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Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 11:58 GMT
Arafat's other Palestine

The Palestinians live in Lebanon in appalling conditions
Self-determination in the occupied territories have dominated the Palestinians' talks with Israel, but have largely ignored the more than 2m Palestinian refugees living beyond Israel's borders.
A UN resolution guarantees them, with their descendants, a right of return to the homes they fled in the wars of 1948 and 1967.
But it is more likely they will be left in limbo in countries like Lebanon, whose refugee camps Tim Llewellyn visited in October 1998.

Samira has the quiet, impassive face of someone who has been a fugitive, a survivor, all of her 36 years - determined to prevail.

Her progress through life has been is marked by the stations of dispossession of so many of the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon since they were pushed out by the Zionists in 1948.

Samira's parents came only a few miles from northern Palestine to lodge in a camp near the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh. So near, but with no chance of return.

Israel, however, did not stay on its side of the armistice line. In 1972, when Samira was nine, she and her family fled from Israeli air raids on the Nabatiyeh camp and embarked on a long journey, ending in Beirut.

Fleeing war in a garbage truck

In Beirut, in the mid-1970s, in the war that, broadly, set Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims against Christian forces, Samira barely escaped with her life from the Christian suburb near the front lines where her family had perhaps somewhat unwisely found lodging with an errant Muslim household.

Mr Arafat: Accused of abandoning refugees
They were rescued by a sympathetic Christian Phalangist, who hid them in the back of a garbage truck - an apt simile, some Palestinian cynics might say, for a race that has been cast out and then set aside by history.

Samira has survived, like some 300,000 other 1948 refugees and their descendants in Lebanon.

But she, and they, feel that of all the Palestinians they have paid the highest price, in life, damage and lost hope.

Samira works cleaning houses in West Beirut. She earns enough to live simply and even save a little. She has no family to bring up. There is little such comfort possible for most Palestinians.

Palestinian refugees banned from jobs

To reduce Palestinian numbers as much as possible, the Lebanese Government bans Palestinians from employment in more than 60 classifications of job, trade and, especially, profession.

Lebanese army checkpoints surround the camps of the south and block the entry of building materials, furniture, even paint.

No expansion of camp space is permitted, and even repair and improvement are strongly discouraged.

In the wretched alleys of Ein el Hilweh camp in Sidon, the biggest camp in Lebanon with about 50,000 refugees, sewage runs through the streets, stinking piles of rubbish mount against fences and children play and fight in the dust or the mud, depending on the season.

Women - girls, really - very often marry at 14 and begin large families - good for Palestinian numbers, but thrusting more people into a confined and thankless space.

The Lebanese are terrified that the Palestinians will remain with them for ever, Lebanon's problem rather than that of the Israelis, or of the international community, whose responsibility it must surely in large part be.

Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims. Were they to be assimilated in Lebanon, the sensitive confessional and therefore political balance between the Sunnis and the two other main religious groups - Muslim Shi'ites and Maronite Christian - would be upset.

Sunnis would definitely dominate. There was a civil war of 15 years, remember, largely triggered by such considerations.

Love across the religious divide

This is where Samira comes in again. She is in her mid-thirties, very old in this region for a single woman who hopes to marry.

Jerusalem: A focus for Palestinian money and power
She has a boyfriend who wishes to marry her. But he is a Shi'ite, and his father will not contemplate a Palestinian daughter-in-law.

Why not run away? I asked her. I cannot defy my mother, she answers. She would never wish me to marry without meeting my husband's family.

Perhaps the most nagging worry of the Palestinians of Lebanon is that they feel abandoned by their own as well as persecuted by those people around them.

They no longer have a political voice, a representative in the region's counsels.

Yasser Arafat has centred the Palestinian problem in Gaza and the West Bank, on himself, say some. The money, the effort, the political concentration is in Gaza City, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jericho. Funds intended for Palestinian medical, education and public-sanitation needs in Lebanon have been slashed since the early 1990s.

There is strong evidence that most of the money sticks to Arafat's supporters, whether in the Occupied Territories or elsewhere.

And there is even a serious investigation under way into allegations of theft and corruption within Unrwa, the United Nations agency that has been responsible for Palestinian refugees since Israel was created.

Explosion or implosion?

Everyone predicts an explosion. There are militiamen in Ein el Hilweh, young men with experienced instructors who train them to do battle with Israel.

A new spirit of co-operation with Israel
They are Islamic warriors in a community increasingly falling back on belief, both for sustenance in battle and solace and support in social life.

But there are not many of them. Rhetoric stands in for planning.

Implosion is more likely. The only direction of any explosion would be towards Israel, if peace moves collapse, and the options are war or attrition.

For now, while everyone tries frantically to pump life into the peace discussions, the Lebanese and the Syrians must trust that the daily fight for survival soaks up all the energies of Arafat's forgotten Palestinians.

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