Negotiation Vs. Palestinian Right Of Return
Lebanon: "No-one can negotiate on our right to return" - Palestinian refugees
Palestinian and Israeli leaders may have agreed at the US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis on 27 November to work towards a full peace deal by the end of next year, but in the tinderbox refugee camp of Ain Al-Hilweh in Lebanon the lives of 75,000 Palestinians are defined by an intractable issue at the heart of the conflict: the right of Palestinian refugees to return home.
"No-one can negotiate on our right to return to Palestine. There is only one country called Palestine and we will never return there except by resistance to Israel," said Abu Yousef, a fighter with the radical Palestinian Islamist faction Ansar Allah.
The right of return polarises peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis like no other issue.
For most Palestinians, the right to return of the up to six million refugees who can trace their origins back to the exodus from Palestine that followed the creation of Israel in 1948, is an absolute.
For Israeli officials - whose official historians dispute the figure of six million and also the reason for the mass exodus - the issue is existential: the sheer number of Palestinian refugees who can claim a right to return to their pre-1948 homes are a demographic danger to the world's only Jewish state.
At the failed US-sponsored Camp David peace talks in 2000 Israeli negotiators proposed that a limited number of refugees would be allowed to return to Israel on the basis of humanitarian considerations or family reunification.
All other people currently classified as Palestinian refugees would be settled in their present abode, the Palestinian state, or third-party countries. An international fund would be set up, to which Israel would contribute along with other countries, that would register claims for property compensation and make payments within the limits of its resources.
UN General Assembly Resolution 194, and Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, assert the refugees' unconditional right of return to live at peace in their old homes or to receive compensation for their losses.
"We live with hardship every day"
But if the issue of the refugees' fate has largely been ignored in previous rounds of Middle East diplomacy the question has not been forgotten in the dusty, dangerous cinderblock camp of Ain al-Hilweh, on the outskirts of Lebanon's southern port of Sidon.
"I was born here in a small tent in 1958," said Abu Ahmad Fadel Taha, leader of the Islamic group Hamas in Ain al-Hilweh. "I have lived all my life here with my father, who is now 94, and my eight children. We live with hardship every day and we live the dream of return every day."
From his office in the heart of the camp, Fadel Taha's staff broadcasts programmes to camp households from Hamas-sponsored TV channels called Al-Aqsa - named after the mosque in Jerusalem - and Reesala, meaning the Message, on free satellite wavelengths. The message is often uncompromising.
"Israel wants the Palestinians to admit Palestine is the home of the Jews. It wants us to give up on the right of return," said Taha. "Palestine is for us and for our grandchildren and can only be liberated by resistance. Oslo and Madrid [peace conferences] brought only shame. We don't believe in negotiations."
Besides their dream of return, Palestinians in Lebanon face a unique array of hardships.
Unable to gain citizenship in this country because of fears such a move would upset its delicate sectarian power-sharing system, Lebanon's 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in a double limbo: refusing resettlement in their host country but demanding better rights, such as the right to work in over 70 professional jobs from which they are now barred.
According to UNRWA, the UN's Palestinian relief organisation, Lebanon has the highest percentage of all Palestinian refugees living in abject poverty, and the worst of that is felt inside the 12 official refugee camps.
Under a 1969 Arab agreement, Lebanese authorities have no right of access inside the camps, with Palestinians running an autonomous security system.
For many camp residents their arms signal their refusal to relinquish their refugee status.
"We maintain our weapons as a guarantee of our right of return to our homeland," said Sheikh Maher Oweid, commander of the radical Islamist Ansar Allah faction in Ain al-Hilweh.
Too often though, the weapons of rival factions have been turned on each other, with regular deadly gun battles over the past two years between Islamist radical groups, such as Ozbat Ansar, which claim to be the largest faction in the camp, and its secular rivals, such as Fatah.
Return, but to fight
The catastrophic destruction of the northern refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in a three-month battle this summer between the army and Islamist hardliners, many of them foreigners, who had holed up in the camp, further hiked tensions between Islamist radicals and secular moderates.
"Fatah have shot on us many times but our religion tells us we must protect our Palestinian civilians here in the camp," said Sheikh Abu Sharif, spokesman of Ozbat Ansar.
The Sunni extremists Ozbat define themselves as global 'jihadis' fighting what they call "Israeli and American occupation" and for the establishment of Islamic rule across the world. They criticise both Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement, for their "narrow agendas" of only seeking an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and a disputed corner of southeast Lebanon.
Ozbat Ansar, too, believe in the right to return, but not for peaceful means.
"We have succeeded in establishing a military wing inside occupied Palestine," said Abu Sharif, vowing to fight against any two state solutions that could arise from Annapolis.
"God had promised us that we will return to our homes. But we will never get Palestine without jihad."