Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), visited Lebanon this past week to inaugurate a new Palestinian embassy in the capital Beirut. The two-day visit was the beginning of diplomatic ties between Lebanon and the PA.
Lebanon is home to nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) who fled their homes after attacks by Zionist militia during Israel’s creation in 1948. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are dispersed among 12 refugee camps and other areas, and are denied basic civil rights by the state.
Abbas was elected president of the PA in 2005 (to a term that expired in January 2009) by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, but not those in the diaspora. Abbas is, however, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which represents groups and individuals both under occupation and in the diaspora.
During the inauguration ceremony in Beirut, Abbas said: “There is no need for Palestinian arms [in Lebanon] because we are protected by the Lebanese government and the Lebanese Army.”
Al Jazeera visited the Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut to ask Palestinian refugees what they thought about Abbas’ visit to Lebanon.
“Weapons are important in the camp because of all the wars that have been waged against us. It’s a form of self defence that we cannot give up,” said Hoda, a 39-year-old resident of the camp – in response to Abbas’ message.
All those interviewed said the right of return to their homes in what is now Israel is “not negotiable”. The Palestine Papers revealed that right is something which Abbas and the PA are prepared to make major concessions over.
When asked, more than one person responded that they didn’t want to share their opinion because they didn’t want to break their fast. In addition to fasting from foods and liquids, Muslims observing the month of Ramadan also abstain from saying negative things about others.
|Mahmoud Hashem prepares juice for iftar [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t represent me as a Palestinian, nor does he care about the struggle and the hardship of the people,” said novelist Mahmoud Hashem, 44, as he prepared fresh orange juice shortly before iftar, the fast-breaking meal during Ramadan.
“His visit is pointless. It’s a visit for his [Fatah] party just so he can lift this flag on the embassy. Abbas doesn’t know about suffering and us being deprived of civil rights and the right to work, and Abbas doesn’t care about the living conditions of the people here.”
|Anwar Kayed Qaddah speaks in his coffee shop [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“To me the visit is about inaugurating the embassy, which I hope will be a real and official embassy that will improve the situation between Lebanese and Palestinians,” said 69-year-old Anwar Kayed Qaddah in his small coffee shop.
“He is the legitimate and only representative of the people before was Arafat and I hope God will give him a long life, he’s carrying a burden hopefully this will make me have my dignity back and not being rejected as a Palestinian.”
|Ahmed Mhawesh pauses by a mural of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“All the men started surrendering their weapons because he came and now we’ll leave the matters of protection and security to the Lebanese state and army,” Ahmed Mhawesh, 55, said sarcastically on his way home from work.
|Abu Shadi (left) embraces Mohamed Saleh Daoud [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“Why did he come? He inaugurated the embassy and left?” asked “Abu Shadi” [“The father of Shadi”]. “Did anything change after opening the embassy? Will they give us passports? We’ve been here for 60 years, will we be able to own property or get passports and travel to other countries?”
But 85-year-old Mohamed Saleh Daoud was more supportive of the PA leader. “He’s our president, our leader, God bless him and God willing he’ll make peace with Hamas and get everything he wants,” said Daoud.
|‘Om Ayman’ walks home through the refugee camp [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“He’s our president and I hope that his visit will bring good things to us and to the people around us. He’s responsible for the camp and he’s suffering like we are,” said 63-year-old “Om Ayman” [“The mother of Ayman”], on her way home to prepare the fast breaking meal. “Presidents suffer more than the people, and we suffer a lot here. We have more enemies than friends and if he didn’t love us then he wouldn’t come and visit.
|Rayya Majthoub takes a break as she walks through Shatila [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“He’s nothing but our president. But the camp situation is bad and no one is doing anything to solve it. God knows what good his visit will do,” said Rayya Majthoub, 75.
As for Abbas’ comments on weapons in the camp, Majthoub added: “We will never give up our weapons – why would we? So the Phalangists [the right-wing Lebanese militia that carried out the 1982 Sabra and Shatila killings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinian refugees] will come again and kill us and commit another massacre? These weapons are like our blood and giving them up is out of the question.”
|Ahmed Hindawi expressed his frustration [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“I don’t recognise Mahmoud Abbas as a president, only [late PA president and PLO leader] Yasser Arafat. I don’t care about the visit, we didn’t get anything and we never have,” said Ahmed Hindawi, 21.
|‘Bint Hussenein’ complained that Abbas would not understand life in Shatila [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“Let Mahmoud Abbas and his followers come live in the camp here. This situation is completely overwhelming, and since yesterday they’re only talking about Mahmoud Abbas, Mahmoud Abbas,” said “Bint Hussenein”.
“What is he coming for? He’s coming to eat iftar while the people here are begging on the street to get food. We don’t have electricity, water – nothing.”
|Abdel Aziz Khatib inside his mobile phone shop [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t represent Palestinians in Lebanon and if this embassy is to be inaugurated it only represents Palestinians under the control of the PA (in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip),” said 21-year-old Abdel Aziz Khatib, inside his mobile phone shop.
“For us Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, this visit isn’t beneficial in any way – it might be to others who have PA documents – but I don’t care about anything Mahmoud Abbas does.”
|Tareq Abdul Rahman and his children otuside their Shatila home [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
“I don’t care about the visit. Mahmoud Abbas and the PA don’t represent us,” said Tareq Abdul Rahman, 45, sitting next to his children. “As refugees in Lebanon we didn’t elect him – nor did they consult us in this manner. We are forgotten here. The PA doesn’t mean anything to us. If it cared about us, we might have cared about it.”
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