Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: "The Walls of History Are Closing In"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: "The Walls of History Are Closing In"

Article excerpt

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: "The Walls of History Are Closing In"

In recent weeks the political-military situation on the ground in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon has become extremely volatile and will likely become even more so in the coming months. The move by Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization within the PLO to re-assert itself in the Lebanon camps in preparation for the final status mediations is intersecting the same timeline as Israel's preparations for withdrawing its forces from southern Lebanon and the imminent revival of the Syrian-Israeli talks on the future of the Golan.

The reassertion of the Fatah presence into the impending security vacuum in the south is making the Lebanese authorities very nervous, as it is taking place within the no-man's-land between the traditional Israeli and Syrian spheres of influence in Lebanon.

THE DETERIORATING SECURITY SITUATION IN THE CAMPS

The triggering events behind the current increase in tensions were the re-entry of pro-Arafat Fatah forces into the Ein al-Hilweh camp near Saida over the past few months, their conducting of military training for new and old Fatah recruits in areas near Ein al-Hilweh, and a death sentence passed in absentia by the Lebanese government against Brig. Gen. Sultan Abu al-Eynein. General Sultan, from the Rashidiyeh camp near Sur (Tyre) in the far south -- the top-ranking PLO commander in Lebanon -- was charged by the Lebanese authorities in October with leading an armed militia (Arafat's Fatah) that was potentially threatening to the security of the state.

The death sentence was immediately followed up with the arrest and interrogation of two of Sultan's top deputies, Khaled Aref and Khaled El-Shayeb, at the entrance to Rashidiyeh camp on their way to a meeting with Sultan, and the creation of virtual siege conditions in and around certain Palestinian camps in Lebanon. These events resulted in an unfortunate exchange of words between the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese state. The Canadians have offered their good offices in an attempt to mediate and reduce tension. This followed an unsuccessful attempt last month by the PLO foreign minister, Farouq El-Qaddoumi (Abu Lutuf), to defuse tensions more directly. Yet the reality remains that the interests of the PLO and the Lebanese state are concurrent. Neither party wants the Palestinian refugees to be nationalized in Lebanon, and both parties are steadfastly upholding the right of the refugees to return.

Immediately prior to these events the Palestinian camps in the south were racked by a series of assassinations and assassination attempts against both pro- and anti-Oslo Fatah commanders in Lebanon. This past May, a pro-Arafat officer, Amin El-Kayed, was machine-gunned to death, together with his wife, while they were driving in their car. Days later another Fatah officer, Jamal Abu-Deeb, had his legs blown off by a remote-control explosive device placed in his car in his garage at home, in Saida city. And there have been two attempts this year alone on the life of Col. Munir al-Maqdah, the anti-Oslo Fatah military commander in Ein al-Hilweh. No one has claimed responsibility for any of these attempts. The identifies of the assailants remain unknown, though some traces of connection to Israeli intelligence services and their collaborators were uncovered in at least one interrogation of a captured would-be assassin, Ahmad Awali, against Colonel Maqdah.

The fact is that the walls of history began closing in on the Palestinians in Lebanon with the election of Ehud Barak in Israel. The possibility of an Israeli agreement with Syria on the Golan, thought to have died with Rabin, was thus restored, with the attendant uncertainty this has created for all anti-Israel groups operating in Lebanon. And now Lebanon is saying with increasing fervor in recent weeks that there can be no final peace on their track without a solution that settles the Palestinian refugees outside Lebanese territory. …

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