[News] Palestinian refugees in Lebanon - Protection by any means necessary

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Sep 29 10:40:01 EDT 2010

Protection by any means necessary
Matthew Cassel, The Electronic Intifada, 29 September 2010


This month, Palestinians in Lebanon commemorated the 28th anniversary 
of a crime whose perpetrators remain unpunished and whose victims 
still wait for justice. In September 1982, the Israeli army 
surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 
Beirut. For nearly three days, Israeli forces allowed their allies in 
the right-wing Lebanese Christian Phalange militia to enter the camps 
and massacre more than a thousand Palestinian refugees and Lebanese 
citizens. All of the victims -- men, women and children -- were 
unarmed civilians.

The massacre was the culmination of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and 
more than two months of siege of West Beirut which eventually forced 
the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to withdraw from the 
country. PLO fighters relinquished their heavy weapons to the 
Lebanese army and in a symbolic act of resistance, left Beirut with 
their small arms still at their sides. However, the majority of the 
hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, exiled 
since 1948 when Israel was established on top of their homes, 
remained behind. Dispersed throughout the country's dozen or so 
refugee camps, Palestinians were left virtually unprotected.

The PLO withdrew from Beirut only after agreeing to a US-mediated 
ceasefire with Israel. They were given reassurances by Washington 
that Israel would not harm Palestinian civilians remaining in the 
camps. However, these reassurances proved to be shallow, and after 
waging an invasion of Lebanon that killed nearly 20,000 Lebanese and 
Palestinians and devastated much of the country, Israel invaded and 
occupied the practically defenseless Lebanese capital.

Prior to this somber anniversary, a writer argued in the Guardian's 
Comment is Free site that Palestinian weapons were the key issue 
preventing Palestinian refugees from obtaining basic civil rights in 
Lebanon, which the state has denied them for 62 years. He described 
the camps as "heavily armed" and the refugees living there as gripped 
by an "illusion of martial security" 
Lebanon's Palestinians," Ahmed Moor, 8 September 2010).

As someone who has lived in Lebanon for several years, I was struck 
by these assertions. Anyone familiar with Lebanese politics 
recognizes them as the typical refrain of the right-wing, whose 
adherents object not only to providing Palestinian refugees with 
basic rights but their very presence on Lebanese soil. Nor do these 
characterizations come close to accurately describing the camps or 
the Palestinians in Lebanon I know. The camps today are far from 
being heavily armed, especially when compared to the various Lebanese 
militias or the Lebanese army.

I thought I would visit the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which 
today are essentially one camp resembling a slum, and speak with 
Palestinian refugees about the issue of trading in their weapons for rights.

Inside a small call center in the camp, frequented by mostly 
Palestinians without credit on their mobile phones and foreign 
workers calling home, I spoke to a young man named Osama. He told me: 
"The issue of our arms and our civil rights are unrelated. Lebanese 
should give us rights as Arabs, as human beings living among them 
like Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Syria."

"Our weapons don't necessarily make me feel safer," he added, 
"especially with the internal problems that we have in the camps here 
like in Palestine. But if we were to give them up, we'd have no 
protection. At least with our weapons if we die, we die standing and 
not like in Sabra and Shatila when we were massacred without even one 
weapon to resist. If the Lebanese army was able to protect us from 
Israel, then there would be no need for Palestinians to have weapons."

At the headquarters of the Najdeh Association just outside the camp, 
I spoke with executive director Laila al-Ali. Founded in the 1970s, 
Najdeh is an nongovernmental organization that runs social programs 
in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps and is the leading 
organization behind the "Right to Work Campaign" for Palestinian 
refugees. Al-Ali, a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Shatila, 
explained, "It's not the Lebanese who are looking for assurances or 
guarantees from the Palestinians, it's the Palestinians who need this 
guarantee from the Lebanese. Palestinians don't feel safe."

Al-Ali said that only a few groups and individuals have weapons in 
the camps. She added that the argument claiming these small arms are 
a prerequisite to granting Palestinians rights is merely "Lebanese 
[rhetoric] trying to deny Palestinians their human and civil rights."

I asked her about a 
<http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article11518.shtml>recent law 
passed by the Lebanese parliament that made minor changes to the 
restrictions on the ability of Palestinian refugees to work in the 
country. Al-Ali stated bluntly: "It gives them nothing. The Lebanese 
mentality needs to be changed, they cannot continue dealing with 
Palestinians from the security perspective [alone]."

Back in Shatila, others shared her sentiments. I walked into a 
barbershop owned by Ahmed, who explained while snipping away at a 
man's hair that "We keep weapons for protection. Even between the 
Lebanese there is no stability. Today they are together and tomorrow 
they're not. In the past we only had our weapons to protect 
ourselves. Like during the [1985-88] war of the camps, our weapons 
protected us from the [Lebanese Shia] Amal movement."

I turned to a young man named Omar who was finishing a deep pore 
cleansing. Bearing a pistol on his hip, Omar is a member of one of 
the camp's security branches. "The weapons are not the reason for 
denying us rights, this is a pretext for the Lebanese to take our 
weapons," he said. "If we lose our weapons, we lose the right to go 
back to Palestine. I carry my weapon because it's not worth throwing 
away. The weapons are the peoples' property."

Unprompted, a taxi driver named Mahmoud with a freshly trimmed 
mustache jumped in. "Once we lose the weapons we'll be slapped from 
all directions," he said. "I will never accept to give up our 
weapons. The Lebanese will never be able to protect our cause. It's 
not their cause, and nobody can protect it but ourselves."

After speaking with dozens of individuals in the camp, all of whom 
refused to give up their right to bear arms, I asked a friend to take 
me to someone in the camp who he thought would disagree. He brought 
me to his 66-year-old grandmother, Miyasar, a refugee who has been 
forced to flee her home at least five times since 1948 and now lives 
in Shatila.

Before I could even finish asking her the first question about 
trading rights for arms, Miyasar closed her eyes, shook her head and 
said: "The Lebanese cannot give us rights, they can't even give 
themselves rights. Each group is by itself with its own weapons -- 
Hizballah has guns, Amal has guns, the Future [movement] has guns. 
The Lebanese are the ones who need help, not the Palestinians."

She added, "When the Israelis came they said, give up our guns. We 
did and look what happened! Even a donkey that falls in one spot 
learns not to fall in that same spot again. We have no faith in 
Lebanese to give us rights. We will keep our weapons until we go back 
to Palestine."

Matthew Cassel is based in Beirut, Lebanon and is Assistant Editor of 
The Electronic Intifada. His website is 
<http://justimage.org>justimage.org. A version of this essay was 
originally published by the Guardian's Comment is Free and is 
republished with permission.

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