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Palestinian massacre survivors still live in despair in Lebanon

Eftekar Shallah's husband was killed in the 1982 massacre by militiamen in a refugee camp in Shatila, a suburb of Beirut. Eftekar Shallah's husband was killed in the 1982 massacre by militiamen in a refugee camp in Shatila, a suburb of Beirut. (Grace Kassab/Associated Press)

BEIRUT - Mahmoud Khalifa has tried five times to sneak into Europe. Each time, he was caught and sent back to Lebanon, the country where he was born but is denied some of the most basic rights because he is a Palestinian refugee.

"The most important thing for me is to leave this country. Ask any Palestinian youth in Lebanon and that's what they will say," the 24-year-old Khalifa said.

Khalifa works as a barber, but only occasionally. He quit school in the eighth grade, deciding education would have no benefit when there's little chance of a promising career.

Extreme poverty and despair grip Lebanon's 12 crowded Palestinian camps, home to 400,000 refugees.

Crammed into a country half the size of New Jersey, they live under severe restrictions on work, travel, and education - a marked difference from their fellow refugees in Syria and Jordan, who have been largely integrated into society.

Next year Palestinians mark the 60th anniversary of the war that drove hundreds of thousands of them into exile when Israel became a state.

And this month, Palestinians in Lebanon observed the 25th anniversary of one of their darkest times - the massacre in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatila by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen in which 1,200 to 1,400 people died, by Lebanese Red Cross count.

The tragedy goes on. Four months ago, thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon as the army fought Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic militants of various nationalities. Officials say at least 20 civilians died in the three months of fighting.

Previous generations of Palestinians in Lebanon had it a little better. In the 1970s, Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization was here, providing refugees with protection, employment, and elaborate social and health institutions. But the PLO's virtual state-within-a-state did not sit well with its Lebanese hosts.

In 1982, Israel invaded to drive out the PLO, and since then it has been a long, slow decline for the refugees.

For them, nothing marks the start of that decline as starkly as Sabra and Shatila - a horror that echoes to Khalifa's generation.

It occurred two weeks after Arafat and his guerrillas left. For three days - from Sept. 16-18, 1982, the Christian militiamen, sworn enemies of the PLO, rampaged through the two camps, slaughtering men, women, and children. An Israeli commission of inquiry later found Ariel Sharon indirectly responsible. Sharon had to resign as defense minister.

At his home in Shatila recently, Khalifa stared at the floor, head bowed as he listened once again to his grandmother, Eftekar Shallah, and mother, Jamila Shallah, tell the story of how his grandfather was killed in the massacre, a year before he was born.

On the evening of Sept. 16, the family emerged from an underground shelter. The grandfather, Mohammed, gave his radio to his 10-year-old daughter, Ikhlas, to hold, then headed back to their house to lock it up.

There were gunmen on the roofs. The militiamen had ordered people to surrender, promising they would be spared - a promise often broken.

Jamila grabbed her father's hand as he headed back to the house and begged him to surrender. He left her and kept going.

As his wife, Eftekar, waited across the road, Mohammed headed back to her, only to fall to the ground, shot in the head by a single bullet.

"He died in front of our house, in front of me," Eftekar, 71, said quietly.

Their story, told and retold over the years to keep the memory alive, has knitted the lives of the grandmother, mother, and son through the 25 years of despair that followed.

"I've heard the story many times," Mahmoud Khalifa said gravely. "We've suffered too many tragedies and have gotten used to suffering. Every day is a tragedy for us. It's become as normal as drinking a glass of water."

Palestinians in Jordan have become naturalized citizens, but those in Lebanon have faced strong resistance from politicians and the population at large to any debate on the issue for fear of tilting the demographic balance of the country of multiple Christian and Muslim denominations. Palestinian refugees are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims.

Lebanese law bars Palestinians from employment in the public sector and limits their entry into 70 professions. In the camps, crowded, densely built neighborhoods, jobs are scarce. Palestinians are denied the right to own homes or enlarge those in which they reside.

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