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The mass expulsion of over 400 Palestinians into southern Lebanon by Israel last December has refocussed Lebanese fears of the eventual "implantation" of Palestinian refugees. Giles Trendle reports from Beirut.

THERE ARE FEW political issues on which the Lebanese can remotely be said to agree. But one which evokes fear in Lebanese leaders from all confessional groups, is the "implantation" of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The Lebanese share a collective anxiety that a solution to the Middle East conflict will require settling Palestinians in the country. The status of more than 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon would then become permanent, requiring that they be granted Lebanese nationality.

This fear is acutely felt by Lebanese from a wide political and religious spectrum, though for differing reasons. It is animated first by the concern that such a large number of new citizens, in a country of three million, would put a dangerous strain upon Lebanon's delicate confessional balance. The Lebanese Christians are wary of implantation because it would increase the number of Muslims. The Shias are afraid of the Palestinian Sunni majority. The Druze are anxious that they would become an even smaller minority. And the Lebanese Sunnis themselves now pin their future hopes on a cohesive Lebanon and not on their stateless co-sectarians.

Second, many Lebanese worry that the Palestinians, frustrated by the prospect of staying in Lebanon, would seek to relaunch guerrilla attacks against Israel from south Lebanon. That would bring history, tragically, full circle.

"The Palestinians are not going to sit across the border and watch their country, Palestine, generation after generation, and remain saying 'that is Israel and I have become Lebanese'," explained Ghassan Tueni, a former Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations and publisher of Al Nahar newspaper. "There will always be the temptation to rebel - the logic of despair."

Israel's mass expulsion last December has reawakened Lebanese fears, already stirred by the lack of progress being made in the Middle East peace negotiations and the remote chance of any Palestinian state being formed to which the refugees could ultimately return.

Lebanon's long-standing official position on its Palestinian population was reiterated by a special ministerial committee set up in 1991 to deal with the conditions and affairs of the refugees. The committee stated that Lebanon is opposed to any attempt at resettling Palestinians in its country and rejects any plans to enlarge existing refugee camps or build new ones.

The sprawling camps in Lebanon remain overcrowded areas of squalor and misery. Three Palestinian camps were taken over by militias during the Lebanese civil war, resulting in the displacement of some 30,000 Palestinians who had to seek refuge in other camps.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimates that 90% of houses and infrastructure in Beirut's infamous Shatila camp suffered partial or complete destruction, when Shia militamen besieged and bombarded the camp for two years in the mid-1980s.

Shatila camp remains today a ruinous ghetto, as the Lebanese authorities refuse to allow any rebuilding or restoration on the majority of the camp's land that is not leased to UNRWA. Rebuilding is similarly refused in other camps. It is clear that the Lebanese government does not wish the Palestinians to get comfortable in their camps, in case they lose their determination to return to Palestine.

The Lebanese ministerial committee further rejected a Palestinian request that refugees who came to Lebanon before 1948 and those who came after that date be treated equally. Lebanon only recognises the Palestinians who registered either directly or through their parents in the first wave of refugees in 1948, and whose number, claims the government, is 85,000 in addition to their descendants.

These Palestinians have the right of work, identity cards and refugee travel documents. Palestinian leaders have unsuccessfully tried to get the Lebanese government to give the Palestinians who fled into Lebanon in later years similar rights.

The refusal by the prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, to take in the recent Palestinian deportees is based upon the official position restated by the committee. The Lebanese government wants to get rid of the refugees it already has, not take in more - particularly sympathisers of Islamic militancy. Indeed, the government is determined that Lebanon should no longer be the dumping ground for Palestinian activists thrown out by Israel.

The Palestinians themselves are as adamant as the Lebanese government that they should not stay. "The Palestinians do not wish to stay in Lebanon because they want to return to their homes in Palestine," said Ahmed Jibril, chief of the hardline PFLP-General Command faction, during a recent and rare visit to Beirut from his Damascus base.

Such sentiments have been echoed by the assortment of Palestinian factions, both pro- and anti-Arafat, holed up in Lebanon's refugee camps. Lebanese and Palestinians agree that the refugees languishing in Lebanon must not stay indefinitely. For the Palestinians it is an ideological point, for the Lebanese it is a desire to see the backs of the Palestinians.
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Title Annotation:Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
Author:Trendle, Giles
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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