LONDON, Aug. 16 (JTA) — Prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians are bringing harsh facts of life into sharp focus for Arab leaders. Not only will they be losing the Palestinian issue as a cornerstone of Arab unity and pan-Arab ideology, but they will be gaining a demographic problem that is, to a very considerable extent, of their own making. When some 600,000 Palestinians left areas that came under Israeli control in the 1948 and 1967 wars, they were settled in refugee camps, primarily in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but also in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While Israel set a high priority on absorbing and integrating the 600,000-odd Jewish refugees who poured into the new Jewish state from surrounding Arab countries, the Arab hosts of the Palestinian refugees steadfastly refused to integrate or absorb their new arrivals. Moreover, they consistently rejected entreaties — including offers of cash — from international refugee agencies and foreign governments to improve the living standards of the Palestinians. The rationale was that refugees, impoverished in camps, would remain a blot on the world’s conscience and a constant reminder that the conflict with Israel would not be resolved until all were permitted to return to their homes in Jaffa, Lod and Haifa. But the crucial, unspoken subtext was that the refugees and their descendants would never feel sufficiently secure or comfortable in their transplanted homes to put down roots and decide to stay. While conditions in the camps would remain grim enough to score the necessary propaganda points on the international stage, they would also keep the dreams of the refugees focused on returning to long-abandoned, real or imagined, olive groves and orchards. Israeli leaders of all political hues have consistently rejected the notion of the Palestinian “right to return” and the issue was widely perceived as being one of the most intractable problems to be faced in final- status negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Now, however, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are apparently being persuaded to think again, and there are signs they are taking the first tentative steps toward accepting the new reality: the permanent absorption of their substantial refugee populations in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian deal. But recognition that the Palestinians will, after all, be settled where they are sends shivers down the collective spine of Arab host governments, according to the respected Arabic weekly al-Wasat, published in Paris last Friday. Writing from Beirut, Lebanese commentator Sarkis Naoum noted that nowhere is this unease more acutely felt than in Lebanon, still recovering from a devastating civil war, where fragile ethnic and sectarian balances will be threatened by the settlement of up to a quarter-million Palestinians. “Whether as Lebanese citizens or as permanent residents with full rights, Palestinians are not wanted in Lebanon,” Naoum said. “Many Lebanese, particularly Christians, gave vent to this fear by taking up arms against the Palestinians in 1975.” In a state where the top political posts are awarded on the basis of religious and ethnic numbers, the Lebanese have always had a phobia about converting the Palestinian refugee presence into a permanent fact of life. The permanent incorporation of a large number of Palestinians not only challenges the Lebanese political system — which is constructed on a precarious balance between Muslims and Christians — but also the very character of the country. Moreover, Naoum pointed out, the predominantly Sunni Palestinians also threaten to upset the balance between Lebanon’s two major Muslim sects — the Shi’ites are the other — “upsetting the equilibrium between them and rendering Lebanon more unstable.” The number of refugees who will be permanently resettled in Lebanon is expected to be restricted to some 267,000 who were displaced in 1948, of whom about 225,000 still live in refugee camps. Some international organizations have calculated that the overall number will fall to around 175,000 when the number of Palestinians who have emigrated and now hold third-country citizenship is taken into account. Meanwhile, Western diplomats are pointing to tangible signs that arrangements are already under way to facilitate the resettlement process. In Jordan, Palestinians were once granted Jordanian passports valid for five years, but after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority the validity of the Jordanian passports was reduced to two years. The authorities in Amman have recently reverted to issuing five-year passports. Both the Syrians and the Lebanese are now more receptive to proposals for improving living conditions in the refugee camps. A large project to improve living conditions in one of Lebanon’s major camps is nearing completion — although the official Lebanese line is that the project was undertaken for environmental reasons. In addition, Syria and Lebanon have recently relaxed restrictions on Palestinians traveling between the two countries, while Beirut has eased restrictions on Palestinians who seek to travel abroad. Naoum recalls that after Jordan’s late King Hussein expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970, they moved to Lebanon, where they transformed the many Palestinian refugee camps into fortified strongholds. “But the fear of rising Palestinian influence in Lebanon was not a strictly Christian affliction. When they saw that the Palestinians were intent on creating a state within a state in Lebanon, another faction — the Shi’ites — also took up arms against them.” The Lebanese, he said, were driven by fear that the increasing dominance of the Palestinians might lead to their permanent resettlement in Lebanon, particularly if the Arab states and the PLO failed to defeat Israel, and if the Israelis refused to allow them back as part of a peace agreement. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the third major Lebanese faction, the Sunnis, also came to realize the danger posed by the Palestinian armed presence in the country. “After initially supporting the Palestinians as a force that would help to reverse the injustices they suffered under the Lebanese system,” he wrote, “the Sunnis changed tack after the siege of Beirut.” In 1982, Sunni leaders played an important part in persuading the Palestinian leadership to leave Beirut as Israel had demanded. Fears of permanently resettling the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have increased since the October 1991 Madrid peace conference. This concern reached fever pitch in recent weeks, with the advent of Ehud Barak’s more conciliatory government and the possibility of again achieving momentum in the peace process. “Since the Barak administration adamantly rejects the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to the land they fled in 1948 and 1967,” noted Naoum, “and since the U.S. is sympathetic to the Israeli position, the Arab and international (particularly European) positions appear very shaky indeed.”
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