Some 110,000 Palestinian refugees streamed into Lebanon during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war when the state of Israel was established. Confined to 12 refugee camps scattered around Lebanon, the Palestinian population officially stands at around 400,000, although the true figure is likely less, probably closer to 350,000. The largest Palestinian refugee camp is Ain al-Hilweh, which hosts 70,000 residents on the outskirts of Sidon in South Lebanon. Palestinian refugees are barred from numerous professional categories, and not allowed to own land. One of the few issues on which there is unanimity across Lebanon’s sectarian divide is the rejection of permanently settling the mainly Sunni Palestinians in Lebanon, a move which could upset the country’s delicate sectarian balance. The Palestinian presence in Lebanon helped catalyze the 1975-1990 civil war, when armed Palestinian groups created a virtual “state-within-a-state” in South Lebanon.
Israel’s justification for its 1978 and 1982 invasions of Lebanon was to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization, which staged periodic attacks from South Lebanon into northern Israel. Since 1990, the Palestinian refugees have been confined to the camps, which lie outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese government but are surrounded by Lebanese troops.
In recent years, Palestinians militants have regularly engaged in violent, sometimes deadly clashes with the Lebanese authorities. Palestinians are also suspected of planning and implementing terrorist attacks in Lebanon. These issues have led to a widespread consensus that the Palestinians in Lebanon must be disarmed. In March 2006, Lebanon’s top leaders agreed to improve the status of Palestinians and conditions in the refugee camps in exchange for the disarming of militant groups. The PLO opened an office in Beirut in May 2006. However, there has been no substantial progress since then, neither in redressing the plight of the refugees nor in disarming militant Palestinian groups.