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A Palestinian Refugee Camp?

15,000 Palestinians fled their northern Lebanese refugee camp last week, following the worst outbreak of internecine fighting in that country since the end of Lebanon’s civil war. The renewed violence followed an almost Marx Brothers like series of errors.

Last Sunday, Lebanese internal security forces fired on Palestinian bank robbers near the city of Tripoli, members of Fatah al Islam, a Syrian-backed, Palestinian, Jihadi organization, based in the nearby Nahr al Bared refugee camp. The precise course of events is unclear, but in response, Palestinian refugees in the camp fired on and killed a number of the Lebanese Army soldiers who surround the camp and controlled all traffic into and out of it. The Lebanese Army, unaware of the security forces’ skirmish with Fatah al Islam, then shelled the camp with mortars and artillery shells. By week’s end, some 80 Palestinians and Lebanese soldiers had died in the fighting. One explanation holds that the outbreak of violence was actually a Syrian-inspired attempt to deflect world and Lebanese attention from the growing likelihood that an international tribunal will be convened to investigate who (Syria) is responsible for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.

Internecine violence is not new to Lebanon, nor the Middle East as a whole. The region is rife with intra-Arab violence. From Lebanon to Gaza, where almost daily "cease fire agreements" have crumbled due to ongoing fighting between Hamas and Fatah, resulting in tens of deaths, to the genocidal fighting in Sudan, to Iraq, where Sunnis and Shiites continue to slaughter each other with wild abandon, the Arab world is plagued by violence. So some more fighting in Lebanon, big deal, been there, done that (many times), yawn.

Except that in all of the detailed reporting of the event, one basic issue has failed once again to catch anyone’s attention. A Palestinian refugee camp did you say, surrounded by the Lebanese Army?

Fifty nine years after Israel’s establishment, a third of the four million Palestinian refugees still live in refugee camps around the Arab world, ranging from a low of 18% in Jordan (the only Arab country to offer them citizenship), to a whopping 57% in Lebanon, where they are not even allowed out of the camps to work or to hold Lebanese citizenship.

Fifty nine years. Despite the petro-trillions, despite the alleged "commitment" of twenty-two Arab states and additional Moslem nations to the Palestinian cause. For fifty nine years the Palestinians have supposedly been the primary concern of the Arab world, the purported primal source of the unending conflict with Israel, the locus of vast international attention.

In point of fact, none of the Arab states have ever really cared about the Palestinians beyond lip service, as evinced by their ongoing willingness — indeed determination — to keep them languishing in refugee camps. During the same period, an originally impoverished and miniscule Israeli population of 600,000 people increased in size by ten fold, half of them destitute immigrants, many from the Arab countries, and turned an arid desert into a modern country with a mid European standard of living, with the second highest number of high-tech start-ups in the world (in absolute terms). The Arab countries, in contrast, chose to keep their "brethren" in a state of suspension, rotting in the squalor of the refugee camps.

Why? Because autocratic, backward, largely corrupt regimes, sought to preserve their prerogatives and ensure their longevity in power by deflecting attention to the Palestinian issue and manipulating it to their advantage. How, they asked, could they loosen their grip on their societies, allow democratic reform and promote socio-economic development, when the war against the "imperialist, Nazi, Zionist, racist regime" required that they devote all their attention and marshal all their resources to the cause? What could be an easier excuse for not taking responsibility for their own catastrophic failures, let alone the Palestinians’?

The "oil curse", not "oil blessing", has been an almost unmitigated calamity for the Arab world, allowing the regimes to buy off those domestic elements whose support they have needed and to keep international pressures for reform, largely American, at bay. Whereas, countries with far fewer resources have been forced to conduct fundamental reforms, to compete, modernize, develop and succeed, the oil financed Arab world has relied on its petro-riches to allow it to take a "time out" from world history, luxuriate in unearned natural wealth and focus all blame on others for their own ineptitude.

If the Arab regimes lack any accountability towards their peoples, the totally dysfunctional Palestinians have manifested this tendency to an unparalleled degree. Secretary of State Rice recently attempted to jump-start the dormant Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Why she thought there was any possibility of this happening is unclear, maybe it was just a case of inveterate optimism. In any event, the Saudi backed and negotiated Mecca Agreement between the Hamas and Fatah, designed to put an end to the fighting between the two fratricidal factions that constitute the so-called "Palestinian Authority", began collapsing from the outset and has now deteriorated into even more severe fighting and a state of near chaos in Gaza. Once again the prospects for any progress on the Palestinian issue have become victims of the Palestinians’ unending inability to get their act together, put an end to domestic violence, end terror against Israel, institute effective government and take control of their destiny.

Which brings us back to Lebanon. Torn apart by the fifteen year civil war, largely a consequence of the Palestinian takeover of large parts of the country, following their expulsion from Jordan, whose king they had sought to topple, Lebanon has been making an attempt to rebuild itself as a functioning country once again. The Iranian and Syrian backed Hizballah, now with the aid of the Palestinians, are making the prospects for this happening, far poorer than they already were. Will they ever get it?

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The author, a former Deputy National Security Advisor in Israel, now a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Schusterman Fellow, recently published a study of the US-Israeli dialogue on the Iranian nuclear program.

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