Saudis seek to enlist Palestinians in their anti-Hezbollah campaign
By Abdel Bari Atwan
According to the New York Times, Saudi Arabia has devised a long-term plan to combat Hezbollah in Lebanon. In a lengthy report published on Monday, the paper said the Saudis were trying to establish and arm militias in the country’s Palestinian refugee camps to confront Hezbollah with the aim of rolling back Iranian influence in Lebanon.
Saudi authorities strongly denied the news, but reports from Beirut say figures associated with Lebanese sectarian fundamentalist groups have become increasingly active in the camps, trumpeting the supposedly growing threat posed by Iran to the Arab world and inciting against Hezbollah.
According to recently published official statistics, there are currently some 174,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, much fewer than the figures commonly cited prior to the latest census. Most are Sunni Muslims, but the majority reject sectarian politics and avoid taking sides in Lebanon’s domestic quarrels, especially members and supports of nationalist and ideological groups such as the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the mainstream Fateh movement.
The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has a strong and growing following in the camps. But its current leadership has been repairing relations with Iran and Hezbollah and seeking to restore Hamas’ alliance with them that existed prior to the outbreak of the crisis in Syria. The movement can therefore be expected to firmly resist any bid to create Sunni sectarian Palestinian militias to take part in any war on Hezbollah.
When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Riyadh last month, he was told by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman that his country’s wanted to see the Palestinians recruited into the anti-Hezbollah camp. According to reliable Palestinian sources, he said Saudi Arabia was willing to finance any campaign aimed at achieving this, and would appreciate Abbas’ and Fateh’s assistance in this regard. This followed on from Saudi Arabia’s demand that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announce his resignation so as to raise tensions in Lebanon and exert pressure on Hezbollah.
Abbas did no give a clear reply to the Saudi request, but promised to discuss the matter with the Palestinian leadership when he returned to Ramallah. This was a deliberate evasion aimed at gaining time without directly snubbing his Saudi hosts.
Among other considerations, Abbas knows that the Saudis and their US allies want to see him replaced by a new Palestinian leader who would be more amenable to the ‘deal of the century’ the Trump administration is putting together to end the conflict. Along with Israel, they have been turning up pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA) in many areas, and may seek to suffocate it financially to force a leadership change. This could explain Abbas’ uncharacteristic boldness in standing up to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He is unlikely to be minded to go along with Saudi schemes in Lebanon.
Living conditions in the Palestinian camps are miserable. They have become like impoverished ghettoes cut off from their Lebanese surroundings — prompting many of their residents to emigrate to Europe, Canada or elsewhere over the years. Palestinians in Lebanon are prohibited from working in more than 60 professions, and the aid which the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) used to provide to help sustain the camps’ steadfastness has fallen off sharply: the pension provided to families of martyrs, for example, has shrunk to less than $30 per month.
It is only to be expected for sectarian Sunni Lebanese clients of Saudi Arabia to try to exploit these desperate living conditions to enlist camp residents in the service of their campaign to exacerbate Sunni-Shia divisions. There are a number of Sunni preachers operating in the camps’ milieu who, under the influence of the Syrian crisis and the sectarian fallout it created, constantly fulminate against Hezbollah and Iran denounce them as enemies of all Sunnis. But Palestinians familiar with the mood in the camps say their influence remains limited.
As the Syrian crisis moves towards a denouement, many of the Palestinian factions and figures that at one time sided with the US- and Gulf-backed Syrian opposition, sometimes out of a sense of sectarian solidarity, have learned lessons from the experience and will want to avoid making the same mistake again.
This would all appear to give the Saudi plan, if confirmed, little or no chance of succeeding. The more so after the split that developed in Hariri’s Future Movement, Lebanon’s principal Sunni political grouping, after he withdrew his resignation and dissociated himself from Saudi plans to cause political mayhem in the country and light the fuse for a war against Hezbollah. The rival wing headed by former security chief Ashraf Rifi, who is very close to the Saudis, failed to generate much support within the Lebanese Sunni community, which is generally centrist and moderate, opposes any bid to destabilize the country, and for the most part to support Hariri.
The Palestinians are guests of Lebanon and their people. They have always stood in the trench of Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation, and must continue doing so and avoid falling into the trap of sectarian strife — especially when this trap is being sprung by a US client that sees Israel as its ally. However much their miserable living conditions deteriorate, it must be reaffirmed that the refugee camps in Lebanon – with their heroic record of steadfastness and sacrifice – and their loyalties are not up for sale in some sectarian flea-market.