Palestinian refugees may yield weapons

Lebanon's PM meets with Palestinians to discuss arms regulation, removal.

palestinians, lebanon 88 (photo credit: )
palestinians, lebanon 88
(photo credit: )
Syria's pullout from Lebanon has prompted Palestinians in refugee camps here to negotiate with Lebanon over giving up some weapons - a key demand of the United Nations and United States that would have been unthinkable just a year ago. Lebanon's new prime minister has met with various Palestinian factions on the issue, and the sides have formed a committee to arrange for the eventual removal of Palestinian weapons outside refugee camps, and for their regulation inside camps. The committee also will examine the possibility of the Palestinians opening an embassy in Lebanon for the first time. The weapons issue is expected to come up when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas meets this week in Paris with President Jacques Chirac of France, a sponsor of a 2004 United Nations resolution that called for disarming all terrorists in Lebanon, including Palestinian groups and Hizbullah. Armed Palestinians have long been a source of dangerous instability and violence in Lebanon. But some Palestinians - refugees since 1948 - have strong feelings against surrendering any weapons amid Lebanon's rapidly changing political climate. They say the weapons are needed to guard against Israeli attack. The commander of the mainstream guerrilla Fatah faction in Ein el-Hilweh, Col. Khaled Aref, says Palestinians need weapons in the camps because of the volatility of the security situation, but he agreed the weapons should be regulated. "If we have to die, at least let us die with honor... does the world expect us to surrender and be slaughtered like sheep without any kind of resistance, like in 1982?" he asked, referring to the massacres of hundreds in Beirut refugee camps that year by pro-Israeli militiamen. Lebanon has long viewed the armed Palestinians with suspicion, largely due to the guerrillas' role in the 1975-90 civil war. Their cross-border attacks into Israel in the 1970s and 1980s also led to two Israeli invasions of Lebanon. But neither Syria nor the governments it installed in Beirut in the past had any desire to end the Palestinian military presence: Instead, the weapons were widely seen as Syria's trump card in future negotiations with Israel. Now, however, with Syria's pullout in April after nearly three decades of military domination, the Lebanese and the Palestinians are able to talk freely. The weapons issue has taken on added urgency because Lebanon's new government - anti-Syrian in outlook - also worries Syria might use Palestinian factions to stir up trouble here. "There is no need for weapons outside the refugee camps. It does not serve the Palestinian cause and is unacceptable. As for weapons inside the camps, these will be dealt with through dialogue," Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said earlier this month. According to Palestinian Authority officials, preliminary talks with the Lebanese government resulted in an agreement that Palestinian weapons would be confined to the refugee camps, while the fate of those weapons and the possibility of a Palestinian embassy in Lebanon would be discussed in future talks. No one knows exactly how many weapons are in the 12 Palestinian shantytowns that still dot Lebanon. But many of the 350,000 refugees own firearms, and the guerrilla factions have thousands of fighters. Ein el-Hilweh, the largest camp and home to 65,000 people, is in particular a jungle of armed guerrillas where firefights are common and disputes are regularly settled by the gun. Lebanese fear the Palestinians will end up settling here, upsetting the delicate Christian-Muslim balance further in favor of Muslims in this country of four million people. Already some camps are havens for outlaws and terrorists. In addition, some factions have set up bases outside the camps, on the coast near Beirut or inland on Syria's border. Lebanese worry those areas, where the government has no control, could be used to carry out attacks like the bombings and attacks on journalists and politicians that have rocked Lebanon recently. The army has in recent days sealed off Palestinian guerrilla bases, threatening a military confrontation, after reports in the media that Syrian-backed guerrillas were bringing in fresh weapons from Damascus. The Lebanese army already has checkpoints outside the camps, but has no presence inside. And authorities fear any attempt to storm the camps by force could result in major bloodshed.