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Painful Glimpse of Home for Palestinians

By Deborah Sontag, The New York Times, May 30, 2000

AIN EL HILWE, Lebanon, May 26 -- For the Palestinians who have lived for half a century in squalid, supposedly makeshift refugee camps in Lebanon, the Israeli troop withdrawal proved a bittersweet experience.

Like everyone else, they were swept up in the euphoria of what was seen here as the powerful Israeli Army's routing by guerrilla forces after a 22-year David and Goliath battle. Although the Palestinians live a life apart from the Lebanese, they joined the national traffic jam, jangling in battered cars along the coastal highway into the liberated occupation zone.

For them, however, the moment was distinctly powerful: from the newly opened border area, they could gaze on the hills of what they consider their land. For an entire generation of Palestinians in Lebanon, it was the very first glimpse, and suddenly, painfully, they felt both closer and farther than ever.

Given the Lebanese joy, the moment also painfully underscored just how distant is the Palestinians' ever-more-elusive goal of returning as they increasingly feel abandoned by the Palestinian leadership in Gaza City.

"I'm a man, but I wept like a baby," said Ahmad Kuleib, 19, who was born in this camp, as was his father before him. "I never understood how deprived I was until that day, when I pathetically waved a Palestinian flag behind a fence at the Israeli border."

This camp sits in the south, near Sidon, behind a Lebanese Army barrier that looks like a conceptual sculpture -- red and white barrels piled precariously among sandbags sprouting weeds as tall as a child. Inside, though their tents long ago gave way to concrete shacks with corrugated tin roofs, tens of thousands of Palestinians remain organized by the villages that their families left in 1948.

Mr. Kuleib, for instance, lives on Mazra Alley, named for his grandparents' town near Acre, in northwest Israel. Mazra Alley is two feet wide in a camp that covers one square mile. Because the only permitted construction is upward, the ad hoc second and third stories hang over and dim the alley during the broadest daylight. Jury-rigged electrical wires braid into a spidery lattice overhead.

Mr. Kuleib, who wore a backward baseball cap and a T-shirt that says "Palestine," is nominally a carpenter, as is his older brother, Wael. But there is little work inside the camp, and no work outside, where they rarely venture. The Palestinians have no civil rights in Lebanon, and most professions are forbidden to them. The camp has a 70 percent unemployment rate and depends for income on black market labor, smuggling, international welfare and remittances from Palestinian guest workers in Europe.

Idleness defines the camp, which gives everyone much time to polish -- literally -- the keys to their family homes in what is now Israel. They also smoke water pipes, play cards and attend meetings of the diverse political factions that divide the camps, in which they assess and re-assess their struggle, always coming to the same dead end.

"They've written us off," said Mohd Hussein Kuleib, 45, Ahmad's father, referring to Palestinian and world leaders. "We don't exist anymore."

While the refugees have had that neglected feeling for some time, it is rarely given voice. Recently, it has crept over them with intensity as the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have entered the final rounds. But then it hit particularly hard as the recent events unfolded.

"Stressing the positive, I'd like to say that it was inspiring to see that Israel is not divine and that it can be beaten," said Chafik al-Hout, the former and now de facto Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Beirut and an unharnessed critic of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

"But at the same time, we can't hide our frustration, owing to the fact that we have lost on our two tracks," he continued. "We have tried the armed struggle, which didn't lead to anything, and unfortunately our Arafat opted for the diplomatic track. That began with the very stupid decision to postpone the issue of refugees and will end with Arafat in the Guinness Book of World Records for concessions."

Israel has consistently rejected the right of return for the Palestinian refugees, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak repeated this as one of his four "red lines." In Mr. Arafat's oratory, the right of return of the refugees is still a sacred and primary demand. But in the reality of the peace talks, the refugee issue has never been given priority because each side's position is so intractable.

The Palestinians constitute the largest refugee group in the world. There are 3.5 million registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides them with education, health care, relief and social services. Refugee advocates say the total number is 4.9 million. Israel dismisses both numbers as inflated but offers none of its own.

About 400,000 Palestinians are registered in Lebanon, but only about half actually live there while the rest emigrated temporarily or permanently to Europe, their leaders say. Of 12 camps, Ain el Hilwe is the largest, with about 41,000 refugees, according to the United Nations.

In the fighting in the late 1940's, thousands of Palestinians became refugees, some of them forcefully expelled by the Jewish troops while others fled out of fear. Many ended up in Lebanon, others in Jordan.

Experts speculate that if there is any kind of peace agreement by September, it could include the right of return for a fraction of refugees to the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and Gaza. It could also allow the return to Israel, under a family reunification policy, of some Palestinians displaced in 1967 rather than 1948. And it could set up an international body to settle refugees abroad and to compensate them.

But it is extremely unlikely that millions of Palestinian refugees will be returning to their land any time soon. Even if an agreement is reached and a Palestinian state declared, it is possible that the issue in its entirety will be deferred.

If so, Lebanon certainly has no intention of resettling the Palestinians in Lebanon, as it has made clear with its 50-year-old policy of keeping their status a temporary one. In a rare interview last week, with CNN, President Emile Lahoud stressed that the Palestinian refugee issue must be solved, but his was not an expression of Arab solidarity. To admit and enfranchise the Palestinians, who are Sunni Muslims, in a land whose Muslims are predominantly Shiite, would upset the precarious Muslim-Christian religious and ethnic balance in a country long riven by sectarianism.

"The only thing that unites the Lebanese is their 'no' to the integration of Palestinians," Suhel Natour, a leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said as he smoked a pipe in his tattered, book-lined office in the small Beirut camp of Mar Elias.

His faction, like most groups here, rejects the peace effort that began in Oslo.

But the refugees themselves do not want to stay in Lebanon anyway. Experts agree that of all the Palestinian refugees, those in Lebanon are the most depressed because of their complete marginalization by Lebanon and their bitter, bloody history here -- epitomized by the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Lebanese groups allied with Israel in 1982.

In his interview, President Lahoud also noted, with distress, that Lebanon was the only country with a refugee population that was fully armed. On a recent day here, weapons were not visible on the street. But the Kuleib family freely acknowledges that most men in the camp own them.

Israel fears that those men, in the frustration of their decades-long limbo, offer fertile ground for manipulation by Syria, whose troops control some of the camps. A recent Foreign Ministry report contended, "Syria has been preparing Palestinian terrorist groups for armed operations, laying the groundwork for continued attacks against Israel even after the withdrawal." And, indeed, last week, the Syrian-abetted Hezbollah, or Party of God, loudly advised the Palestinians to follow its model of armed struggle.

But most here, from the leaders to the street vendors, said that they did not see that path in their near future and that their abilities, even aided by Syria, were being overestimated.

"I would give up everything I have here for a tent on the border," said Walid Khader Saadeldin, 41, whose parents' village lies just on the other side. "I am ready to sacrifice. But we cannot liberate Palestine from the south of Lebanon. We don't have the capacity, and the border can no longer be infiltrated. If armed struggle returns, it has to come from those Palestinians on the inside."

Mohd Kuleib agreed. "Lebanon will revolt, even against Syria, if it is once more used as a battlefield for the Palestinian cause," he said. "It was our presence here that drew them into the whole mess in the first place."

Still, many here found the televised scenes of the brief Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza two weeks ago to be heartening. If the people fought so for the release of prisoners, they said, imagine what they would do if the refugees were forgotten in the final negotiations.

"Every refugee has relatives inside," said Fuad Ahman, 40, a friend of the Kuleibs. "So they will have a battle on both sides that makes the intifada look like a Ping-Pong game." The intifada was the Palestinian uprising that began in the late 1980's and ended in the peace negotiations in 1993.

"It would be very bloody indeed," said Mohd Kuleib, smiling and engaging in the gallows humor that permeates the camp. "I've had a lot of children, so I could afford to lose one or two."

The Kuleib family squeezes 15 members into a three-room house whose pink facade lights up the alley. Mohd Kuleib and his son Ahmad spoke in the room where they were both born, under a tapestry depicting Mecca. Sitting on a bed in a floral housecoat, Mohd's mother, Bahiya, 80, said she still closes her eyes and smells the sweet air of her village, fragrant with oranges and lemons in 1948.

"I used to spend my life outside, but since we left, I've pretty much been in this room," she said, hugging her youngest grandchild. "I once had orange trees, fig trees, olive trees. Now I have but these bare walls."

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