Munir Maqdah, a veteran Fatah man who lives in Lebanon, has a new job – commander of the unified Palestinian security forces in Lebanon. This is not a militia or an army, but a fighting force in which most of the Palestinian factions are members, the purpose of which is to maintain security in the Palestinian refugee camps.
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The force came into being following negotiations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Lebanese authorities, to keep the Palestinians away from the wars in Syria and between militias in Lebanon, and to make sure that the camps do not become bases for terror groups like Islamic State — also known as ISIS and ISIL — or other extreme factions, thus preserving Palestinian neutrality, so important to ensure that Palestinians can continue to live in Lebanon.
This is a status quo that was created after the first Lebanon war and especially after the massacre in Sabra and Chatila in 1982 of some 3,000 Palestinians and Shi’ites by Christian separatist forces under the watchful eye of the Israel Defense Forces. According to accords reached at that time, Palestinian refugees are allowed to bear arms in the camps for self-defense but are not allowed to leave the camps with them. As a result, each Palestinian faction established its own armed militia in the seven major camps, sometimes fighting against each other for control.
The intent now is for a joint force to take responsibility to prevent elements hostile to the Lebanese regime from finding refuge in the camps and to make it easier for the Palestinians to come and go for work. At the outset the force will number a few hundred armed fighters and commanders who will be paid a salary by the PA as part of the PLO’s responsibility for the Palestinian diaspora.
Maqdah said in interviews that the Palestinian forces will be posted at roadblocks at the entrance to every camp, and a liaison for the force will be stationed with the Lebanese army near every camp to check the identity of people entering the camps, thwart terror attempts in Lebanon and deal with internal disputes to prevent violence.
But the establishment of the special force does not improve life for the Palestinian refugees whose numbers, according to unofficial estimates, stand at about 400,000, not counting the 50,000 Palestinian refugees who have fled from Syria to Lebanon.
Palestinian refugees have for decades been barred from many professions outside the camps, including engineering, law and medicine, nor are they allowed to buy property in Lebanon. Palestinian engineers are allowed to work on projects, but they are not allowed to sign them, a privilege accorded only to Lebanese engineers. In many cases their salary is half that of their Lebanese counterparts and they are not eligible for medical insurance or severance pay.
These prohibitions are explained by Lebanon’s desire not to change the refugees’ status to that of permanent residents and thereby compromise the sacred principle of the right of return.
The economic situation of the refugees worsened particularly after the outbreak of the war in Syria, and the flooding of the country with more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, who have pushed out the Lebanese and the Palestinians even from the most menial jobs. Joining the Palestinian security force is a new source of livelihood, because every fighter receives between $200 and $400 a month plus expenses, but because the funding comes from Ramallah, payment now depends of the release of tax money frozen by Israel and according to reports from Lebanon, these fighters have only received 60 percent of their regular salaries.
And yet, the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is much better than that of their brethren in Syria, particularly in the enormous Yarmouk camp. Once home to 150,000 people, only about 20,000 to 30,000 remain, suffering from a severe shortage of food and medicine. Many have died of hunger and disease and others were abducted and murdered by Shi’ite militias or regime soldiers.
This month, after a three-month hiatus, a UN aide delegation was able to enter the Yarmouk camp and distribute food and medicine. According to clips shown on social media, the food distribution looks like a mini-war between people over a loaf of bread or a few cans of preserves.
Lebanon and Jordan have recently begun barring Palestinian refugees, and only the lucky ones are able to buy their way in. Lebanese landlords renting to Palestinians are required to guarantee their conduct, which limits the number of homes Palestinians are able to rent. This week the Lebanese Education Ministry announced that Palestinian students who had fled from Syria would not be allowed to take matriculation exams because they are not citizens.
The Syrian government, which once offered Palestinian refugees better conditions than in Lebanon, has over the past two years begun to regard the Palestinians with hostility after a few hundred of them joined the rebel forces or ISIS. Nearly 800 Palestinian refugees are in regime prisons and a few dozen have died under torture, while others have disappeared.
In contrast to the number of Syrians who have become refugees in Arab countries and Europe, the Palestinians do not have a mother country to which they can hope to return when the war is over. These refugees could end up disproving the common notion that the Palestinians have no desire to return to their homes in Israel, or live in Palestine, because their situation in the diaspora is much better. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are no longer the safe havens they once were. The Palestinian refugees are waiting for Abbas to build them a homeland.