- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2000

EIN El-HILWEH, Lebanon Waiting in a long line at the U.N. refugee office, knowing she would not be returning home to a Palestinian state any time soon, Hamida Abbas was close to tears.

Mrs. Abbas, a resident of the squalid Ein el-Hilweh camp that is home to 75,000 Palestinians, was hoping to get money for medical tests for her daughter a process that can take up to 20 days.

"What does [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat know of our misery? What can he do for us? Nothing," she burst out.

Many among Lebanon's 350,000 Palestinian refugees reacted bitterly yesterday to the Palestinian Central Council's decision to put off a declaration of statehood for at least two months in order to give faltering peace talks with Israel a chance.

The fate of Palestinians in Lebanon many of whom fled their homeland more than 50 years ago as well as tens of thousands of other refugees and their descendants scattered across the Arab world is one of the toughest issues before the negotiators.

"The Palestinian leadership has lost its credibility in the eyes of the refugees," said Ghazi Asadi, a 50-year-old grocer in Ein el-Hilweh, the largest of Lebanon's 12 refugee camps. "Nobody trusts [Mr. Arafat] anymore."

Palestinians outside the Middle East echoed that angry disappointment. In the Detroit area, home to a large Arab-American community, Imad Hamad said statehood is a dream his people won't easily give up.

"The Palestinian leadership must take the courageous step to force the issue and force the reality of a state on the ground," said Mr. Hamad, Midwest regional director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Mr. Hamad, 38, was born in Ein el-Hilweh and moved to the United States in 1980.

Ibrahim Taraani, a 40-year-old Palestinian who came to America 20 years ago from the refugee camp of Yarmuk in Damascus, Syria, said everything was in place for a declaration.

"It would add to the bargaining chips of the Palestinians and create new reality for the Israelis to deal with," said the financial consultant, who has a brother and a sister in Yarmuk and four brothers and a sister in Jordan.

Mr. Arafat told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper this week that the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to a new state should start with those in Lebanon, "because of the sensitivity of their presence there and their continuous suffering."

Unlike refugees in Syria and Jordan, Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from all but menial jobs, forbidden to own property and generally unwelcome outside their camps. Officials describe their presence as a "time bomb" and have demanded they be allowed to return home, adding that granting them citizenship would tip Lebanon's sensitive Christian-Muslim balance in favor of the Muslims.

Lebanon is particularly worried about armed guerrillas among the refugees and the possibility of renewed attacks against Israel from south Lebanon a pretext Israel used to invade in 1978 and 1982. Ein el-Hilweh was almost wiped out in Israel's 1982 invasion.

While their future is debated, the Palestinians languish in the gloomy, crime-ridden camps, dreams of their return slipping further into oblivion with each passing day.

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