Twist of history finds Palestinian refugees fleeing back to Shatilla

Say they fear they're the target of Beirut government-sponsored plan to get rid of them.

Palestinian refugees 298 (photo credit: AP)
Palestinian refugees 298
(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon say they fear they're the target of a Beirut government-sponsored plan to get rid of them. Behind the bricked walls and tiny alleyways of Shatilla refugee camp in central Beirut, they whisper in hushed tones about the violence of the past fortnight. At least 114 people, including 46 Lebanese soldiers, have been killed in clashes between the army and militants of a previously little-known extremist group, Fatah al-Islam. "The army's trying to kill as many Palestinians as possible," says 82-year-old Wafa al-Shami, who had left Shatilla in 1982 after the massacre by Christian Phalangists that killed her brother and his family. She settled in the northern coastal camp of Nahr el-Bared, only to return now. "We're in the way," Shami says. "If Lebanon wants a peace process with Israel, they need to get rid of us refugees. The government doesn't want to give us Lebanese identity, and Israel will never accept the 'right of return,' so the solution for the Lebanese is to kill as many Palestinians as possible and scatter us all over the world. They want us to forget our identity." But this is something neither she nor the more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon will ever do. Without a house - Shami saw hers blown up on television - and only a small suitcase containing her clothes, medicine and bed sheets, she's desperately anxious about what the future in an all-too-familiar saga holds. Shami, originally from Acre, moved with her four sons, their wives and children into the two-bedroom apartment of her niece in the center of Shatilla. Outside, precariously balanced cables run between several multistory apartments. Some of the illegal electricity transformers block out the harsh Lebanese sunlight. The camp's cobbled streets are awash with knocked over garbage cans and dirty water. Open gutters line the main road on which horse-pulled carts maneuver through late-afternoon traffic. "This is not a Lebanese-Palestinian problem," Shami's grandson, Mahmoud, says. The family is sitting on mattresses and sipping black Arabic coffee. A huge poster of the late Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin hangs on one of the walls. "Fatah al-Islam is not a Palestinian group," Mahmoud says. "They are being sponsored by outside groups - the Syrians, the Saudi prince, the Lebanese government - to build racism against the Palestinian people.... Now all Palestinians here are being treated as terrorists. For the first time in my life I am being stopped in the street and searched. This has never happened to me before." More than 300 families from Nahr el-Bared, the scene of the recent violence, have moved into already overcrowded Shatilla. Living with friends and family, most of them have nothing to go back to. There are fears the fighting could spread. Nearly half a million Palestinians live in a dozen refugee camps across Lebanon. Denied civil rights, the refugees suffer the harshest conditions of Palestinian refugees anywhere, including being prevented from working in about 75 professions. The Lebanese government justifies its position by arguing that if it normalized conditions for the refugees, they would be less intent on returning to what is today Israel. Muhammad al-Mahmoud is a university student who has temporarily given up his studies to help distribute food, clothing and cleaning materials to the latest influx of refugees in Shatilla. A recreation center in the camp has been turned into a warehouse where rolls of toilet paper, medicines and baby diapers are piled up. "It is a massacre that is going on," he says. "The media is not showing it, but we know that more than 200 civilians - all of them Palestinian - have been killed. People here don't care for the causes, we care only for the results." The results are an urgent appeal from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for $12.7 million in assistance. The organization estimates that some 27,000 of Nahr el-Bared's 40,000 residents have fled. Most are now in the neighboring camp of Beddawi. But as conditions there worsen, more are expected to move southwards to camps like Shatilla and Sabra. The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has tried to distance itself from Fatah al-Islam, which sided with the Lebanese authorities after it was kicked out of Sabra and Shatilla by the PLO in the 1970s. In a speech this week, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said the militants had "nothing to do with the Palestinian struggle" and endangered the lives of innocent Palestinians. The PLO representative in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, has called for Palestinians in Lebanon to be allowed to set up their own security force in the camps to prevent the formation of armed gangs. After briefing Abbas on the situation, Zaki said he believed the fighting in Nahr el-Bared was in its final stages. He said the militants were asking to be allowed to stay in the camp or given asylum in another country - neither of which he believed should be granted.