By Marwan Kanafani and Elizabeth Schiffrin, WALKING through the unpaved streets of Ain el-Helweh

Origins of the PFLP GC

To understand the origins of a group like the PFLP GC, and why the U.S. is trying to disarm it, one must refer back to 1964, when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was created by a group of Palestinian intellectuals in the Diaspora. With a priority placed on liberating Palestine through armed struggle, the PLO became the official representative of the Palestinian people. Between 1964 and 1967, the PLO was plugged into a broader nationalist struggle based on the ideology that Palestinian liberation was inextricably linked to the liberation of all Arabs.

This nationalist cause was forever altered following the 1967 Six-Day War. As Egypt, Jordan and Syria were mobilizing their forces along their strategic borders, Israel, pre-empting any Arab attack by launching an offensive which destroyed the Arab armies in a mere six days. Having seen that the rest of the Arab world could not successfully come to the aid of the Palestinian cause, many Palestinians took this defeat as motivation to take up their own armed struggle. As a result, groups such as the PFLP GC, founded by a Palestinian refugee living in Syria named Ahmed Jibril, began to splinter off from the more political factions of the PLO in order to make armed resistance their primary objective.

The PFLP GC has since developed into the most significant Palestinian militia group in Lebanon. However, its existence has been challenged by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, sponsored by Washington and passed in 2004, which “calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” But, according to PFLP GC Central Committee spokesman Hamzi Bishtawi, a Palestinian refugee who was displaced with his family to the Shatila camp in 1948, until the Palestinian refugees currently living in Lebanon are allowed to return to a Palestinian state, the PFLP GC will remain armed. “We know what wealth of weaponry the enemy possesses,” Bishtawi says, “and we know that mostly because of our casualties. At this point in history we have attempted to acquire whatever we can put our hands on to fight the enemy.”

In the opinion of Salah Mohammad Salah, chairman of the Palestinian Refugees Standing Committee, a department of the PLO in Lebanon, the current U.S. focus on Palestinian disarmament is a political tactic rather than an attempt to address a real threat. The PFLP GC is ready to take up arms in defense of their people, he points out, not as an active provocation against Lebanese security forces. “Many would like to say that Palestinians are still used by the Syrians and that they are very dangerous to the internal situation,” he notes, but contends that this is an attempt “to avoid dealing with the real issue: the right of return.” The United States would like to bundle the PFLP GC and the Syrians together, Salah asserts, thus making a case for disarmament easier to swallow.

Since PFLP GC founder Ahmed Jibril was a former captain in the Syrian army, he garnered support from forces within Syria, thereby ensuring a steady supply of Kalashnikovs, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), explosives, mines, hand grenades and other light- to medium-grade weaponry. Nor have these weapons, hidden underground inside refugee camps such as Ain el-Helweh as well as in various caves in the Bekaa Valley, been subject to regular inspection and maintenance. In addition, training on the use of these weapons has been sparse. Despite these disadvantages, however, many young Palestinians continue to gravitate toward armed resistance. The daily realities of their lives—rampant unemployment, substandard living conditions, and little access to education—push them to take up arms. But beyond their modern-day struggles lies a history that quickly reveals why these young people believe their survival depends on their ability to defend themselves.

U.N. Resolution 1559

Drafted in 2004, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 contained three main demands: immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces and intelligence, free Lebanese elections, and the disarmament of all militia. Within six months of Harriri’s assassination, Syria’s last soldier was on his way back to Damascus. With Syria gone, Lebanon lacked any legitimate security apparatus that could combat Israeli aggression in the south. That void was filled by Hezbollah.

The most popular armed militia in Lebanon for Palestinians and Lebanese alike, Hezbollah can briefly be described as an Iranian-backed Shi’i Muslim resistance organization, dedicated to defending Lebanon from Israeli invasion and occupation. Since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1989, U.S. policy toward Lebanon has focused increasingly on security for Washington’s major ally in the region: Israel. However, the U.S. knows it cannot achieve this aim as long as armed militia groups control certain areas, such as Hezbollah in south Lebanon and the PFLP GC in the refugee camps.

Speaking with Cairo’s Al-Ahram newspaper, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated, “Of course, in the long run you can’t have a democratic society and a society based on rule of law where you have groups or organizations that are committed to violence outside of that framework.”

According to Rami Khoury, a Jordanian-Palestinian free-lance journalist for Lebanon’s Daily Star, the discussion of the disarmament of Palestinian militia must take into account Hezbollah. “Palestinian arms are coupled with Hezbollah arms,” Koury maintains. “The Palestinians defend themselves against any threat of Israeli aggression, Lebanese aggression, and internal feuds. The fact is, though, the Palestinians aren’t a danger to the security of Lebanon, and Hezbollah is the only group able to fight the Israelis. The Lebanese are intent on incorporating Hezbollah into the security force. At this point, disarmament is a waiting game.”

Under 1559 the Palestinian refugees cannot be forced to give up their weapons without the concurrent disarmament of Hezbollah. But Hezbollah has become a vital element of Lebanese security. The question therefore becomes, points out Khalid Ayid of the Institute of Palestine Studies in Lebanon: “With public support for the U.S. war in Iraq withering away in the sun and a weak Lebanese security apparatus, who is up for the mighty task of disarming Hezbollah?”

Backed Into a Corner

With their outdated weapons hidden in caves and an untrained youth militia patrolling the cramped streets of some 12 refugee camps, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not constitute a major military threat. However, they are being backed into a corner by Resolution 1559. According to Khoury, all the Palestinians have left to continue their struggle is light weaponry—and Washington want them to give even that up.

Moreover, the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is further exacerbated by the lack of coherence among Palestinian leaders. The PFLP GC’s Bishtawi believes that Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is limited by his attempts to meet the demands of the U.S. administration. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] is imprisoned by the road map and by Oslo and whatever the American administration is able to hand out to them. We’re always asking him to leave this prison,” Bishtawi says. “It’s the ambitions of the Palestinian people and their vision and their faith that you cannot restrict us by Oslo or by the road map. There is another road map that the Palestinians have chosen: the resistance and the intifada.”

Recent talks between the PA and the Lebanese have not dealt directly with the disarmament issue. Speaking to Agence France Presse (AFP), Prime Minister Abbas said, “The Palestinians are being hosted temporarily by Lebanon, and the law of this country must apply to us as it applies to others. This resolution (1559) concerns the Lebanese government, which is free to apply it as it wants.”

Essentially, Abbas and the PA essentially have relinquished the responsibility of disarmament to the Lebanese, the question becomes, who is going to advocate on behalf of the Palestinian refugees? Abbas is the democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A disregard for the plight of the refugees could further fracture his already tenuous position. With only 47 percent of Palestinians who live in Lebanese refugee camps favoring disarmament because of their overwhelming fear of yet another massacre, Abbas will have to alter his approach if he is to convince the refugees in Lebanon that they will not be forgotten.

In the wake of Harriri’s assassination and renewed efforts to implement Resolution 1559, the U.S. faces the challenge of finding a way to negotiate the issue of disarmament among Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinian refugees. Israel cannot expect normalized relations while it continues to fly over Lebanese airspace, bomb south Lebanon, and threaten its neighbor’s sovereignty. Hezbollah, the PFLP GC and other armed militia groups cannot realistically be asked to disarm while Israel still poses a threat in the region. Palestinian refugees will be unwilling to give up their limited means of defending themselves without their own state through which they may realize autonomy and power. Nor can the U.S. successfully negotiate without holding Israel responsible for its continued expansion of illegal Jewish settlements, construction of its annexation wall, and unwillingness to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as guaranteed by international law and U.N. resolutions.

Paying the Highest Price

Ultimately, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees pay the highest price. With promises of security having collapsed into bloody massacres, and the constant fear of attack looming over their daily lives, Palestinians in Lebanon will not disarm. “These fears [will not] be easily forgotten by the Palestinian refugees in the camps,” observes the Institute of Palestine Studies’ Ayid, “because they paid dearly for it and I don’t think they can afford to pay for it once more.”

This is a reality Washington must acknowledge. The armed refugees in the Ain el-Helweh camp hold onto their weapons the same way the old men hold on to the keys of the homes from which they were expelled. Such artifacts may be outdated and worn, but they are the last means of survival for an abandoned people.