The current relationship between the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Hezbollah is not as clear cut as often assumed, despite the frequent and inspiring brotherly words of Hezbollah’s leadership and the fact that the Party enjoys the support of more than 90 per cent of the camp refugees, none of whom can vote. What this means is that the willingness of the Lebanese Resistance to spend its domestic political capital to legislate the right work to work for Palestinian refugees is not settled as of mid-May 2010.
The Hezbollah-PLO historical connection is well known in Lebanon. If Grand Ayatollah Imam Sayyed Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini was the omnipresent but unseen father at the birth of the Party of God (whose very name he approved), the Beirut-headquartered Palestine Liberation Organization was in some ways the infant organization’s nurturing and occasionally doting ‘uncle.’ This familial relationship weakened, but did not collapse after the PLO’s leadership and local power base were gutted in the summer of 1982.
The out of country lectures of Imam Khomeini and various Shia scholars who matriculated at Najaf and Qom and who often referenced the 680 c.e. Ashura passion play of Karbala, were supplemented by lectures from pro-Palestinian Shia clerics including the pro-Palestinian Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Huseein Fadlallah,( an admirer but not an avid follower of Khomeini) Abass Mousawi, and Raghad Harb among others. All inspired Lebanon’s youth to follow the examples of the Karbala Ashura heroes Ali, Hussein, Abbas and Zeinab in order to work for and achieve justice for Palestine. A frequent theme was and remains: Every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala. In the same Lebanese neighborhoods the PLO supplemented the idealists education with teachings of the likes of Franz Fanon, Mao, Vo Nguyen Giap and Che Guevara. The Palestinians added contemporary examples of Karbala-type sacrifices and steadfastness of scores of martyrs. In important aspects both movements melded into a common Resistance cause.
Arafat’s frequent clarion following the June 1967 war that “every Arab and Muslim must pledge to fight until “martyrdom” linked the PLO in the minds of many Shia, with Kabala and later Hezbollah.
PLO Aid to the Islamic Resistance
Six years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution ousted the US-UK installed pretender to the Peacock Throne, via Operation Ajax on August 19, 1953, and nine years before Hezbollah was founded, the PLO supported, trained and helped arm elements of the Khomeini inspired movement inside Lebanon. On the orders of Yassir Arafat and his deputy, Khalil al Wazir (Abu Jihad) large quantities of weapons were gifted or sold cheap to Islamist groups, the only conditions being that the fighters were pledged to resist Israeli aggression and their PLO weapons were not to be used against Lebanese civilians or each other. Events would soon demonstrate that some of these loosely configured groups, including the Farsi accented “foreigners” seen increasingly around Shatila and Burj al Barjeneh refugees camps and Dahiyeh, were indeed serious about resisting Israeli aggression.
Today in South Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon plenty of veterans of various groups operating in the 1970’s and early 1980’s vividly recall receiving help from the secular PLO resistance with its tolerance for a wide spectrum of religious views as well as the godless. One former fighter, now a Hamra Street lawyer in Beirut, told this observer just this week that the PLO taught the ABC’s of resistance tactics to Hezbollah. “We taught them a lot. But they also learned much from our many errors and that learning helped make them a formidable organization today.” The PLO respected the seriousness, discipline and honesty of the young men arriving in Lebanon and welcomed them.
One well known example of the PLO-Hezbollah symbiosis and deepening relationship in this period was Hezbollah’s military leader Imad Mughniyeh from the southern Shia village of Tair Dibb. Imad joined the PLO at age 13 and by 18 distinguished himself at the June 1982 battle of Khaldeh south of Beirut’s airport. One friend of Imad’s recently recalled that the young Fateh member was fighting side by side with Islamic resistance fighters who joined the battle against the Israeli forces advancing on West Beirut. He also served as a body guard for Lebanon’s senior Shia cleric, Mohamad Hussein Fadlallah as well as PLO leaders Yassir Arafat, Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad, as part of his Fatah’s Force 17 duties.
Regarding the PLO assistance to Islamic fighters in the summer of 1982,mentioned above, it was Mughniyeh who was put in charge of weapons distribution. ( On August 18, 1982 the late American journalist/researcher Janet Stevens was given 250 brand new Chinese-made plastic handled AK-47’s wrapped in grease and heavy plastic. She enlisted this observer and two others for a 2 a.m. burial project in the then vacant lot next to the Commodore Hotel to hide them, she presciently advised us, from Israeli forces that she was sure would find an excuse to enter West Beirut. Not until the hotel expanded and dug up the vacant lot around 1992 for a new swimming pool, were the weapons discovered.)
When Imad Mughineh was assassinated, (widely thought to have been by Israel aided by its Syrian spies) he received the title: “Leader of the Two Victories” given to him by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, the reference being to his leadership in both the May 2000 and the July 2006 victories against Israel. Today, this epithet and Imad’s photo hangs in every Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon illustrating the respect of both communities.
PLO/Shia tensions in South Lebanon
Lebanon’s Shia population, oppressed for hundreds of years by the Ottoman Empire, by colonial powers including France as well as by fellow Lebanese, supported the Palestinians and initially welcomed those arriving at their door steps during the 1948 Nakba.
Palestinian-Shia relations were bound to deteriorate following the Cairo Agreement in 1969, when Yasser Arafat, the new chairman of the PLO, and General Emile Bustani, the commander of the Lebanese military, signed a deal allowing the PLO free reign in South Lebanon. The Lebanese government was opposed to the agreement but this same weak government was pressured by the Arab League and Gamal Abdul Nasser, for the failure of the Arab regimes during the 1967 war, a fight Lebanon sat out. The Cairo Agreement “legitimized” the PLO’s presence in Lebanon and granted it the right to carry out guerrilla attacks against Israel at will from Lebanese territory.
The Shia-PLO relationship worsened rapidly between July 1981 and June 1982 as the PLO increased its heavy arms in South Lebanon from 80 cannon and rocket launchers to 250 and beefed up its forces to 6,000 (of its approximate 18,000 of whom about 5,000 were alleged to be foreign mercenaries from such countries as Libya, Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Chad and Mozambique.) During this period some commanders allowed their troops to run roughshod over the local population and naturally sympathies for Palestinian refugees due both to Israeli reprisals and PLO abuse eroded fast and have not been fully restored. PLO crimes against the southern population ran the gamut from ‘property requisitions’ to thefts, extortions, plundering of villages, arbitrary arrests and killings. While officially condemned by its leadership, the PLO did not do enough to stop it. By the late 1970’s some Shia, including the newly established Amal militia organized armed resistance against the PLO ‘occupation’.
To this day, some in South Lebanon bitterly mention three modern day occupations of their villages following half a millennium of discrimination and marginalization by the Ottomans and French among others. These more recent occupations include the PLO from the early 1970’s until 1982, the Israeli army from March 14,1978 until May 24, 2000 and their financed and micro-managed right wing surrogates, the “Southern Lebanese Army (SLA) from May 1976 until May 24, 2000 still fester.
Local political pressures on Hezbollah
Some in and out of Parliament are suggesting that if Hezbollah publicly pushes Palestinian civil rights legislation, especially the most urgent right to work , the party which is currently having good success broadening its popular base within the Sunni and Christians communities, could lose some support and especially among its south Lebanon Shia base. A new rival Shia party, the Lebanese Option Gathering ( LOG) led by Ahmad Assad, son of the former Speaker of Parliament is challenging Hezbollah in at least one of its three base areas. It was LOG that during the 2009 Parliamentary election publicly boasted being funded by Saudi Arabia and paid voters handsomely with what it claimed was a wink and nod from the American government. The Ahmad Assad organization is stepping up its criticism of Hezbollah for neglecting the needs of South Lebanon. Since some Shia oppose the right to work for Palestinian refugees who make up a significant minority in the Southern Shia where jobs are even more scarce than in the Beirut area, some political analysts see this issue as a lose-lose for Hezbollah.
One sympathetic Member of Parliament allied with Hezbollah explained during a meeting with representatives of the Palestine Civil Right Campaign in early May:
“Hezbollah is in a tough spot on this essential issue. If Hezbollah backs the right to work for Palestinian refugees it risks losing some of its Shia, Sunni and Christian supporters. If it doesn’t back the right to work Hezbollah arguably makes a mockery out of its claimed raison e’tre. How can it lead the fight for justice in Palestine while its literal next door neighbors wallow in disgusting open sewer camps with no chance to earn a living and live in dignity. What would its hard earned and much valued credibility amount to?”
Others point out that since Palestinians cannot now and will never vote in Lebanon, backing a civil rights law is a political black hole for Hezbollah.
Weakening this argument a bit, both Hezbollah and the PLO leaders acknowledge individual Palestinian crimes against the Shia in the South Lebanon confrontational zone. Both sides agree that the PLO Beirut leadership should have done more to stop individual abuses during the 1974-1982 period. Hezbollah members also acknowledge that since the late 1960’s virtually all militia in Lebanon had individuals who abused the civilian population and the Party appears able to let bygones be bygones. One party member reminded this observer that the PLO helped Hezbollah during its bloody intra Shia battles with Amal and it was Hezbollah’s then Secretary-General Abass Mousawi who refused to join the Amal 1985-87 Palestinian
Camp wars and if fact helped end them by intervening with Syria.
To add to Hezbollah’s political problems on this issue, longtime Palestinian nemesis Samir Geagea (“I was born with my views on Palestinians!”, he jokingly told one interviewer recently) and the Lebanese Forces have been making a significant political comeback since his July 2005 release from prison, including in this month’s municipal elections. “Geagea’s Christians” are cutting into Amin Gemayel’s Phalange Party and his other Christian rival Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. This could be part of the reason why Aoun, a key Hezbollah ally, when asked about granting civil rights to Palestinian refugees, squints, gets red faced and starts badmouthing the idea and reminds his audience, that “there are 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and our country is going to implode, Ya Allah.” Actually, General Aoun inflates the true figure which is close to 250,000 Palestinian refugees remaining in Lebanon although 423,000 are registered with UNWRA.
Hezbollah is expected to add to its public endorsements of civil rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by declaring soon exactly what it intends to do in Parliament. It is said to be studying the various proposals and quietly discussing the issue with a wide range of parties, Palestinian factions and local and international NGO’s. Some political analysts in Lebanon believe as Hezbollah goes on the right to work for Palestinian refugees so goes Parliament. The consequences of its decision will be major for Lebanon’s refugees, the region and the National Lebanese Resistance.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and volunteers with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign. He can be reached at email@example.com.