Ms. Marina Da Silva is Journalist and a contributor to "Le Monde Diplomatique", the prestigious French publication.

PALESTINIANS IN NORTHERN EXILE

SOUTH LEBANON: FREE BUT FEARFUL


There is another Palestinian population anxiously following what is happening to the people of the West Bank and Gaza: those who live in south Lebanon. The Israeli occupation of the region has ended, and the landscape is slowly being resettled and reconstructed. But tensions and potential hostilities still threaten any return to normality along the border.
by our special correspondent MARINA DA SILVA *

Lebanon's Palestinian population is anxiously following the brutal repression in the West Bank and Gaza. After a long period of armed struggle, the liberation of south Lebanon has sparked hopes and reconstruction efforts. But regional tensions continue to impede the south's reconstruction and any outbreak of hostilities could threaten the region's return to stability.

The stillness of this Ramadan evening is shattered by the crackle of automatic weapons fire. As in a single voice, shouts and chants rise up from the crowd, a huge battle flag of sound unfurling down the camp's main roads. The news travels fast as people of all ages gather outside their homes: the Israelis have suffered yet another suicide bombing in Jerusalem on the first day of December 2001. In Beddawi, a tiny refugee camp in northern Lebanon, Nabil and his family are pleased that people other than Palestinians are dying tonight. "Every day we watch our loved ones being killed amid utter indifference. We Palestinians have sacrificed our lives for over 50 years yet the violence shows no signs of letting up. When you feel that everything's against you, all you have left is yourself and your body. That's what's guiding the intifada."

Palestinians, forsaken in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, remain clustered in a dozen ghetto-like camps where they follow the intifada with keen interest. Televisions in every home are permanently tuned to Al Manar's and Al Jazeera's broadcasts of unrelenting brutality and repression, bearing witness to justice denied and heightening the people's sense of solidarity (1). Prior to the intifada the living standards of Lebanon's Palestinians were estimated lower than those of the refugees in Gaza; nevertheless every refugee camp has managed to raise considerable sums for the intifada.

In a display of dazzling efficiency, cybercafés and the internet have brought members of the far-flung Palestinian community together. "Relations have never been this good", says Abu Ali Hassan, who leads Ein al-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp near the town of Sidon. The camp's 70,000 refugees serve as a barometer for Palestinian morale; the streets are always jammed. Youthful protestors condemn Ariel Sharon, chanting: "With our blood and soul, we will avenge you, Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat's nom de guerre]"; the demonstrators include schoolchildren and members of Arafat's Fatah organisation, clutching automatic weapons.

Tensions have risen since 11 September. On several occasions Lebanese Army soldiers at checkpoints were attacked with grenades. That led to the stationing of tanks around the camp. "Such acts are the work of provocateurs and only serve Israeli interests. We have no reason to challenge the Lebanese government, which has spoken out in favour of the intifada and against the Israeli occupation", Hassan explains angrily.

Near the southern port of Tyre lies Rashidieh, the nearest camp to Palestine, impoverished, isolated. Adil, a young militant with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine contends that despite 11 September's far-reaching geopolitical implications, "it is primarily the Palestinians who are paying the price. People confuse terrorist activity with our legitimate struggle against the occupation. For us, opposing the occupation is not only a right, it's a duty".

Lebanon's political class and ordinary Lebanese agree; they were upset when the United States placed Hizbollah on its list of terrorist organisations and called for the freezing of the group's assets. Hizbollah is a legally authorised political party in Lebanon with a strong presence in parliament and public life; its infrastructure and popular networks are unmatched. In the face of daunting political challenges, Hizbollah is respected for its efficiency and its key role in resisting Israel's occupation of south Lebanon. The ban on Hizbollah drew criticism from all quarters and was even condemned by the Maronite patriarch, Mgr Sfeir.

Khiam, prison and museum

Yawm al-Tharir is Lebanon's resistance and liberation day, a sacred date for all Lebanese. Adnan will not forget the extraordinary events of 23 May 2000. "People in Marjayoun, Khiam and Bennt Jbail watched the Israelis in full retreat. It was a total debacle. Everyone came running to see the spectacle. The news spread like wildfire. At the end of the day hundreds of thousands of people were heading down south".

From 1985 until 2000 the fortified mountain town of Khiam was home to a forbidding military prison run by the South Lebanese Army (SLA), a key instrument of Israeli terror in the occupied zone. Adnan spent over four years there as an inmate. Some of his comrades, detained for up to 14 years under threats of interrogation and torture, say Adnan's stay was next to nothing. Hizbollah now runs the centre, which has become a prison-museum, a site of collective memory. Even though it has been cleaned up, the place still exudes pain and death. A huge fresco in the courtyard features portraits of three Israeli soldiers captured by Hizbollah in the Shebaa region in October 2000; they were used as bargaining chips to secure the liberation of 16 Lebanese imprisoned in Israel.

Newly liberated south Lebanon remains a hostage to regional conflicts. Hizbollah is aware of this. Hassan Azzedin, its information officer, says: "Israel still occupies Lebanese territory. The current line of Israeli withdrawal [the Blue Line] is not consistent with the international boundary and not recognised by the Lebanese government. That's why we're pursuing the path of resistance". The Blue Line's vagaries mean that the seven hamlets comprising the Shebaa Farms (2), on the edge of the (Israeli-occupied) Golan Heights, remain in Israeli control; the line has also split the village of Ghajar (3) and is contested in Yaroun, Aalma and Udeissa. The repression in the Palestinian territories has also exacerbated tensions. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, believes that political support for the intifada is a duty: "We will face our responsibilities squarely, even in the face of the military pressures against Lebanon and Syria. If we need war to determine the ultimate fate of the region, then let the war begin."

Exhausted by 22 years of fighting, the Lebanese do not necessarily share this view: they are in no mood to relive the nightmare of war. But Nasrallah's comments show the sensitivity of Arab opinion to the intifada. On several occasions Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, has spoken out in favour of "Lebanon's support for the intifada in the face of Israeli occupation."

Ordinary people view the military operations against Afghanistan as benefiting a new world order in an unjust war, whose next target is clear: Iraq, and any others who will not bend in submission. The political coalition assembled after the World Trade Centre attacks weighs heavily on the liberated region's development prospects, exacerbating the gloomy economic picture. According to economist and teacher Yousef Khalil, "only a United Nations embargo – which is not currently on the agenda – could truly affect Lebanon, because the country receives relatively little US aid compared with Egypt or Israel and its dealings are primarily with Europe".

Khalil is the founder of the Rural Development Assistance Association (ADR), an NGO that provided assistance to Tyre's fishing industry and south Lebanon's refugee camps before extending its activities to include the former occupied zone. Khalil denounces the country's true scourge: Lebanon's concentration of wealth is absolute, and this hampers development prospects. "Only 1% of borrowers receive 50% of the bank loans in a country where 55% of household income is spent on basic needs, up from 40% a few years ago. Up to 45% of homes lack bathroom facilities in certain villages of the Bekaa valley and in northern Lebanon. The country is buckling under the weight of its public debt, the economic picture is bleak and thousands of young people are leaving".

South Lebanon's reconstruction has been made possible by government borrowing. Houses and buildings have sprung up from the ruins in the chaos of Lebanon's urban planning, which threatens to do the country permanent damage. Hospitals and schools are slowly spreading. Founded in 1970, the government-funded Council for the South is overseeing the reconstruction; it also helps people defend themselves against Israeli attacks and provides financial assistance to ex-prisoners, the wounded and the families of "martyrs". The council has a $200m emergency aid budget and it has made an additional $300m available in compensation: $20,000 for each house destroyed, covering some 95% of the dwellings affected (5,000 in total with six villages obliterated). Headed by Nabi Berri, leader of the (Shia) Amal party and speaker of the Lebanese parliament, the council is viewed by many as "a tool at the heart of the sectarian 'client' system that is ruining Lebanon".

The former occupied zone covered some 850 sq km, about 10% of Lebanon's territory. Since three-quarters of the region's population fled – it had 300,000 inhabitants at the outset of the war in 1978 – the zone remains highly symbolic and has a profound mythical and emotional appeal. Lebanese, whether at home or abroad, have returned in massive numbers to lay claim to the south. Although many have visited for a day or two – Lebanon is only 250 km long from north to south and the trip takes only a few hours – permanent settlers are rare. Increasing the region's productivity would help the employment situation, but little progress has been made in this regard. A few intrepid souls have forged new lives for themselves, starting from scratch; the best illustration of this phenomenon are the cafés by the nabba (springs) that flourish in south Lebanon and serve as gathering places in the summer months.

'They can't stop us living here'

Leila made up her mind quickly. An ex-communist militant originally from Khiam, she was the first woman imprisoned in 1985; in Beirut she lived the cheerless life of one who has lost everything. Working in a café was a quick and simple way to return to the south. Even though alcohol is not available in Muslim Khiam, this restriction is easily circumvented by setting up shop several kilometres away on the outskirts of Ebel Siqui, a mixed Druze and Christian village. Leila does not feel threatened by Hizbollah's takeover of the region though she is none too happy with the thought. "Resistance is the history we all share, not just Hizbollah. Before the liberation, militants of all stripes fought the occupation alongside Hizbollah. We're from here, we joined in the fight as well and our homes were destroyed. They can't stop us living here as we wish".

Travelling from Khiam to Bennt Jbail requires driving along the Israeli border; seen from the roadway, the sculpted landscape is inspirational. Brand-new streetlights are switched on; the rocks and the grass shimmer below. The noonday sun shines bright. For south Lebanon, liberation means electricity as well as reconstruction. On the Israeli side of the frontier, lush gardens have emerged out of the wilderness thanks to copious irrigation; local farmers say the water is "illegally pumped out of Lebanese territory". The roadside is lined with Katiusha rockets and tanks, icons paying homage to the resistance effort: Hizbollah and Amal flags seem to mock the Stars of David across the border; perhaps the thrill of battle went sour. One of the most popular spots in south Lebanon is Maroun Ras, in the caza (district) of Bennt Jbail. A magnificent plateau looks out over the Galilee. A tourist café has an outdoor terrace and an observation post; busloads of visitors are offered coffee, sweets and binoculars. Hizbollah has also set up operations. Four Katiusha rockets, directed toward Israel, are stationed beneath a giant sign that flashes a night-time warning: "Watch out, Jerusalem, we're on our way".

Bennt Jbail is an exclusively Shia village where Hizbollah reigns supreme, basking in its victory. "We came back right after the liberation. The roads were completely jammed. The feeling was beyond words. Even the shy were kissing, including the devout who would never normally touch a woman's hand", says Azza Sharara, an instructor at the Lebanese university, who finds such historical and sociological changes fascinating. Sharara and her sociologist husband, Ahmad Beydoun, are not primarily concerned with security: "Of course there are dangers associated with the regional situation, especially after 11 September. But all Lebanese face these risks since Israel has the wherewithal to strike anywhere in Lebanon".

Making the liberated region viable and attractive is a daunting challenge. "There was talk of a Lebanese Kosovo, of clashes between Muslims and Christians, but nothing of the sort has occurred," says Sharara. "Sectarian conflicts and settling of scores have been rare. Even the villa owned by the number-two SLA officer, Hafez Hashem, built by extorting local businesses, has not been touched. People have shown great maturity." The end of the occupation has allowed the country to re-evaluate its own psychological borders. Those who left have tried to understand those who chose to stay. People have come to recognise that everyone – resistors, collaborators or those between the two extremes – has a human face and an individual destiny.

The events of 11 September have triggered anxieties and imperilled Lebanon's fragile sense of national unity. "The US can use any pretext to put pressure on Lebanon, even though it would inflame the strongly anti-American mood," adds Sharara. "People are worried. Many from Bennt Jbail went into exile in Michigan. Their families' economic hopes depend on their remittances. But growing anti-Arab sentiment in the US will definitely have consequences. Many students from the Gulf countries have registered at the American University of Beirut now they're unable or unwilling to live in the US".

Even if Lebanon does face a financial war with the US, south Lebanon will not be relinquishing its "hostage zone" status anytime soon. According to Stefan De Mistura, the UN secretary general's personal representative for south Lebanon, the south's true liberation is yet to come. "There are 130,000 'soldiers' in south Lebanon. They never sleep and they keep on killing, day and night, winter and summer. They claim at least one victim a month." Lebanon's mine-clearing operations, primarily overseen by specialists from the US, Canada, France, Norway and Ukraine, are proceeding very slowly. At the current rate of progress De Mistura estimates that south Lebanon will be mine-free in 53 years; if the mine-clearing budget were adequate, the task would take only four years and would create jobs for 10,000 people.

Mine-clearing is also subject to the gamesmanship of negotiations. De Mistura describes the policy of deploying the Lebanese army at the Israeli border as "rather dogmatic" but he does rise to the defence of the Lebanese government, which refuses to keep the Israeli border under surveillance unless UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 is enforced. "Who says that state sovereignty is only manifested by having commandos at the border looking across at other commandos? Most of the world's countries demonstrate their sovereignty through their doctors, teachers, judges and institutions." According to De Mistura, who continues to denounce Israeli violations of Lebanese territory, the problem stems from the diminished role of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), which does more observing than protecting (4). De Mistura says: "The most explosive territory in the Middle East, apart from Gaza and the West Bank, is south Lebanon."

Given Lebanon's proximity to Palestine, its shared burden of occupation and its unswerving support for the intifada, you would expect more compassion for the 350,000 Palestinian refugees who cannot wait to return. The reality is different. Rula, a young teacher, denounces the discrimination and poverty the Palestinians face: "It's like some schizophrenic vision in which they're not considered the same people. They're alone in the Arab world, existing outside the framework of current events and outside life itself." Lebanon's constitution prohibits the Palestinians from settling permanently in the country; this has long served as a pretext for various official and unofficial discriminatory measures in the fields of employment, housing, education and health care. Rula adds: "Just after taking office, Rafiq Hariri's government rammed through legislation last year denying Palestinians property rights".

Hizbollah supports the refugees' civil rights demands but is opposed to settling them permanently in Lebanon since this could jeopardise their right of return to Palestine. Hizbollah has extended its social services to include the refugee camps, but other political groups have taken no action that might allow the refugees to live with dignity under the rule of law. Rula points out that "Lebanon's media outlets, apart from those controlled by Hizbollah, have supported the intifada by relaying information and mobilising Arab public opinion. Don't they realise that the intifada's winds of revolt could also sweep through Lebanon's refugee camps?"


* Journalist

(1) Al Manar is the Hizbollah-run TV station; Al Jazeera broadcasts from Qatar.

(2) Control of the Shebaa area was transferred by Syria to Lebanon. This transfer has not been recognised by Israel.

(3) Ghajar is an Alawite village of 1,300 inhabitants that remains partially occupied by Israel.

(4)Unifil has 3,500 soldiers in some 40 positions along a 95 km-long line.