Refugee crisis menaces Lebanon peace: Palestinians left out of Arafat's deal with Israel could trigger a new civil war. Robert Fisk reports from Beirut

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The Independent Online
DUNIA AL-IBRAHIM sprawled on the hot pavement in Verdun Street yesterday, rubbing the stump of her right leg, shot off by a Phalangist sniper in 1976, the year her husband was killed in the siege of the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp. Around the woman 122 Palestinians sat in the Beirut midday heat, many of them refugees for the fourth time in 46 years, a fearful symbol for the Lebanese - and for the 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanon - of the future Yasser Arafat has bequeathed them.

The story of Ms al-Ibrahim, 63, is simple enough. Fleeing her home in the Palestinian village of Khaza in 1948, she was settled in Tel al-Zaatar in east Beirut until, 28 years later, Christian militiamen battered their way into the camp and massacred many of the inhabitants. The Palestine Liberation Organisation resettled her and other survivors in the destroyed Christian village of Damour, south of Beirut, until the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, laid waste the Damour camp and sent her scurrying to the abandoned Federal Hotel in west Beirut. She lived there throughout the Lebanese civil war with 23 other families until last week, when the Lebanese police, evicting squatters in Beirut's post-war reconstruction programme, raided the decrepit hotel at dawn and threw out the Palestinians.

Hauling her old blankets, plastic sacks of clothes and a battered television, Ms al-Ibrahim and the other 123 refugees tramped through the streets to the United Nations office responsible for Palestinian refugees and sat down on the pavement outside. There they sleep and idle away the heat, eating food bought by the International Red Cross.

Their predicament has wider repercussions than the tragedy of 23 families. Another 3,000 Palestinian families, many of them Christian, are being evicted from west Beirut buildings, only to find that the Lebanese Maronite Christians, allies of the Israelis in the 15- year civil war, will not allow them to return to their camps.

The Maronite League has warned that their return could restart the civil war in which the Palestinians fought on the Muslim side. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze Minister for Displaced Persons, has advised the Maronites that if they don't want the Palestinians back, they can 'ask their Israeli friends to allow them to go home'. If the Christians refuse to help, Mr Jumblatt wants to resettle the Palestinians in well-constructed homes above the coast in the Iklim al-Kharroub hills north of Sidon. But President Hrawi and other ministers in the Lebanese government argue that this would be the thin end of a wedge that would force the Beirut authorities to grant permanent settlement to all 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanon.

If this happens, Lebanese ministers privately warn of a recommencement of the civil war; since most Palestinians in Lebanon are Muslim, their permanent residence would destroy the demographic balance under which Lebanon's President is a Maronite, its Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and its parliamentary speaker a Shia. Mr Jumblatt has threatened to resign if the 3,000 Palestinians are not found an immediate home. He argues that the Christians opposed to his plan 'want to turn these poor people into soap, just like Hitler did to the Jews'.

Lebanon's burden is that most of its 350,000 Palestinian refugees, or their parents and grandparents, come from areas that became Israel. If Ms al-Ibrahim was to hobble back to her home, for example, she would find herself in Israel, and would discover that her home at Khaza, if it still stands, is probably lived in by Israelis.

When Mr Arafat made his peace agreement with Israel, he agreed merely to 'discuss' the 1948 refugees, in two years' time. He accepted that their right to return, enshrined in UN Resolution 194, is now a matter of debate. It is not difficult to see why the 23 families outside the UN office curse rather than love Mr Arafat. 'He promised us we would go home to Palestine and we lost 10,000 martyrs fighting for that right,' one of them wailed.

Most Palestinians in Lebanon express similar views, even if their voices have been silenced by the indifference of a world that wishes to rejoice in the PLO-Israeli Declaration of Principles.

In the meantime, Mr Jumblatt's plans to settle 3,000 of them down the coast are going ahead. Here the Palestinian presence could have a devastating effect. The area in which their homes would be built lies around the devastated village of Kraye, in stone-covered hills whose poor villages scarcely support the Maronite and Sunni Muslim Lebanese who already live there. There are reports in the Beirut press that Joseph Boustany, a former Maronite member of parliament, has sold his land for Palestinian settlements.

But when I found him at the weekend, sitting amid the wrecked but still beautiful hilltop villa at Kraye, which his family has owned for 150 years, he insisted that he had not sold his land. 'I don't want to sell,' he said. 'I have not sold. I love my land and I want to stay here. Everyone is worried. How can the Palestinians come here when both we and our Muslim neighbours are fearful of their arrival? There are no factories here, no orchards, no shops, they would have no way of supporting themselves.'

And so the chain reaction of displacement continues. The survivors of Hitler's evil helped to build the nation which took Ms al-Ibrahim's home at Khaza. Today, she and her fellow refugees may be sent to the Iklim, where Joseph Boustany lives in fear of dispossession. His villa was smashed by Palestinian guerrillas who occupied it in 1982 and who desecrated the 80-year-old old tomb of his grandfather, Iskander. His wife, rubbing her hands in anxiety, has convinced herself that a secret agreement between Lebanon, America and Israel has already concluded that all Lebanon's 350,000 Palestinian refugees must be given permanent residence.

'Lebanon is going to pay a very high price for Yasser Arafat's peace with Israel,' she said. 'And we here may have to pay an even higher price.'

(Photograph omitted)

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