Abu Mazen's Lot Is Not a Happy One

The Jordanians and Lebanese say that as Mahmoud Abbas now has Gaza in his hands, he can bring in masses of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and Jordan.

For more than a week now Abbas Zaki has been in a flurry of activity in Beirut, meeting members of Lebanon's old and new leadership, explaining Israel's disengagement plan and trying to obtain one goal: Improvement in the status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

In the Palestinian Authority's cabinet, Zaki holds the portfolio for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and he is responsible for the continued implementation of the understandings PA Chair Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) reached with the Lebanese government and with Syrian President Bashar Assad during Abbas' visit to both countries last month. The promises were a significant step forward for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon: an increase in the number of professions in which they can be employed, a slight easing of restrictions on movement in the refugee camps and residential construction permits. Similar promises have, however, been made in the past.

Unfortunately, the optimism that could have been sparked by Abu Mazen's visit was considerably dampened by the assassination attempt on former Lebanese defense minister Elias Murr. The evidence seemed to point the finger of guilt at the Palestinians, specifically, a radical Islamic group whose members reside in the Ein el Helweh refugee camp. Ever since the assassination attempt, the promises have not gone beyond the declarative stage and, in fact, the lives of the refugees in Ein el Helweh and other camps have become even more difficult. Searches conducted by Lebanese soldiers at roadblocks at the entrance of each camp have become much longer and more stringent, and the residents now have to spend at least half a day at the entrance to their respective camp when they leave and when they return.

This problem is not the only headache with which Zaki must deal. A few days after he returned home, Abu Mazen set off another bomb. In a television interview, he requested that the Arab states grant citizenship certificates to the Palestinians living within their borders. He does not plan to have the refugees resettle in the countries of their residence; he simply wants them to be registered as citizens in the various Arab states to secure an improvement in their living conditions.

Abu Mazen does not believe that the formal granting of citizenship will hurt the cause of promoting the Palestinian right of return or will erase the Palestinians' collective memory of their history and roots. There are Palestinians living in the United States, France or Israel who are citizens of those countries, yet they have not forgotten about the right of return.

Nevertheless, Abu Mazen's rationale is understood in a totally different light in the Arab states, especially Lebanon. Any proposal for changing the status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, which is extremely sensitive about its ethnic structure, or in Jordan, which fears becoming a second Palestinian homeland, is regarded as a threat to the host country's very existence.

The PA chair immediately came under attack. Leading Arab television stations, like Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera, quickly conducted public opinion polls in which more than 80 percent of the participants expressed the view that the granting of citizenship to the refugees would ring the death knell of the right of return. However, when the two TV stations began to interview Palestinians living in the various Arab states, it soon became evident that the polls did not reflect the thinking of Palestinian refugees, the vast majority of whom very much want to become citizens in the countries of their residence.

Abu Mazen had a very good reason for the timing of his citizenship proposal. When the PA leadership became convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan was going to be carried out in earnest, they realized that Gaza's liberation would place the ball in their court as far as the refugee problem and the right of return are concerned. Until now, it was Israel that was preventing Palestinian refugees residing in other countries from entering Gaza; today there is nothing to prevent any Palestinian who wishes to do so from taking up residence there. Whereas Israel was afraid of having Palestinians leaving Gaza clandestinely, the PA fears their entering Gaza. From both the ideological and practical standpoints, the PA can no longer tell Palestinians interested in doing so that they cannot enter the Gaza Strip because there is no work or because the PA cannot support them financially. Were the PA to convey such a message, it would be violating a sacred right.

Last week, for example, it was reported in Lebanon that an agreement had been reached between Zaki and the Lebanese government that several thousand armed Palestinians, currently residents of refugee camps, would be allowed to move to Gaza after the disengagement plan has been implemented. This would end the crisis between the PA and the Lebanese government, and enable Lebanon to fulfill partially its commitment to disarm the militia groups operating within its borders, as demanded in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. Zaki denied the report, although, in response to a question, he admitted that the only thing preventing Palestinians living in Lebanon from entering Gaza was the fact that the border entry points into Gaza were not under Palestinian control. However, control of these border entry points will soon be in Palestinian hands. When that happens, the PA will have to explain to the Lebanese why it is unwilling or unable to take in not only a few thousand armed Palestinians but also all of the refugees currently living in Lebanon.

Jordan wants to send them back

Jordan is also interested in knowing why it cannot send back to Gaza the tens of thousands of refugees living within its borders who do not have Jordanian citizenship. It should be mentioned that there are already some 120,000 stateless Palestinian refugees presently residing in the Gaza Strip. They are immigrants who arrived there after the signing of the Oslo Accords and who have up until now not been officially recognized.

Abu Mazen is not just concerned about the right of return issue. It is only since the start of this week that the Arab media have stopped relating to the disengagement as if it were some event taking place in China. As of Sunday, the disengagement became the top headline on all Arab media newscasts. But even from the disengagement Abu Mazen has been able to derive but cold comfort. The trumpet-blaring over the Palestinian victory that has opened every newspaper article on the subject has invariably been accompanied by an analysis of the "day after," which has included the demand that the Palestinian leadership not rest until the pullout from Gaza is followed by Israel's withdrawal from the other Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the establishment of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and the exercising of the right of return.

When Abu Mazen phoned the leaders of most of the Arab states, he was not only given a pat on the shoulder for a job well done, he also received a pep talk for the next stage.

He knows that the PA's leadership is not yet ready for this stage, not only because Sharon has not yet agreed to enter negotiations on the peace process but also because the disengagement has placed heavy chains on Abu Mazen's feet in the form of agreements he has reached with Hamas.

Abu Mazen's determination to ensure that the Israeli disengagement would not be conducted under fire - in accordance with his commitment to Sharon, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and American President George W. Bush - forced him to make two major concessions to Hamas.

At the home of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar, agreement was reached on the creation of a joint watchdog committee to monitor the disengagement and on a new date (in late January 2006) for elections to the Palestinian parliament. The watchdog committee falls short of Hamas' demand for an official committee that would circumvent the PA leadership, would - together with the PA - be responsible for the disengagement issue, and would share in the benefits that would accrue to the Palestinian side. At the same time, the committee is much more than Abu Mazen was willing to bargain for a month ago. Until last month, he had insisted that the PA was the only body authorized to deal with the disengagement and that, if Hamas wanted to be a partner, it would have to join the PA.

The committee is undoubtedly a major concession for him. To understand why, one only has to imagine the Israeli government agreeing to form a joint committee with the Yesha Council of settlements to manage the disengagement. The setting of a new date for the elections is also a hard call for Abu Mazen, because Fatah has not yet fully formulated its reform program, and there are also fears that Hamas will claim all the credit for the Gaza withdrawal. Moreover, a partnership with Hamas could make Israel even more reluctant than it already is about entering peace process negotiations with the PA and could amplify fears that the withdrawal from Gaza will be the first and last stage in the peace process with the Palestinians.

Abu Mazen will now have to show the basic difference between himself and the late PA chair Yasser Arafat: an ability to really negotiate versus Arafat's domineering charisma.