AL-NAKBEH - the Catastrophe - is what Palestinians call the beginning of their seemingly endless tragedy. It happened in 1948, when Israelis drove three quarters of a million people from their homes in Palestine. They were expelled, through a systematic campaign of terror and intimidation, to make way for the new Jewish state, Yigal Allon, later to become Foreign Minister, was unequivocal about Israeli intentions towards the so-called ‘sulky Arabs’: ‘We saw a need to clean the Inner Galilee and to create a Jewish territorial succession in the entire area of the Upper Galilee’.
About 140,000 Palestinians fled north into Lebanon. More arrived in 1967. refugees from the war in which Israel seized the rest of Palestine - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Yet more came in 1970, this time fleeing war in Jordan, Around 350,000 Palestinians, mainly Moslems, now live in Lebanon as a desperately insecure minority alongside 3.1 million Lebanese of various religious and political convictions.
Many Palestinians in Lebanon have known no homes other than refugee camps.
But what were once ‘tented cities’ have gradually evolved into well-established settlements with their own self-sufficient community organisations. Said one woman from a Palestinian settlement near Beirut airport: ‘When we arrived here in 1948 there was nothing but sand and jackals. We built this place with our own hands. We built house after house, with money hard-earned by fathers, brothers and sons working in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia. Qatar and Dubai.’
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), formed in 1964 and best known to the outside world for its military role, is also deeply involved in promoting social welfare bodies such as the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (with 9 hospitals and 12 clinics), trade unions, students’ and womens’ associations, societies for Palestinian writers, artists, doctors, engineers and other professional groups.
When Israeli tanks rolled into Lebanon in June last year, they destroyed not only the PLO military headquarters, but also a vast network of Palestinian schools and nurseries, hospitals and clinics, orphanages and kindergartens, factories and information offices, film production units and publishing houses. All this has been smashed, the social infrastructure destroyed, the community leaders dead, fled or imprisoned. The Israeli invasion cost at least 20,000 lives, mainly civilians, and reduced the Palestinians’ modest, cinder-block homes to rubble, They now live under the rule of three hostile factions - the Israeli army of occupation, the right-wing Lebanese militias and (in Beirut) the Lebanese government itself. Each of these parties wants an end to the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.
The Palestinians, obstructed in their efforts to rebuild their houses, refused permission to work, subject to daily arrest, harassment, random bombings and murder, have literally nowhere to turn for help. Unable to return to their homeland, subjected to massacres in the refugee camps and outside them (see The Gunners’ Message), their fate seems ironically similar to that of Jews in Germany during the 1 930s. If they stay where they are, their future looks utterly bleak; yet they have nowhere else to go.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon was successful in removing the Palestinian military presence. But it has not removed the Palestinians’ rights to self-determination and to live in peace and security within their own homeland. The ‘Palestinian problem’ seems as far removed from a solution as ever. It can only be solved when both Israelis and Palestinians find it in their hearts to share as equals the land for which so many lives have been sacrificed. That requires a passion for justice and humanity which, among today’s main players on the Middle East political stage, is sadly lacking.