Hezbollah and
Palestinian Civil Rights

Local political pressures
on the Party of God

Part IV of a six part series
on securing Palestinian
Civil Rights in Lebanon

Franklin Lamb
Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp

The current relationship between the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and
Hezbollah is not as clear cut as often assumed, despite the frequent
inspiring brotherly words of Hezbollah’s leadership and the fact that the
Party enjoys the support of more than 90% of the camp refugees, none of whom
can vote. What this means is that the willingness of the Lebanese Resistance
to spend its domestic political capital to legislate the right work to work
for Palestinian refugees is not settled as of mid-May 2010.

The Hezbollah-PLO historical connection is well known in Lebanon. If Grand
Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini was the omnipresent but unseen father
at the birth of the Party of God (whose very name he approved), the Beirut
headquartered Palestine Liberation Organization was in some ways the infant
organization’s nurturing and occasionally doting ‘uncle.’ This familial
relationship weakened, but did not collapse after the PLO’s leadership and
local power base were gutted in the summer of 1982.

The out of country lectures of Imam Khomeini and various Shia scholars who
matriculated at Najaf and Qom and who often referenced the 680 c.e. Ashura
passion play of Karbala, were supplemented by lectures from pro-Palestinian
Shia clerics including the pro-Palestinian Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Huseein
Fadlallah, (an admirer but not an avid follower of Khomeini) Abass Mousawi,
and Raghad Harb among others. All inspired Lebanon’s youth to follow the
examples of the Karbala Ashura heros Ali, Hussein, Abbas and Zeinab in order
to work for and achieve justice for Palestine. A frequent theme was and
remains: Every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala. In the same Lebanese
neighborhood’s the PLO supplemented the idealists education with teachings
the likes of Franz Fanon, Mao, Vo Nguyen Giap and Che Guevara. The
Palestinians added contemporary examples of Karbala type sacrifices and
steadfastness of scores of martyrs such as 19 year old Dalal Mughrabi from
Rashedeyeh camp near Tyre, leader of the March 11, 1978 Kamal Al ‘Odwan
Operation inside Palestine. In important aspects both movements melded into
a common Resistance cause.

The March 1968 battle of Karameh inside Palestine near the Jordanian border
revealed to the region that Israel was not invincible and Arafat’s frequent
clarion following the June 1967 war that “every Arab and Muslim must pledge
to fight until “martyrdom” linked the PLO in the minds of many Shia, with
Kabala and later Hezbollah.

PLO aid to the Islamic Resistance

Six years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution ousted the US-UK installed
pretender to the Peacock Throne, via Operation Ajax on August 19, 1953, and
nine years before Hezbollah was founded, the PLO supported, trained and
helped arm elements of the Khomeini inspired movement inside Lebanon.
On the orders of Yassir Arafat and his deputy, Khalil al Wazir (Abu Jihad) large
quantities of weapons were gifted or sold cheap to Islamist groups, the only
conditions being that the fighters were pledged to resist Israeli aggression
and their PLO weapons were not to be used against Lebanese civilians or each
other. Events would soon demonstrate that some of these loosely configured
group, including the Farsi accented “foreigners” seen increasingly around
Shatila and Burj al Barjeneh refugees camps and Dahiyeh, were indeed serious
about resisting Israeli aggression.

Today in South Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon plenty of veterans
of various groups operating in the 1970’s and early 1980’s vividly recall
receiving help from the secular PLO resistance with its tolerance for a wide
spectrum of religious views as well as the godless. One former fighter, now
a Hamra Street lawyer in Beirut, told this observer just this week that the
PLO taught the ABC’s of resistance tactics to Hezbollah. “We taught them a
lot. But they also learned much from our many errors and that learning
helped make them a formidable organization today.” The PLO respected the
seriousness, discipline and honesty of the young men arriving in Lebanon
and welcomed them.

One well known example of the PLO-Hezbollah symbiosis and deepending
releationship in this perod was Hezbollah’s legendary military leader, Imad
Mughniyeh from the southern Shia village of Tair Dibb. Imad joined the PLO
at age 13 and by 18 distinguished himself at the June 1982 battle of Khaldeh
south of Beirut’s airport. One friend of Imad’s recently recalled that the
young Fateh member was impressed fighting side by side with Islamic
resistance fighters who joined the battle against the Israeli forces advancing
on West Beirut. He also served as a body guard for Lebanon’s senior Shia
cleric, Mohamad Hussein Fadlallah as well as PLO leaders Yassir Arafat, Abu
Jihad and Abu Iyad, as part of his Fatah’s Force 17 duties.

Regarding the PLO assistance to Islamic fighters in the summer of 1982,
mentioned above, it was Mughineh who was put in charge of the weapons
distribution. (On August 18, 1982 the late American journalist/researcher
Janet Stevens was given 250 brand new Chinese made, plastic-handled
AK-47’s wrapped in grease and heavy plastic. She enlisted this observer and
two others for a 2 a.m. burying project in the then vacant lot next to the
Commodore Hotel to hide them, she presciently advised us, from Israeli
forces that she was sure would find an excuse to enter West Beirut. Not until
the hotel, expanded and dug up the vacant lot around 1992 for a new
swimming pool, were the weapons discovered.)

When Imad Mughineh was assassinated, widely thought to have been by
Israel aided by its Syrian spies, he received the title: “Leader of the Two
Victories” given to him by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah,
the reference being to his leadership in both the May 2000 and the July 2006
victories against Israel. Today, this epithet and Imad’s photo hangs in
every Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon illustrating the respect of both

PLO Shia tensions in South Lebanon

Lebanon’s Shia population, oppressed for hundreds of years by the Ottoman
Empire, colonial powers including France, as well as by fellow Lebanese,
supported the Palestinians and initially welcomed those arriving at their
door steps during the 1948 Nakba. Palestinian-Shia relations were bound to
deteriorate following the Cairo Agreement in 1969, when Yasser Arafat, the
new chairman of the PLO, and General Emile Bustani, the commander of the
Lebanese military, signed a deal allowing the PLO free reign in South
Lebanon. The Lebanese government was opposed to the agreement but the
weak government was pressured by the Arab League and Gamal Abdul
Nasser, for the failure of the Arab regimes during the 1967 war, a fight
Lebanon sat out. The Cairo Agreement “legitimized” the PLO’s presence in
Lebanon and granted it the right to carry out guerrilla attacks against Israel
at will from Lebanese territory.

The Shia-PLO relationship worsened rapidly between July 1981 and June
1982 as the PLO increased its heavy arms in South Lebanon from 80 cannon
and rocket launchers to 250 and beefed up its forces to 6,000 (of its
approximate 18,000 of whom about 5,000 were alleged to be foreign
mercenaries from such countries as Libya, Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Chad and
Mozambique.) During this period some commanders allowed their troops to
run roughshod over the local population and naturally sympathies for
Palestinian refugees due both to Israeli reprisals and PLO abuse eroded fast
and have not been fully restored. PLO crimes against the southern
population ran the gamut from ‘property requisitions’ to thefts, extortions,
plundering of villages, arbitrary arrests and killings. While officially
condemned by its leadership, the PLO did not do enough to stop it. By the
late 1970’s some Shia, including the newly established Amal militia
organized armed resistance against the PLO ‘occupation’.

To this day, some in South Lebanon bitterly mention three modern day
occupations of their villages following half a millennia of discrimination and
marginalization by the Ottomans and French among others. These more
recent occupations include the PLO from the early 1970’s until 1982, the
Israeli army from March 14,1978 until May 24, 2000 and their financed and
micro managed right wing surrogates, the “Southern Lebanese Army (SLA)
from May 1976 until May 24, 2000 still fester.

Local political pressures on Hezbollah

Some in and out of Parliament are suggesting that if Hezbollah publicly
pushes Palestinian civil rights legislation, especially the most urgent
right to work, the party which is currently having good success broadening
its popular base within the Sunni and Christians communities, could lose
some support and especially among its south Lebanon Shia base. A new rival
Shia party, the Lebanese Option Gathering (LOG) led by Ahmad Assad,
son of the former Speaker of Parliament is challenging Hezbollah in at least
one of its three base areas. It was LOG that during the 2009 Parliamentary
election publicly boasted being funded by Saudi Arabia and paid voters
handsomely with what it claimed was a wink and nod from the American
government. The Ahmad Assad organization is stepping up its criticism
of Hezbollah for neglecting the needs of South Lebanon. Since some Shia
oppose the right to work for Palestinian refugees who make up a significant
minority in the Southern Shia where jobs are even more scarce than in the
Beirut area, some political analysts see this issue as a lose-lose for Hezbollah.

One sympathetic Member of Parliament allied with Hezbollah explained
during a meeting with representatives of the Palestine Civil Right Campaign
in early May:

“Hezbollah is in a tough spot on this essential issue. If Hezbollah backs
the right to work for Palestinian refugees it risks losing some of its Shia,
Sunni and Christian supporters. If it doesn’t back the right to work
Hezbollah arguably makes a mockery out of its claimed raison d’être.
How can it lead the fight for justice in Palestine while its literal next door
neighbors wallow in disgusting open sewer camps with no chance to
earn a living and live in dignity. What would its hard earned and much
valued credibility amount to?”

Others point out that since Palestinians cannot now and will never vote in
Lebanon backing a civil rights law is a political black hole for Hezbollah.

Weakening this argument a bit, both Hezbollah and the PLO leaders
acknowledge individual Palestinian crimes against the Shia in the South
Lebanon confrontational zone. Both sides agree that the PLO Beirut
leadership should have done more to stop individual abuses during the
1974-1982 period. Hezbollah members also acknowledge that since the late
1960’s virtually all militia in Lebanon had individuals who abused the
civilian population and the Party appears able to let bygones be bygones.
One party member reminded this observer that the PLO helped Hezbollah
during its bloody intra-Shia battles with Amal and its was Hezbollah’s
then-Secretary General Abass Mousawi who refused to join the Amal
1985-87 Palestinian Camp wars and if fact helped end them by intervening
with Syria.

To add to Hezbollah’s political problems on this issue, longtime Palestinian
nemesis Samir Geagea (“I was born with my views on Palestinians!”, he
jokingly told one interviewer recently) and the Lebanese Forces have been
making a significant political comeback since his July 2005 release from
prison, including in this month’s municipal elections. “Geagea’s Christians”
are cutting into Amin Gemayel’s Phalange Party and his other Christian rival
Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. This could be part of the reason
why Aoun, a key Hezbollah ally, when asked about granting civil rights to
Palestinian refugees, squints, gets red faced and starts badmouthing the
idea and reminds his audience, that “there are 500,000 Palestinian refugees
in Lebanon and our country is going to implode, Ya Allah.” Actually, General
Aoun inflates the true figure which is close to 250,000 Palestinian refugees
remaining in Lebanon although 423,000 are registered with UNWRA.

Hezbollah is expected to add to its public endorsements of civil rights for
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by declaring soon exactly what it intends to
do in Parliament. It is said to be studying the various proposals and quietly
discussing the issue with a wide range of parties, Palestinian factions
and local and international NGO’s. Some political analysts in Lebanon
believe as Hezbollah goes, on the right to work for Palestinian refugees, so
goes Parliament. The consequences of its decision will be major for the
Lebanon’s refugees, the region and the National Lebanese Resistance.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and volunteers with the
Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon. He can be reached at
[email protected]