Winning over the Palestinian card


It is a coincidence, but a useful one, that on the 40th anniversary of an Arab-Israeli war that prompted the Palestinian national movement to break free from the stifling embrace of the Arab states, that effort is repeating itself in Lebanon, albeit with uncertain success. There is much the Lebanese state can do to sustain the effort, to its own advantage.

For decades, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, a primary aim of the Palestinian national movement was to defend what was known as the “freedom of Palestinian decision-making.” Arafat took over a Palestinian Liberation Organization that, under Ahmad al-Shuqairi, was little more than an Egyptian plaything. Even earlier, Arafat and his comrades had to bat away persistent Syrian efforts to take over control of Al-Assifa, the armed branch of the national movement. By 1977, with the Syrian Army having imposed itself in Lebanon, the Palestinians would once again have to maneuver around Syrian priorities, though Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace negotiations with Israel would momentarily oblige the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Syria to overcome their differences.

Then came the summer of 1982, and Ariel Sharon’s push to remove the PLO from Lebanon. We often forget, however, that it was not the Israelis who ultimately chased Arafat out of the country, but Syrian President Hafiz Assad, in 1983. The repercussions of that conflict, which was also centered in the North, are still being felt today, with Fatah al-Islam alleging that it broke off from Fatah al-Intifada, which Assad had created at the time to be a Syrian-controlled counterweight to Arafat. In subsequent years the mainstream Fatah was largely marginalized by the Syrians in the northern refugee camps, and in the Bekaa. If the Lebanese Army captures Nahr al-Bared and hands it over to the PLO, it would represent a striking, though probably not a decisive, riposte by the PLO and Fatah against Syria’s sway over Lebanon’s Palestinian population, after more than two decades of their being on the defensive.

Though this situation invites optimism, one can’t help but wonder whether Abbas Zaki, the PLO representative in Lebanon, didn’t go overboard last Sunday, when he promised that Palestinian armed “manifestations” would “disappear within six months, and that the issue would not be addressed through military means.” Given that the PLO, particularly its largest component in Fatah, was unable to do much in Nahr al-Bared and continues to be challenged in Ain al-Hilweh, setting such a tight timetable seemed ambitious. The Syrians still benefit from the de facto alliance between the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Hizbullah; they still can manipulate Islamist groups in Ain al-Hilweh; they still have weight in most of the camps; and, most importantly, they have much say in what Hamas does. If things remain as they are today, there is little the Lebanese government can do to implement the decision of the national dialogue last year to disarm Palestinian groups outside the camps.

With that in mind, the government needs to reach for new ideas. If more political authority is to be given to the mainstream PLO groups, then it has to be through a change in Lebanese policy on the refugees. This is hardly a mystery, as both Hizbullah and March 14 ministers realized last year that the official Lebanese stance on the refugees was untenable. To deny them their basic civil rights, particularly the right to own property and to work in most professions, is not only inhuman, it is stupid: People kept in perpetual poverty turn more readily toward militant Islam, or are easily manipulated by armed factions offering patronage. The confrontation between the majority and opposition over the “Palestinian card” is an essential facet of the ongoing struggle between the majority and Syria. That is one reason why President Emile Lahoud has accused the Hariri camp of looking to settle the Palestinian refugees permanently in Lebanon. Under his definition, any improvement of the Palestinians’ lot can be sold as permanent settlement. As the president has implicitly presented the issue, it is a case of Sunnis wanting to ensure that Lebanon naturalizes more Sunnis. However, the crux of the matter is that if the Lebanese government and the PLO impose their writ in the camps, if the Palestinians become happier and relatively more prosperous, then Syria will lose a vital pressure point in the system, but also the legitimacy and spoiler role it has sought by playing in the most momentous game of all in the region: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Syrians still hold the Hamas card, but have to be careful there. No one, least of all Hamas, wants to see the Palestinian camps turn into the Gaza Strip. The movement was not particularly helpful in helping find a resolution to the Nahr al-Bared quandary, and you knew an army operation was coming when Hamas representative Oussama Hamdan refused to accompany Abbas Zaki to the Beddawi camp on the eve of the assault. However, Hamas showed more decisiveness in pacifying Ain al-Hilweh. Hamdan also knows that, regardless of the alliance with Syria, he probably could not safeguard what he spent years building in Lebanon were he to fall on the wrong side of a process agreed between Zaki and the Lebanese government to improve living conditions for refugees.

Once the fighting in Nahr al-Bared ends, hopefully soon, the army and the PLO will have more capital to move forward on a negotiated solution to the Palestinian armed presence outside the camps. Since this aim was endorsed by the national dialogue, and will almost certainly enjoy PLO cover, it is achievable. The wild card will be Hizbullah, which doesn’t want to see anyone in Lebanon disarmed, particularly the PFLP-GC, as this might remove an obstacle to its own eventual disarmament. That’s why the government must overcome such resistance by creating a Palestinian consensus that collaborating with the state will mean a better life for refugees. Give the Palestinians their rights, and they’ll pay you back.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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12 years ago

Winning over the Palestinian card It should be obuovis to anyone with eyes and a brain that a 2 state solution is dead. Anyone still pushing so should be considered an enemy of Israel, as they are helping create its ongoing terror and violence by these fanatics who will never change! The real solution to the conflict has been clear, its only a question of if and when the leaders of Israel will have enough balls and brains to tell the world to go to hell, and fight terror without and restraint. Its time to destroy gaza and expel all… Read more »


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