Beirut slams the door on its `human garbage'

Robert Fisk examines how Lebanon is taking its chance to get rid of refugees; `Now Arafat can say: Look what I'm doing for you, and look how the other Arabs treat you'

The Lebanese Minister of Tourism called them "human garbage", the wave of Palestinian refugees who were supposedly set to flood back to Lebanon from Libya. Abu Maher Yamani found out what this meant when he tried to return to Lebanon after 10 days' holiday in Vienna. He was refused entry to Beirut, although he had Lebanese residence papers.

Three Palestinian women from Lebanon attending the Peking women's conference flew home to Beirut only to be put aboard a flight to Larnaca.

So was a Palestinian woman returning from Switzerland, where she had received medical treatment for war wounds. A Palestinian businessman flew into Beirut and was flown to Larnaca, then to Amman, from there back to Beirut and on to Dubai. None of them, it seems, had ever been to Libya.

Their sin was to have been outside Lebanon when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi decided to expel 25,000 Palestinians from Libya, only about 7,000 of whom held Lebanese residence papers. The Lebanese allowed 350 into the country by boat but then blocked the sea route and banned all Palestinians with Lebanese residence who were outside Lebanon - around 100,000, according to Palestinian sources - from returning without special visas.

In the course of only two days, the Beirut authorities reduced the Palestinian refugee population here by almost a third, courtesy of Colonel Gaddafi.

In a country where contempt for the 350,000 Palestinians - half of whom live in 12 refugee camps across Lebanon - unites Muslims and Christians, the Lebanese response to Colonel Gaddafi's expulsion of foreign workers has brought both despair and anger. Thousands of Palestinians studying or working abroad, most of whom would never dream of visiting Libya, have found themselves stranded in foreign lands. The Lebanese documents they relied upon to bring them back to Lebanon are no longer valid without the special permission of the Lebanese embassies.

There is, of course, another side to the story. For years, Yasser Arafat's PLO, whose latest agreement with Israel leaves the refugees registered here largely abandoned to their fate, ran a state within a state in the refugee camps of Lebanon, participating in the country's civil war in which 150,000 men and women died; in the Christian village of Damour, south of Beirut, Palestinian gunmen massacred most of the remaining Catholic Maronites in one of the war's first acts of "ethnic cleansing". Christians massacred Palestinians in far greater numbers at Tel el-Zaatar in 1976 and at Sabra and Chatila, as the Israelis surrounded the camps, in 1982. The hatreds engendered by that war have never been appeased.

Few were surprised, therefore when the Minister of Tourism, Nikola Fatouch, called the refugees "human garbage". At least one member of parliament, Naja Wakim, condemned Mr Fatouch's remark and the government subsequently revoked the visa requirements for all Palestinian residents who had left Beirut since June.

But a new government communique, number 478, issued by the Minister of the Interior, Michel Murr, at the weekend, states that all other 1948 refugees, which means almost all the Palestinians in Lebanon, must in future have exit visas before leaving the country and re- entry visas before returning.

Palestinian sources say that it may take months for the thousands of refugee residents outside Lebanon to obtain permission to return.

"Lebanon wants to get rid of the maximum number of Palestinians it can," a former PLO official said in Beirut. "But instead of the 7,000 Palestinians from Lebanon who were in Libya, it's all 100,000 Palestinians outside the country who are stranded. It's even shown Arafat up in a good light. Now he can say: `Look what I'm doing for you, and look how Gaddafi and the other Arabs treat you.' "

Damascus has allowed Palestinian residents to go back to Syria and have accepted those with homes in Lebanon, for the present. Most of the 200 Palestinians left on the Libyan-Egyptian border have been allowed to continue to Amman and Gaza. But Lebanon's new rules seem set to stay.

The Lebanese authorities have long taken the view that Lebanon paid a disproportionate price for the 1948 exodus of refugees and cannot give them citizenship without changing the demographic balance: most Palestinians here are Sunni Muslims and citizenship might make the Sunni community the most powerful in Lebanon.

A few Palestinians have obtained Lebanese citizenship since 1948 - 30,000, according to a 1987 UN estimate. Others have set up wealthy businesses in Beirut or married Lebanese. The wives of both President Hrawi and the Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, are Palestinian. Almost all are survivors, or children of survivors, of the 1948 war, and thus come from the part of Palestine that became Israel.

Many Christian Lebanese who allied themselves to Israel during the war demanded that all Palestinians should be expelled from the country, without once mentioning that if the Palestinians are to go "home", they will have to return to the one country which assuredly will not have them: Israel itself.

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