Reading between the lines

The issue was theoretically closed for discussion three years ago. Before division tore them apart, Lebanon’s national dialogue sessions of early 2006 led to one conclusion on which everyone could agree: disarming the Palestinians outside of the refugee camps.

That never happened, and these weapons were brought back to the fore early this week when Said “Abu” Moussa – leader of the Palestinian faction Fatah al-Intifada – declared during a visit to Saida that Palestinian groups, which have military bases along the Lebanese-Syrian border, should neither lay down their arms nor discuss the issue with the Lebanese state.

“We reject the disarmament of Palestinians outside refugee camps in Lebanon,” Moussa said on Sunday. “Palestinian weapons are not part of an internal Lebanese formula but rather tied to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which we believe did not come to an end.”

His statements caused a stir in Lebanon, and prompted the cabinet to reaffirm the state’s commitment to disarming Palestinians outside the camps and say Lebanon’s sovereignty is “non-negotiable.” Moussa quickly began backtracking, saying he was simply replying to a reporter’s question and that the weapons are indeed open for discussion between Lebanese authorities and the Palestinians. However, in the conspiratorial world of Lebanese politics, speculation abounds as to why Moussa suddenly began defending Palestinian arms outside of the camps.

“This is a clear signal from Syria that the question of Palestinian arms outside of the camps is not open for discussion at the moment,” a source close to the Kataeb Party told NOW on condition of anonymity, as he is not authorized to speak with the press.

“From what we’ve heard, [PM] Saad Hariri asked [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad to help solve this issue [when Hariri visited Damascus in December], so basically this is the comeback,” the source said.

Moussa lives in Damascus and owes his prominence to Syria. Once an ally of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Moussa split from Arafat’s Fatah Movement in 1983 with backing from Damascus, creating Fatah al-Intifada, and battled Arafat on Syria’s behalf. However, he has been absent from the Lebanese political scene for years, though Fatah al-Intifada and Ahmad Jabril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command still maintain militia bases on Lebanese territory outside of the Palestinian refugee camps.

Both groups are widely viewed as Syrian proxies, and the source close to the Kataeb said Moussa’s statements suggest Damascus wants Beirut to know that disarmament will not be negotiated with Lebanon.

“Basically Syria is saying, ‘We want to talk about this issue not with Hariri, but with the Americans,’” the source said.

Wiam Wahhab, leader of the Tawhid Movement and a Syrian ally, dismissed this reading of the situation in an interview with NOW.

“Syria, which is holding several cards in Lebanon, does not need to play this one,” he said. “Had it been the case [that Syria prompted him], Abu Moussa would not have clarified his statements the following day.”

Wahhab sees Moussa’s comments as a way for him to remind the Lebanese that the Palestinians want to improve their social status and living conditions in Lebanon. While the Palestinians, and nearly everyone else in Lebanon, insist on the right of return, the refugee community, in the mean time, wants more rights in Lebanon.

“The Palestinians connect the issue of weapons to their social situation,” he said. “You cannot tell the Palestinians, ‘I want to discuss your weapons only.’ All pending issues need to be resolved.”

Also rejecting the idea of a Syrian hand behind Moussa’s comments, Oussama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, argued that, if anything, the rejection of disarmament and dialogue was aimed at Moussa’s Palestinian rivals.

“I think it was probably an internal message to the other Palestinian factions that exist in the camps,” Safa told NOW. “If and when the time comes, the Palestinian armed individuals outside the camps are going to be sitting at the [negotiating] table with the factions inside the camps… Moussa’s comments do not represent, to my mind, any regional – particularly Syrian – policy in Lebanon, because Abu Moussa is a relic of the past. He’s a dinosaur.”

Finding yet another meaning behind Moussa’s remarks, Mounir al-Maqdah, head of al-Kifah al-Moussallah – a security force in the refugee camps under Fatah’s command – told NOW that Moussa was sending a message “to the Israeli occupation and the US-Israeli project.”

“Israel issues daily threats against the region – against Lebanon, Syria and Gaza,” he said, arguing Moussa was responding to those threats.

Hamas representative in Lebanon Ousama Hamdan refused to speculate on Moussa’s comments, but insisted, as did several other sources interviewed for this article, that the time for dialogue between Lebanese and Palestinian leaders is now.

Talks aimed at disarming Palestinians outside of the camps that were supposed to follow the 2006 national dialogue never took place as war and internal division shook Lebanon for years.

“The atmosphere is now suitable for this dialogue [on weapons],” Hamdan told NOW.

Whatever Moussa’s intention, all sides now say they are open to negotiations. Given the rarity of such consensus, it would be wise to strike while the iron is hot.

Manal Sarrouf contributed reporting to this article


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