Interview with Fathi Abou al-Aardat, Senior Fatah Leader and Secretary of the Palestine Committee and Union in Lebanon: "The 500,000 Palestinians want to return to Palestine and not remain in Lebanon."

Posted in Broader Middle East | 21-Apr-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

At least 164,000 Palestinians live in ten refugee camps in Lebanon now. 350,000 are holders of UNRWA refugee documents.

WSN: How many Palestinian refugees are in Lebanon?

Al-Aardat: Approximately 350,000 are holders of UNRWA refugee documents, but there are many others that are not registered with any UN organization in Lebanon. In 2004-2005 we will probably have about 500,000 refugees in the camps around Lebanon, with the majority concentrated in the Ein el-Hilwe camp in Sidon.

WSN: What kind of activities does the PLO run inside the camps?

Al-Aardat: We have many, different activities: Social, political and educational activities are among the most important.

WSN: Who provides you with the funds needed for these activities?

Al-Aardat: Mainly the PLO, but there are a few international NGOs that work in coordination with the UN in order to provide healthcare and social services for the refugees.

WSN: The Ein el-Hilwe camp has the reputation for being the most dangerous camp in Lebanon. Is it true that you have weapons within the camp?

Al-Aardat: What I can tell you is that the Palestinians are not terrorists. Even in camps, in these hard conditions we have managed to educate our young women and men. Therefore, we have students, engineers, teachers and doctors in this camp, and in others as well.

WSN: Sir, is it true that you hold weapons within the camps? Is Ein el-Hilwe a militarized camp?

Al-Aardat: It is true that we have weapons in this camp, but this is not illegal. We need them to protect ourselves. On the other hand, you have to remember that not all the Palestinian organizations are under the PLO's leadership. We communicate with them, but they have their own rules. Some are radicals, and with them we have only political contacts. They consider themselves to be warriors for the Palestinian cause.

WSN: You have said that you need weapons to protect yourself. Who is threatening you in Lebanon?

Al-Aardat: We have suffered so much in the past, and we are still struggling for our cause. We dislike both violence and weapons. However, in Lebanon there are many people who do not like us. Some of them have even worked with the Israelis in the war, at Sabra and Shatila. For this reason, the weapons we have are only to ensure our security, not to attack the Lebanese or others.

WSN: What are the Palestinian goals for the future?

Al-Aardat: If you ask any Palestinian woman or man this question, the answer will certainly be: To return to my homeland. This is our goal and our cause. We do not want to remain in Lebanon, but also the Lebanese would not accept us here. One only needs to see the living conditions the Lebanese have imposed upon us to understand what their position is toward us. Our country is Palestine. We have our houses there. For example, I have two houses in Haifa. Of course, I want to go back there in the near future.

WSN: Is Abbas's policy the right one for the Palestinians? Do most Palestinians agree with having a separate country?

Al-Aardat: Mr. Abbas, the President of PLO, is doing his best to solve the problems we have had with the Israelis for many decades. He needs time. His policy of two states for two people is widely accepted among the Fatah and even among other factions. There is a good, historical moment we have now and Mr. Abbas has already taken first steps to meet Prime Minister Sharon's demands. Not all of them can be met at the moment, but we have a ceasefire and that is a good start. However, without the goodwill of Sharon and the support of the international community, we cannot succeed.

WSN: What are the main demands the PLO has of Israel?

Al-Aardat:We want the following from Israel: 1) Stop building the apartheid wall, 2) withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the next months, 3) stop building settlements on our land, 4) solve the refugee problem and 5) release all of our prisoners that are being held in Israeli jails.

Not long ago, Mahmoud Abbas was here in Beirut to have discussions with the Fatah leaders from the camps and with the Lebanese authorities about the issue of the refugees in Lebanon and on the peace process the PLO initiated together with the Israelis. Some of the Lebanese political decision makers agreed that the conditions we live in within the camps are not humane and they promised to look further into the problem. But now they have their own political conflicts and tensions; therefore, our issues will have to wait. Also, Mahmoud Abbas informed us that some of the refugees will probably be able to return to Palestine, but nothing is clear yet.

WSN: What are you willing to give up in order to have peace with your neighbor, Israel?

Al-Aardat: Israel was not our neighbor until the international community decided this without even asking us, but we have accepted this as a de facto matter. We are ready to work towards an agreement accepted by most of the Israelis and the Palestinians, but everything must be solved within the 1967 border.

WSN: Would the PLO agree to disarm its various resistances, as Prime Minister Sharon is asking?

Al-Aardat:Mahmoud Abbas reached common ground with the factions that are outside the PLO. They will hold on to their weapons, but not use them. We are waiting to see what the Israelis will do next. If they respect their part of the agreement, we will do the same, no doubt about it. The factions like Hamas or Islamic Jihad will most probably agree to disarm when the Israelis meet our main demands, but not before. There must be some trust between us, regardless of the tensions that we have among the Palestinians, or the tensions the Israelis have with their religious extremists. Israel is strongly supported by the US; therefore we need some guarantees before putting down the weapons. What if the Israelis once again chase us from Palestine? We cannot take this risk.

WSN: What should Israel do to gain your trust?

Al-Aardat: First, Israel must completely withdraw from Gaza and stop using its policy of killing our leaders and stop building the wall. We cannot accept living closed in by the Israeli wall. What about our economy? What about our commercial ties? How can we rebuild our country if we are kept in a jail by the wall they are building?

WSN: If Israel stops the construction, will the Palestinian factions stop sending suicide bombers across the border?

Al-Aardat: Yes, I am sure there would then be no more suicide bombers. But they have to stop or face the consequences. The PLO has already agreed to the ceasefire and is working with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in order to respect this agreement, but the international community has to understand that not all Palestinians are on Abbas's side. On the other hand, the leaders of Islamic Jihad announced that since the ceasefire agreement, the suicide bombings that have occurred were not in any way related or dictated by them.

WSN: What are your thoughts on the Road Map?

Al-Aardat: We accept the Road Map peace plan and the international assistance. Hopefully, Sharon will also accept the Road Map conditions, instead of his unilateral steps policy that may prove to be dangerous or at least not benefit both of the parties involved in the process.

WSN: Do you have any terrorist organizations in Palestine?

Al-Aardat: No, we do not. We may have some disagreements with different Palestinian factions, but all of us are fighting for the liberation of our land and finally we will find a common solution to our issues. Now, the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are thinking about joining the political spectrum we have in Palestine. Therefore, in the future our dialog will be more constructive. We refuse to call the above factions terrorists, as others do. They have the same goal as the PLO, but their means are sometimes different than ours.

WSN: What about Jerusalem? How do you see this problem being solved?

Al-Aardat: We want East Jerusalem to be the capital of the new Palestinian state. We refuse the alternative put forward by Jewish religious extremists, to have our prayers under the Al-Aqsa Mosque and they would have their synagogue and prayers within the Al-Aqsa -- on the ground. Obviously, Jerusalem is important for us, the Jews and the Christians. Therefore, we need to find a solution that will enable the access to the religious sites to all of us, but with East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital.

WSN: Thank you, sir for your comments.