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A Hopeless Life for Palestinians in Lebanon's Refugee Camps

Longtime residents of political limbo hope negotiations will allow safe passage home.

May 06, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

SHATILA REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon — The road to Mideast peace wends through this Palestinian shantytown, a warren of lost hopes and misplaced dreams where Amer Akar lights another cigarette, contemplates her life and asks: "What future? I am a daughter of war." Akar was born here, as were her children, and at 33 she already has aged beyond her years. Her mother was killed just around the corner when Christian militiamen massacred Palestinian civilians at the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps in 1982. Akar lost an eye and has bullet fragments in her back from an attack on Palestinians here by Shiite militiamen in 1985. Her daughter died of cancer. Her husband needs money for a heart operation.

"Look how we live," she said over the weekend, her hand sweeping toward a catacomb of refuge-strewn alleyways and bare cinder-block rooms stacked one atop another. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "left us here to live in poverty and eat cat food. The Arabs forgot us. The Lebanese don't want us. Who could have hope when Palestine is so far?"

More than 360,000 Palestinians like Akar are packed into Lebanon's 12 refugee camps. Their future -- and that of several million other Palestinians throughout the world, many of them doctors, engineers, professors and businesspeople -- is a key question for negotiations that the United States hopes will lead to a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. Do the Palestinians have the right of return to what once was, and one day may again be, Palestine?

That right -- which Palestinian Authority President Arafat, wants and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not -- was not addressed in the Oslo accords of 1993 and is not part of the "road map" to peace presented last week by the United States. In negotiations between the two sides in 2000, it was generally agreed that the right of return would be limited to a symbolic number, Israeli sources present at the talks said. Arafat wanted 300,000. Israel countered with 30,000.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged at a news conference in Beirut on Saturday that the issue is one of many not in the road map's published text that negotiators will have to grapple with. He said a settlement "would reflect Lebanese concerns and their concerns about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon."

"As a Palestinian, I reject the question, 'Would I go back to Palestine if it was a state?' " said Mohammed Afifi, 34, who runs a small food shop in Shatila. "What I want is the right to go back. Then I'd decide. There would be many things to consider, including Lebanon's attitude to us."

Lebanon's official position is clear. As one Western diplomat put it: "It doesn't care if the refugees go to Palestine or the moon. Lebanon just wants them gone."

The Lebanese government considers the Palestinians an economic and social strain, and it worries that some camps, unlike Shatila, bristle with guns and militancy. It also harbors resentment that Arafat's forces created a state within a state from 1970 until 1982, which led to an invasion by Israel and the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila camps.

Palestinian refugees are denied employment outside Lebanon's camps. Unlike other foreigners, they cannot buy property. They are not eligible for Lebanese identity cards or passports. Educational opportunities are limited. And in order that their 56-year presence here does not make them start feeling too comfortable or permanent, they are forbidden to build anything in the camps or to import construction materials, even cement for tombs.

"If you study to be a doctor or teacher, you cannot get a job in those professions, so what can young people hope for except to emigrate?" asked Amer Dabdoub, 42, who wanted to be an engineer but sells Pepsis from a pushcart. He recently gave his two sons all his money and sent them to the airport with instructions to fly anywhere to start a new life. Without passports or visas, they couldn't board a flight and returned to Shatila the same afternoon.

The Sabra-Shatila massacre of 800 civilian Palestinians, many of them women and children, was carried out by Israel's allies from the Falange militia, within sight of Israeli soldiers in a nearby guard tower. The Christian gunmen worked their way methodically, house to house, down the alley where Akar sat smoking and drinking tea the other day. By the time they finished, at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, nothing living was left in a three-square-block area. Even the cats were dead.

A month after the killing, a Shatila refugee from the 1948 war against Israel, Rafik Harrari -- then an old man and now deceased -- stood in front of a mass grave for the victims. A wooden plank stuck in the mud bore the words "Long Live Our Deaths," and two withered wreaths lay on the ground.

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