PLO's Return to Beirut Raises Thorny Issues
July 7, 2008
Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The Palestine Liberation Organization is planning to reopen its offices in Beirut, which have been closed since Israel expelled PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat from Lebanon in 1982, Lebanese media reports said on Thursday.
The move suggests that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO are seeking to boost their influence in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps -- perhaps to counter the influence of more radical groups, said Israeli counter-terrorism expert Dr. Ely Karmon.
The Palestinians have never been integrated into Lebanese society, Karmon said.
More than 370,000 of them live in Lebanon, more than half in crowded camps, according to statistics from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which tends to their humanitarian needs.
The PLO's reported return to Beirut comes at a time when talk of Israeli-Palestinian "permanent status" issues -- such as the right of return for refugees -- are resurfacing after four years of violence and terrorism.
"The Lebanese government is interested in a solution to Palestinian refugees [and] that those in southern camps will go out of Lebanon," Karmon said.
Israel adamantly opposes the idea of having hundreds of thousands of Palestinians -- along with millions of their descendants -- return to the homes and land they left during the Israeli-Arab wars in 1948 and 1967.
An influx of Palestinians into what is now Israel would erase the identity of the Jewish state, most Israelis agree.
Jordan's new ambassador to Israel, Ma'aruf Bakhit, said his country sees a difference between recognizing the Palestinian right of return and actually implementing it.
"Recognizing the right of return is important," the Jerusalem Post quoted Bakhit as saying. "But the implementation of the right of return is something different and it is up to the parties concerned."
Due to the implications of such a move, Israel has not been willing to recognize the right of return for Palestinians.
Call for unity
On Wednesday, Farouk Qaddoumi, the head of the PLO's Central Committee, met with officials from 10 Palestinian factions in Beirut, Lebanon, the online version of the Lebanese daily The Daily Star reported.
Qaddoumi reportedly emphasized the importance of national unity, including Palestinian groups that froze their ties with the PLO in 1983.
Qaddoumi urged the various factions to participate in a forum that will "defend refugees' right to return to their homeland and refuse permanent settlement," the paper said.
Dozens of international activists are currently attending a three-day conference in Beirut entitled, "The Palestinian People's Right of Return to their Homeland." It was organized by the International Union of Parliamentarians, headed by former Iranian interior minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi.
Although Syria hosts the headquarters of a dozen Palestinian terrorist organizations in its capital, Damascus, relations between Syria and former PA Chairman Yasser Arafat had been strained for years.
The Israeli army entered Lebanon in 1982 in an attempt to rout Arafat's PLO, which was using Lebanon as a base for launching terror attacks against Israel. Arafat and the PLO were eventually expelled to Tunisia, amid international pressure for Israel to spare Arafat's life.
But shortly after Arafat's death last November, Palestinian Authority Chairman Machmoud Abbas met with Syrian President Bashar Assad, ending decades of Syrian-Palestinian hostilities.
The reopening of PLO offices in Beirut -- where Syria is the main powerbroker -- would indicate a further warming of relations between Syria and the Palestinians, Karmon said.
Those warmer relations come as Syria faces increasing American and international pressure to withdraw its 14,000 troops and intelligence services from Lebanon.
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