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'This will never be accepted': Palestinians condemn Saudi meddling in their future

Palestinians in Lebanon's Ain el-Helweh say right of return is sacrosanct, amid reports of a Saudi plan to dump it as part of new peace deal
A Palestinian security officer stands by a mural of Yasser Arafat in Ain el-Helweh (AFP)

AIN EL-HILWEH, Sidon, Lebanon - The streets of Lebanon’s most crowded refugee camp are draped in flags of whichever faction dominates that particular area. Young armed men wearing Fatah insignia stand on one corner, while across the road sit another armed group sporting the insignia of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Further inside the camp is an array of other groups, each controlling a small portion of the camp.

The streets are bustling; students returning from school, shoppers, and mechanics tinkering away in open garages.

This will never be accepted by any Palestinian, inside Palestine, outside Palestine, anywhere

- Sobhi Abu Arab, Ain el-Helweh security chief

Chatter focuses on the struggles of living in a refugee camp in Lebanon - one woman needs urgent medical care but cannot get into a Lebanese hospital, another man has had to move his business after it was blown up in recent clashes.

Such is the day-to-day grind that not much attention is being paid to reports last week that, if correct, would throw the Palestinian diaspora into turmoil once again.

Last week the Lebanese newspaper, al-Akhbar, published what it said was a Saudi plan for Israel-Palestine peace talks, which would remove the right of return of Palestinians – previously non-negotiable - while pushing neighbouring countries to permanently naturalise them.

The undated letter, allegedly written by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, also stated East Jerusalem would be removed as the capital of a future independent Palestine, and instead be placed under international sovereignty.

A bustling street in Ain el-Helweh, Lebanon (AFP)

Empty words

Akhbar did not publish the original document as proof of its veracity. But the content, coming as the Trump administration in the US was finalising its own plan in consultation with the Saudis, was roundly rejected by those in Ain el-Helweh.

"This will never be accepted by any Palestinian, inside Palestine, outside Palestine, anywhere," Major General Sobhi Abu Arab, the Palestinian national security chief in Ain el-Helweh told Middle East Eye.

"This is not a new idea. It is brought up every so often and Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas] would never agree to it."

"These are empty words that have been used for decades."

Palestinian security officials insist the situation in the camps is under control. Over the last few months, most factions have worked closely with the Lebanese authorities to ensure the camps are not dragged into any conflict, local or regional.

But they are well aware the Palestinians, once again, may be used as pawn in a larger regional power play.

Two weeks ago Abbas was abruptly summoned for a private meeting with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. Details of what was said are scarce, although reports allude to bin Salman pressing Abbas to accept a Saudi peace plan as well as join Saudi Arabia and Israel in its campaign against Iran and Hezbollah.

Competing militias regularly clash in Ain el-Helweh (AFP)

Israel's gambit

Many Palestinians in Lebanon dismiss the idea of removing the right of return, pointing out that Israel, well aware of the right's non-negotiable status, is instead manoeuvering as part of a larger, longer-term strategy; that of legitimacy and normalisation with the rest of the Arab world.

"What Israel is doing is tactical," said Zafer al-Khateeb, a Palestinian activist inside Ain el-Helweh. "They want to use this opportunity with Saudi Arabia, and therefore the peace process, to break the taboo on Arab normalisation with Israel.

"They know the right of return cannot be removed. That is not to say there isn’t something being cooked. There is certainly work being done, but until now it is unclear and there is no reality on the ground."

Informed Palestinian sources based in Lebanon have also warned how the Palestinian issue cannot be viewed without taking the situation in the region as a whole. They say this is just one of the cards currently being played, and there is danger that eventually the Palestinians may be dragged into the wider conflict by forcing them to choose between the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis and the American-Israeli-Saudi Arabia axis.

What Israel is doing is tactical. They know the right of return cannot be removed

- Zafer al-Khateeb, Ain el-Helweh activist

Historically Iran and Hezbollah have financially and militarily supported some Palestinian groups, most notably Hamas and its military wing, Islamic Jihad. This relationship was suspended after the war in Syria broke out, when Hamas stood beside the Syrian opposition and fought against Hezbollah and the Syrian army inside Syria.

But this relationship is beginning to thaw, and since the summer Hamas officials have taken several trips to Beirut to meet Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian government Palestinian factions, as well as visiting Tehran, much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia.

Hamas and Fatah have also recently reached a reconciliation deal, which is of concern to both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

"Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have something to gain by using the peace plan to pressure and embarrass the Palestinians," said one source in Beirut.

"The Israelis can show that all the ‘moderate’ Arabs are willing to deal with Israel, except for the Palestinians," the source said, while the Saudis could place pressure on the Palestinians by claiming they are in league with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah if they do not agree to a peace plan.

"This would leave [the Palestinians] in the cold in the eyes of the Arabs."

Furthermore, the Palestinian issue is no longer an Arab priority, now superseded by the perceived threat from Iran – one of the points stated in the alleged letter by the Saudi foreign minister.

A child plays in Ain el-Helweh. But her nation's problems are no longer a priority for many in the Middle East (AFP)

A new 'reality'

While Saudi Arabia may attempt to force this issue to the table, for countries such as Lebanon it is also non-negotiable. 

The Taef Agreement, Lebanon’s constitution that brought an end to the civil war in 1991, specifically states that Palestinian refugees will not be naturalised.

In addition, a 1990s agreement with the Syrian government means Lebanon cannot take a decision regarding peace with Israel or the Palestinian issue without coordinating with the Syrians first, making the Saudi peace plan a non-starter in the eyes of the Lebanese.

For many observers in the region, Saudi Arabia is attempting to create a new reality on the ground in the Middle East.

"It is necessary to remember that the Palestinian file is part of a bigger, regional file," said Khateeb. 

Pointing to Saudi Arabia’s ongoing war in Yemen, its blockade against Qatar, its losses on the Syrian battlefield, and most recently, its involvement in the forced resignation in Riyadh of the Lebanese prime minister, he added: "And it is unclear where this Saudi 'adventure' is going."