Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon and the Middle East

By Harry Hagopian
16 Jul 2010

Lebanon is a tiny country that receives comparatively little attention from commentators, analysts and world politicians who are fixated on ‘breaking stories’ in Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Dubai - the list could easily grow longer. In fact, however, it is Lebanon that provides fecund ground for diverse proxy influences, plots and even wars in disguise.

On 27 June 2010, a march with moderately impressive numbers and the challenging slogan, 'Civil, Social and Economic Rights and Living in Dignity are an Essential Step in the Journey of Return', took place in cities and towns across Lebanon, swept by the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp near Beirut and ended up in front of Parliament. Although it was reportedly boycotted by some political parties, the event housed within its Palestinian ethos both purpose and objective. So what were they?

This march coincided - almost serendipitously in political terms - with a meeting of the Lebanese parliament wherein the deputies debated - rather heatedly - over new legislation that could grant Palestinian refugees born in Lebanon and registered with the Ministry of Interior a number of ‘basic civil rights’ including access to work or social services such as pensions and medical benefits as well as the demonstrable ability to file cases before labour courts. In addition, and if adopted later this month, the bill would crucially also amend inter alia a law that has banned Palestinians from owning or inheriting property.

An outline first: In a recent interview in Now Lebanon, the American University of Beirut sociologist and Palestinian activist Sari Hanafi pointed out that whilst Palestinian refugees in Lebanon used to be banned from 77 job categories until 2005, Labour Minister Trad Hamadeh had issued a decree that same year which officially brought the restrictions imposed on Palestinian employment down to 25 categories. However, this decision was not dovetailed by practical mechanisms for implementation.

Moreover, home ownership for Palestinian refugees had also been specifically outlawed by Parliament in 2001 as part of a campaign to ensure that Palestinians did not settle down in Lebanon. So those new proposed emergency drafts would aggregately allow Palestinian refugees the freedom to own property but would stop short of granting them citizenship or naturalisation - known as tawteen. Sa’ad Al-Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, supported such a proposed bill, as did the Shi’i Hizbullah and Amal parties.

The veteran Druze political leader, Walid Jumblatt, who proposed it, was quoted as saying that “Palestinian refugees have been waiting [for] 62 years, and we are not granting them the minimum of their rights”. Conversely, the main Christian political parties showed remarkable unity in expressing reservations about the immediate granting of rights and asked for a one-month period of study and consultation prior to their possible enactment.

But who are those Palestinians lacking the most basic rights in Lebanon?

Although demographic numbers are hardly an exact science in the region, estimates suggest that there are currently 400,000 Palestinians living ‘in exile’ in Lebanon, two-thirds of them living in the 12 main refugee camps, and together constituting roughly 10 per cent of the population of the country. According to the United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), a major aid provider to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as well as region-wide, Lebanon marks the dubious distinction of having the highest number of refugees in abject poverty, with many of their camps being located on the sites of several atrocities and massacres following the 1982 catastrophes against Palestinian refugees and the 1985-1988 ‘camp wars’ between Shi’is and Palestinians.

In fact, some of the basic rights being now demanded by those marchers, as well as by members of parliament - that we in the Western hemisphere mostly take for granted - are not applicable to Palestinians today because they were also rescinded in 1982 by the late compromise prime minister Shafik Wazzan.

The year 1982 itself was a traumatic one for Lebanon since it witnessed the Israeli invasion (4-5 June), the assassination of President Bachir Gemayel (14 September), the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps (16-18 September) as well as the suicidal death (6 June) of the poet Khalil Hawi who reflected the torments and tribulations of Arab modernity with his cri du cœur “Where are the Arabs?”.

Besides, when discussing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, comparisons are often made with their status in countries such as Syria or Jordan. However, in such countries, unlike Lebanon, I would suggest that Palestinians more or less enjoy citizenship rights stricto sensu in the French juridical sense of the word. In other words, by firmly excluding nationality, they are treated like other domiciled residents and ‘enjoy’ freedoms of movement and mobility, the right to work and property ownership.

But irrespective of different painful chapters of history, are we now witnessing a breakthrough in the making?

I believe so, hard [to believe] as this might seem to cynics, since a concatenation of internal and external pressures have come together to encourage Lebanon into providing Palestinians with some socio-economic rights. Those forces have become even more peremptory today in view of the heightened Palestinian profile resulting from the Gaza debacle with Israel last month. Politically, it would appear extremely counterintuitive for Lebanon to protest against Israeli measures that discriminate severely against Palestinians when they are getting such a miserable deal from the Lebanese authorities themselves.

I do accept that the fear of naturalisation for Palestinians still looms very high in the collective Lebanese political culture since it would alter the delicate albeit largely holographic confessional balances in the country between Sunnis and Shi’is as well as between Muslims and Christians in the country and in theory - at least - augment the demographic numbers of Sunnis given the confessional background of most Palestinians. However, naturalisation aside, there is an inevitable momentum toward granting Palestinians these basic protections - regardless of any unfettered opposition - and even more so since the three-month conflict in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon in 2007 that pitted Fateh al-Islam extremists against the Lebanese army, and then with the UN also encouraging Lebanon to ameliorate the Palestinians’ situation during its two-year stint as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (2010-2011).

But what rights are the Palestinians seeking in Lebanon?

Following the Lebanese media - newspapers, television, blogs, different fora for debate - one cannot fail but be struck by the soul-searching, permutations and justifications employed by politicians, analysts or ordinary citizens in their choice of terms that qualify those rights. After all, the art is not only to avoid using the word tawteen - naturalisation - but also to avoid any word that might imply that this would become the ultimate outcome of any proposed parliamentary bill.

The political astuteness, I believe, is not one of being clever with nomenclatures alone but rather of expressing clearly the nature of the rights being discussed by the political parties. Are those human rights, and if so are we witnessing a rights-based discourse? Are they political or civil? Or are they socio-economic, labour-friendly and cultural ones? I would suggest that the Lebanese might find some answers in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (of which Lebanon is a founding member) but even more cogently in the two international covenants of 1966 - namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - as well as in the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965 (Lebanon is a signatory to all three instruments) that together might help focus minds, let alone crystallise some of those nascent rights.

But in my view, the real issue is not really one of finding the right labels since no party in Lebanon is necessarily working solely and uninterruptedly for the best interests of the Palestinian refugees who, for the past 62 years, have been the proverbial football in a larger political game between different Lebanese political factions and their chieftains in the region or further afield.

While it is true that some Lebanese officials and political elites have made promising statements regarding the ‘basic civil rights’ of Palestinian refugees, the overarching approach of the Lebanese government, with its departments and committees, continues to be security-based, framing the Palestinian refugee question in Lebanon as an internal security issue that is inextricably linked to internecine politics rather than to that of addressing rights ad abstractum.

However, under International and Lebanese laws, such rights are not privileges and the fear of naturalisation is somewhat disingenuous. In fact, UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948) in its Article 11 (out of 15 Articles) “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return”.

I would therefore argue strongly that most Palestinian refugees would opt for the moral and legal right to return to their lands rather than settle in any other country - be it Lebanon or elsewhere. Indeed, and assuming that refugee status is hereditary, four million Palestinians in refugee communities scattered mainly in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon would opt for such a return. And this is not a nostalgic notion either! I personally recall quite clearly how many Palestinians prepared themselves to return to "Palestine” during the apogee of the Oslo years when a solution seemed in the offing, only to be disappointed by the failure of that unmapped process and their sad return to their own countries of citizenship or residence.

Mind you, though, there is enough bad blood spilt between both sides in Lebanon, and it is equally wrong in my opinion to view Lebanon as the sole culprit in this history. It is not! There were also inexcusably violent transgressions by Palestinians who re-settled in Lebanon after being chased out of Jordan following the Black September incidents but then endeavoured to control the levers of the country.

In fact, the Palestinian Authority former representative in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, publicly apologised for the actions of Palestinians during the war as another sign of improving Lebanese-Palestinian relations. It should also be added that the Palestinian leadership and its fighters during the 1980s (not unlike some of them even today) were more interested in their own political designs than they were in the fate of the 1948 or 1967 successive waves of refugees.

But do we always need to turn back every page of history? After all, was that not then, and is this not now? The political topography has changed in the past three decades, and once the Lebanese government decides to act on this vexatious brief, the actual mechanics of finding the legal semantics that flatter their political will would become easier. I recall my own encouraging meetings and conversations with the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee that Fouad Siniora, the previous Lebanese prime minister, formed under the chairmanship of Ambassador Khalil Makkawi. I had half-expected its functionaries to become the real motor behind the achievement of those rights but their efforts seemingly failed to bear fruit.

In truth, my concern today is not so much whether the various political parties could garner 65 parliamentary votes (out of 128) to enact this bill (as I believe they could), as much as it is about Lebanon facing a dangerous dilemma whereby it might be challenged by the spectre of another civil war irrespective of whether those basic rights are / are not granted to Palestinian refugees.

The statements, articles and analyses on the topic underline that many political parties are still very much in isolation and at odds over both the history and future of this file and so Lebanon should be cautious with this tinderbox.

Let me now pass very briefly to two other issues … but still in Lebanon. You may be aware that a decision by a group of fifty Lebanese and international women, as well as scores of media representatives, to send two boycott-busting ships - Julia (re-named Naji el-Ali in memory of slain Palestinian caricaturist) and Mariam (the Virgin Mary as venerated by Christians and Muslims alike) - to Gaza from the northern port of Tripoli has momentarily been put on hold.

Much as I applaud this valiant initiative by Lebanese civil society to succour the ordinary residents of Gaza, I also wonder whether this will have been a wily decision. After all, why should Lebanon “put its neck out” alone in trying to challenge the boycott at a time when it is weak and divided so that Israel could use such action as an excuse to attack it in a vengefully devastating way and in the process, divert world attention from its other malfeasances and violations region-wide?

What I would suggest is that Lebanon re-activate this project once there is a decision by the Arab League for a regional participation in this maritime challenge of the boycott so that the collective effort would reduce any ‘punitive’ Israeli aggression against Lebanon but also prove to the Arab grassroots that their leaders are at long last contributing to its effort.

Finally, secret explorations have confirmed the existence of substantial oil and gas deposits - perhaps 8 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - along the northern maritime border. According to the US-based Noble Energy Company, the large gas fields of ‘Tamar’ and ‘Leviathan’ straddle the Lebanese-Israeli marine frontiers and stretch into Lebanese territorial waters. It is important for Lebanon to delineate its borders, study and approve a draft law for the exploration and exploitation of those natural resources and 'get in there' before special interests steal away the whole cake.

Some other current developments within the broader Middle East also deserve to be noted. 20 June 2010 marked World refugee Day 2010, with its striking theme Home, and apart from Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, today the ongoing Iraqi refugee problem with 1.8 million Iraqi men, women and children living largely in Syria and Jordan, as well as in Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, and with much smaller emigrant pockets in Western countries.

Yet, as the Iraqi parties try to overcome their post-parliamentary sectarian squabbles and cobble together a coalition that would become the new government of Iraq with its president and speaker of parliament, deadly attacks in the country continue to mirror the tenuous nature of life for many ordinary Iraqis - including the beleaguered minorities - where complex and long-lasting religious conflicts and sectarian violence persist despite some improvement in security.

In Hamdaniyah, for instance, a small town about twenty miles from Mosul within the Nineveh province, hundreds of Christian families have once more sought refuge due to the spate of killings, despite numerous appeals to the Iraqi government for action.

So, whilst Iraq, with its third [largest] proven oil reserves in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia and Iran (largely in the south around Basra), continues its political jigsaw puzzle, Jordan is also trying to manage the onslaught of political developments surrounding the discovery of large deposits of uranium that would allow the kingdom to produce its own fuel and decrease its cash-strapped dependence on oil imports. Yet, although Jordan is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and is ready to opt for a transparent public-private ownership scheme, its plans are being opposed - Iran-like - by Israel, the USA and a conglomeration of other countries who do not wish to see it become energy-less-dependent through local production. And as Jordan plans its future power supplies, Gazan residents experience further power blackouts as a result of the Israeli boycott, coupled with the conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and the endemic instances of corruption.

Veritas liberabit vos: will the truth ever set politics free in the Middle East?

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(c) Harry Hagopian, a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Orthodox Church and well as an interfaith adviser to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. A regular contributor to Ekklesia (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian), Dr Hagopian is also involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/). His own website is called Epektasis. http://www.epektasis.net/

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