Peace plans bypass refugees in Lebanon; Palestinians' future looks bleak no matter how talks turn out

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EIN EL-HILWEH, Lebanon -- Among more than 160,000 Palestinians in Lebanon's teeming refugee camps, few dare hope that decades of fighting and frustration will yield to a better life once Arabs and Israelis produce a permanent peace.

Their future seems lost somewhere beneath the primary issues between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, such as what will happen to Jerusalem, whether the Palestinians will declare statehood, how much more of the West Bank Israel will give to the Palestinians already there.

"They expect to be victims of the peace process," says Samir Jumaa, a civic leader at Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp on the outskirts of Sidon, an ancient coastal city.

For Jammal Qadi, once a fighter in the PLO legions of "Abu Amar" (Yasser Arafat), it's hard to imagine things getting worse.

Unable to get work as a heavy-equipment operator or truck driver, he lives on charity and what he can get by scrounging in trash bins for plastic bottles that he sells to be recycled.

With his wife and eight children, he shares three small rooms beneath a leaky corrugated roof at the end of a narrow alley in the fetid Ouzo section of Ein el-Hilweh camp, which houses up to 60,000 refugees.

Reaching his home requires stepping over puddles that have spilled from gutters of raw sewage. A hundred families in the neighborhood share two toilets. Water is drawn from communal taps and heated on an oil stove for bathing.

At 49, Qadi looks 60 as he sits hunched over on a mattress cradling a 2-year-old, his emaciated face lighted by a candle during one of the camp's frequent power outages.

"What we are waiting for is either a solution or not a solution. This is not a life," he says. "It's impossible to go on."

Palestinian refugees have had a wretched time here since 1948, when hundreds of thousands of them fled or were driven away from Israel during the newly formed state's first major war with Arab countries. Unwelcome and periodically violent, they are in many ways worse off than the refugees who ended up in Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza.

They are denied citizenship here because an influx of Sunni Muslims would disrupt Lebanon's fragile sectarian balance of Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. They face major obstacles getting eligibility for about 70 types of skilled or professional jobs.

For odd jobs, they have to compete with thousands of Syrian laborers who have flooded Lebanon's unskilled work force now that Syria effectively runs the country.

Permanent slums

From temporary tent cities more than a half-century ago, the refugee camps have grown into permanent slums, their crowded streets and alleys a hodgepodge of concrete buildings strung with laundry, shops in varying states of dilapidation, vacant lots, broken-down vehicles and dumps.

Lebanese resentment toward the Palestinians deepened from the late 1960s until 1982, a period when the camps served as strongholds for Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization to wage war against Israel, various Lebanon factions and Syria as it tried to carve out a state within a state in Lebanon.

Besides taking sides in Lebanon's civil strife, the PLO eventually dominated much of the south with a heavy hand.

After Arafat was driven out of Lebanon by the Israelis in 1982, refugees who were left behind paid a tragic price. Christian militiamen allied with Israel attacked the Sabra and Shatila camps in south Beirut, massacring hundreds. Then came the 1985 "war of the camps," when the Syrian-backed Amal militia laid siege to Beirut-area camps, destroying buildings and killing hundreds more Palestinians.

Still, the tradition of armed struggle lives on, bursting out in the occasional successful or attempted assassination. When Arafat's Fatah organization sought to flex its muscles last year, the Lebanese authorities cracked down with arrests of key figures. One was sentenced to death in absentia.

At his tucked-away, well-painted house in Ein el-Hilweh, a charismatic 39-year-old, Mounir Moqdah, is the embodiment of a guerrilla survivor.

The home of the camp-bred veteran of incursions into Israel was attacked in 1996 by Israeli helicopters, injuring his young son, and he says every part of his body has seen a bullet. Recently a bomb was found near his home, perhaps intended for him.

He is Arafat's local chieftain at Ein el-Hilweh but doesn't share the Palestinian leader's stated peaceful intentions.

"As long as one drop of earth is still occupied [by Israel], it means our fight goes on with the Israelis," he says, describing all of Palestine as occupied land "from the [Jordan] River to the sea."

"The Jews are the Jews. You can't trust them. Their word is not good," he says. Training of fighters continues, and at a young age, to be ready for any summons for help from inside Palestine. "We have the will," he says.

That will to fight has cost thousands of Palestinian lives and shattered the education of a generation of young men schooled for war instead of occupations.

"If anybody has a background of linkage with [guerrilla] groups, it's hard to find jobs," says Zein Seikaly, chief of field relief and social services for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

For those who want it, a good education is not easy to get. Only since 1995 has the relief agency offered high schools for refugees in Lebanon, and entrance to them is competitive.

The agency, which is responsible for providing for the basic needs of all 3.5 million registered Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, is perpetually struggling for money from donor countries. Last month it had to curtail expected provisions of milk and small amounts of cash for hardship cases here, drawing refugee protests.

In its annual budget report, it describes socioeconomic conditions facing refugees in Lebanon as "deplorable."

When it rains in south Beirut's Sabra and Shatila camps, backed-up sewage regularly floods the three small rooms of Zenab Allwiyeh's ground-floor apartment, forcing her family of 13 to move in with neighbors upstairs. Recently, she saw a young woman give birth on the street. A friend had to plead with a local hospital to admit her.

Multilateral talks

The fate of these refugees is supposed to be decided in final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, and in multilateral talks involving Israel and surrounding countries.

A 1948 U.N. resolution states that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace should be allowed to do so at the earliest practicable date" and that others should be compensated.

Israel has refused to allow any of them to return to their original homes in Israel, fearing a sudden expansion of its Arab population that would jeopardize its future as a Jewish state.

The West Bank and Gaza, with 1.2 million registered refugees already, would face an enormous absorption problem with the sudden influx of impoverished families from Lebanon. Many refugees don't want to go there anyway.

Lebanon insists the refugees will not be allowed to remain permanently in Lebanon.

An alternative is to emigrate to the United States and Europe, which strictly limit new arrivals. Civic leader Samir Jumaa said many would willingly swim to a ship that would carry them abroad.

Finally, there could be compensation, a cost that could run into tens of billions of dollars if all Palestinian claims for property loss were to be met. This tab would come on top of large sums spent by the United States and other countries for Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian development. Israel is expected to seek billions more to withdraw from the Golan Heights as part of a deal with Syria.

Where does this uncertainty leave the refugees? "They are confused, full of anxiety and worry, frustrated and closer to pessimism than optimism," says Shafik al-Hout, a former PLO representative in Lebanon.

Not to mention bitter. Says Samir Jumaa: "All our leaders took us from one humiliation to another."

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