Voices from Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon: On the right of return

By Hugh Macleod

Israel may be urging Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to continue faltering peace talks despite refusing to renew a freeze on illegal settlement building, but in the tinderbox Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon life is defined by an issue neither side has ever publically expressed any willingness to compromise over: The right of Palestinian refugees to return home.

“No-one can negotiate on our right to return to Palestine. There is only one country called Palestine and we will never return there except by resistance to Israel,” says Abu Yousef, a fighter with the Palestinian faction Ansar Allah.

Absolute right or demographic danger

The right of return polarises the seemingly intractable conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis like no other issue.

For most Palestinians the right of return for the up to six million refugees who are ancestors of those who made the exodus from Palestine that followed the creation of Israel in 1948 is an absolute.

For Israeli officials – whose historians dispute the figure of six million and also the reason for the mass exodus – the issue is existential: The sheer number of Palestinian refugees who can claim a right to return to their pre-1948 homes are a demographic danger to the world’s only Jewish state.

In a speech to former US President Bush’s Annapolis peace conference in 2007, Abbas pledged to begin “deep negotiations” with Ehud Olmert, the then Israeli prime minister, on final status issues, including the question of refugees “in all its political, humanitarian, individual and common aspects, consistent with Resolution 194”.

That UN General Assembly Resolution and Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts the refugees’ unconditional right of return to live at peace in their old homes or to receive compensation for their losses. The Annapolis talks ended in failure.

The efforts of Barack Obama, the US president, to bring about a peace deal within a year have focused on resolutions pegged to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian land occupied during the 1967 war.

‘Dream of return’

But the issue of the refugees’ return has not been forgotten in the dusty, dangerous cinderblock camp of Ain al-Hilweh, on the outskirts of Lebanon’s southern port city of Sidon.

“I was born here in a small tent in 1958,” says Abu Ahmad Fadel Taha, the leader of Hamas in Ain al-Hilweh. “I have lived all my life here with my father, who is now in his 90s, and my eight children. We live with hardship every day and we live the dream of return every day.”

From his office in the heart of the camp, Fadel Taha’s staff broadcast tapes of Al-Aqsa and Al-Resalah TV channels on free satellite wavelengths to households in the camp. The message is often uncompromising.

“Israel wants the Palestinians to admit Palestine is the home of the Jews. It wants us to give up on the right of return,” says Fadel Taha.

“Palestine is for us and for our grandchildren and can only be liberated by resistance. Oslo and Madrid [peace conferences] brought only shame. We don’t believe in negotiations.”

Even among Abbas’ own Fatah movement in Ain al-Hilweh, support for peace talks has been muted.

“We have been used to the total support of the Israelis by the US, but now we have no other way but to be with the talks,” says Mounir Maqdah, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Lebanon, of which Fatah is the dominant faction.

Living in limbo

Besides their dream of return, Palestinians in Lebanon face a unique array of hardships.

Unable to gain citizenship because of fears such a move would upset Lebanon’s delicate sectarian power sharing system, the country’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in a double limbo: Refusing resettlement in their host country but demanding better rights, such as the right to work in over 70 professional jobs from which they remain barred, despite a parliamentary decision in August to allow Palestinians work permits.

According to UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian relief organisation, Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty, and the worst of that is felt inside the 12 official refugee camps.

Under a 1969 Arab agreement, Lebanese authorities have no right of access inside the camps, with Palestinians running an autonomous security system.

But while many fear a repeat of the brutal attacks on the camps that were carried out by Israel and allied Lebanese groups during the 1975-1990 civil war, for camp residents their arms more significantly signal their refusal to relinquish their refugee status.

“We maintain our weapons as a guarantee of our right of return to our homeland,” says Sheikh Maher Oweid, the commander of the Ansar Allah faction in Ain al-Hilweh.

Factional fighting

Too often though, the weapons of rival factions have been turned on each other with regular deadly gun battles over the past few years between Islamist groups, such as Ozbat Ansar, which claim to be the largest faction in the camp, and its secular rivals, such as Fatah.

The destruction in the summer of 2007 of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in a three-month battle between the Lebanese army and Islamists, many of them foreigners who had holed up in the camp, further spiked tensions between the Islamists and secularists inside Ain al-Hilweh.

“Fatah have shot on us many times but our religion tells us we must protect our Palestinian civilians here in the camp,” says Sheikh Abu Sharif, a spokesman for Ozbat Ansar.

Members of Ozbat Ansar define themselves as global jihadis fighting Israeli and American occupation and for the establishment of Islamic rule. They criticise both Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement, for their “narrow agenda” of only seeking an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and a disputed corner of south-east Lebanon.

“We have succeeded in establishing a military wing inside occupied Palestine,” says Abu Sharif, vowing to fight against any two state solution that might arise from peace talks.

“God had promised us that we will return to our homes. But we will never get Palestine without jihad.”

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