand involves the disarmament of Palestinian groups both within and without the refugee camps, as well as the dismantling of military posts outside the camps. Participants in the ongoing Lebanese National Dialogue have given a deadline of six months for this issue to be resolved.

Two of the factions concerned are Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-GC and Fatah Al Intifada. Based in Damascus, with strong ties to the Syrian regime, both are widely viewed by Lebanese authorities as implementing a Syrian agenda in Lebanon. Two incidents this year only served to reinforce this view. A Jan. 9 shooting in the southern Lebanese town of Naameh, where two municipal policemen were seriously wounded by gunfire from PFLP-GC militants, shone the spotlight on Palestinian weapons deployed outside refugee camps. Even though the PFLP-GC was quick to hand over the suspected gunman to the Lebanese army, the incident was widely viewed as another attempt by Syria to destabilize its neighbor.

More recently, a May 17 gun battle between Fatah Al Intifada and the Lebanese army in the Bekaa village of Yanta, near the Syrian border, resulted in the death of a Lebanese army officer and a Palestinian militant. …

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