Edition 21 Volume 3 - June 09, 2005
The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
The democratic solution -
The plight of Lebanon's Palestinians is linked to the failure of democracy in the Middle East.
Pawns, victims, and an obstacle to peace -
The PA should disengage the Palestinian refugee problem once and for all from the internal Lebanese conflict.
From neglect to participation -
The refugees, old and young, are full of creative and practical suggestions about possible ways forward.
The first priority -
an interviewSaji Salameh
The Palestinians are for reaching a negotiated solution. If such an agreement is reached, the issue of the refugees in Lebanon will take priority
The democratic solution
When Israel's detractors want to blame Israel for the Palestinian problem, they often cite the plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as the most graphic example. The charge flies in the face of historical fact. Only after 1967, when the PLO, led by Palestinians from outside Lebanon, began taking root in the country, did any significant percentage of Palestinians in Lebanon identify with the national cause or other radical objectives. Such collective behavior contrasted significantly with that of Palestinians in Jordan and Gaza who were at the forefront of opposition against the states in which they resided as early as the 1950s, principally over these respective states' lack of concern for the Palestinian problem. Obviously, by their public behavior, Palestinian refugees did not mind living in the most prosperous Arab state at the time.
Matters took a turn for the worse only after the PLO became a political actor in Lebanon and threatened the fragile communal equilibrium there, setting off Christian, particularly Maronite reaction, to their presence as Sunnis. The PLO, then, is equally if not more to blame for the creation of the Palestinian problem in Lebanon than is Israel.
As the salience of PLO involvement in Lebanon grew, so did the Palestinian plight: following the signing of the Cairo Agreement in 1969, Lebanon became a base for guerrilla attacks against Israel; the civil war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1989 led to Israel's invasion and occupation; a hardening of enmity between Maronites and Palestinians led to massacres in two refugee camps located in Beirut, Sabra and Shatila. Soon afterwards Shi'ite factions joined the fray, leading to the "war of the camps" that claimed more than 2,000 lives and the temporary destruction of Sabra and Burj Barajneh.
In 1987, the Lebanese government unilaterally abrogated the Cairo Agreement, putting a formal end not only to PLO autonomy, but to refugee privileges such as the right of work, residence and freedom of movement in Lebanon as well.
Nor have the Palestinians gained from the rebuilding of Lebanon. If the 1989 Ta'if Agreement was a ray of hope to most Lebanese, for Palestinians it spelled disaster. The fragile state of Lebanon was tough enough to impose a host of draconian measures against members of the country's beleaguered Palestinian community, with the aim of coercing them to emigrate. Palestinians are excluded from the state's health program, public schooling, and employment except in menial jobs.
Not surprisingly, the approximately 350,000 Palestinians live in refugee camps in Lebanon and make for an impoverished population: 60 percent of these refugees have a per capita income of about a dollar per day, and more than 40 percent of children below 16 years of age work under subhuman conditions.
The Palestinians in Lebanon indeed know whom to blame. Survey polls conducted in the refugee camps show that most of those who identify with any political groupings at all support non-Palestinian Islamist organizations rather than the PLO or its factions. Most also express a preference to emigrate to states outside the Middle East, principally to the United States.
Yet any atonement for the misfortune of the Palestinians is much more than a matter for Palestinians or Israelis to handle. It is no coincidence that Fouad Ajami's brilliant reflections on the failure of Arabic-speaking states and political society begin with Lebanon where the Palestinians figure prominently.
Lebanon's Palestinians are indeed the tragedy within the tragedy. While millions of refugees have adjusted to their new lives in host states since 1945, Lebanon's Palestinians were the victims of Arab political leaders aspiring for hegemony, of partial occupation by a state rhetorically dedicated to Arab unity but which played off diverse actors in its Lebanese backyard, of vicious intolerant ideological movements, of a confessional order that hardened rather than becoming more democratic, and of religiously-inspired movements backed by the two theocratic states in the Middle East. In short, many more must atone for the plight of the Palestinians in Lebanon than Israel and the PLO.
In fact, almost no one can be excluded from blame for the simple reason that the plight of Lebanon's Palestinians is linked to the greatest failure of them all--the failure of democracy to take root in the Middle East, with the notable exception of Israel.
Could anyone imagine such a plight had Lebanon indeed developed into a democracy, as many in the 1950s thought would happen? Did not Turkish guest workers finally achieve citizenship equality in Germany despite tremendous opposition, not to speak of the millions of refugees who fled after World War II to democratic countries, including the Indian and Lebanese communities ousted by newly decolonized states?
There's hope on the horizon: a democratic Iraq, a democratic Syria, and maybe then a free, democratic Lebanon that would finally accord its small Palestinian population citizenship and equality. After all, they proved their loyalty in the 1950s under much more inauspicious conditions; how much more so would they contribute to the country's welfare in a democratic Lebanon.- Published 9/6/2005 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Hillel Frisch is a senior lecturer in the Departments of Political Studies and Middle East History, Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of Countdown to Statehood: Palestinian State Building in the West Bank and Gaza (SUNY Press, 1998).
Pawns, victims, and an obstacle to peace
For many Lebanese, the issue of Palestinian refugees in their country constitutes a major problem as well as a bad memory. There is widespread sympathy in Lebanon for the Palestinian cause and the refugees' terrible living conditions. But when it comes to recognizing the basic human and civil rights of the impoverished Palestinians in Lebanon, there is very little support. The issue becomes even more complicated when the issue of weapons in the refugee camps is intermittently raised. A few thousand armed Palestinians who live in these camps belong to various factions representing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other leftist and Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The bitter memory of the 15-year civil war is still very fresh in the minds of most Lebanese, who blame the PLO for sparking it back in 1975. Thus the Palestinian refugees who brought with them the armed Palestinian factions are still blamed today by a majority of Lebanese for the anguish they had to endure until 1990. Later, after the civil war ended, the Palestinian refugees and armed factions in Lebanon were used as a bargaining chip by both Damascus and Beirut at peace talks with Israel.
The Syrian-influenced Lebanese governments that ruled Lebanon until the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April did not take any action to disarm the Palestinian factions. They practiced a policy of containment by sending Lebanese troops to surround the refugee camps and man all points of entry to the shantytowns. Beirut has linked the fate of Palestinian arms to the signing of a comprehensive peace treaty between all the Arab countries and Israel that would include a solution for the refugees in Lebanon.
The Palestinian refugees constitute a demographic and economic problem for the Lebanese. Some 17 religious sects live in Lebanon and almost all are vying for power. Since the Palestinian refugees, who number at least 200,000, are mostly Sunni Muslims, in addition to some Orthodox Christians, they will tip the demographic balance if they are resettled in favor of the Lebanese Sunni community, which of course does not suit either the Shi'ites or the Maronite Christians (the largest Christian sect in the country). Since most of the Palestinian refugees live below the poverty line and largely depend on aid from the United Nations, they would likely become a burden on the already ailing Lebanese.
The possibility of repatriating Palestinian refugees to their homeland is diminishing by the day with the ongoing expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and lack of support from the West, especially the United States, on this issue. The new Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is gradually changing its tone on the question of repatriation and has referred in some statements to the right of return to "the Palestinian state", which would not include Israel proper. The hard reality of never returning home has started to sink into the minds of many Palestinian refugees in the Arab world, although it remains a precious dream to most.
Therefore, the possibility of having to deal with the question of resettling Palestinian refugees is becoming increasingly real to the Lebanese. The declared desire by the US administration of President George W. Bush to create a suitable atmosphere for an independent Palestinian state next to Israel necessitates resolving the refugees' problem. Thus many analysts and observers expect Washington to exert pressure on Arab states, including Lebanon, to help resolve this matter.
To most Lebanese politicians (and even the public), the best solution to the refugees' problem is to move them anywhere outside Lebanon. Most Lebanese Christians, primarily Maronites, want this to happen today, while many Muslims, especially pro-Syrian Shi'ites, want this linked to a comprehensive Middle East settlement. So the Palestinian issue remains an element of division among Lebanese despite all that has happened. The Lebanese government and the Shi'ites have linked the fate of Palestinian arms to the fate of Hizballah's weapons, which is also connected to the peace process. Hence the Palestinian refugees have become pawns in the ever-complicated Lebanese and regional political machinations, with no clear end in sight for their suffering.
The best way out of this dilemma is for the PA to disengage the Palestinian refugee problem once and for all from the internal Lebanese conflict. This could be achieved through a bold move by Abbas to order PLO guerrillas in Lebanese refugee camps to hand over their weapons to the Lebanese authorities in line with UNSC Resolution 1559, which calls among other things for disbanding all armed militias in Lebanon. The Lebanese government would have no choice but to accept the new facts and become responsible for the internal security of these camps that have become a safe haven for gangsters and Islamic fundamentalist groups.
The second step must be taken by large western countries that are still accepting immigrants, such as Canada, Australia and even the United States, to absorb most of the Palestinian refugees from Lebanon. As for those few thousand Palestinians who have been in Lebanon since 1948--many married to Lebanese women--and have become well established with families and businesses in the country, the Lebanese must accept them and even naturalize them.
But this is the Middle East: ideal solutions do not come easy, and when they do they take time to be implemented. Until a suitable solution is found to the Palestinian refugees' problem in general, and those in Lebanon in particular, the Lebanese government ought to ease their suffering by allowing young Palestinians to work like any other Arab expatriate living in the country, and give them a chance to live decent lives. The international community could also do more in providing much needed aid for better education and living conditions. The Palestinian cause is as much about the fate of hundreds of thousands of displaced people as it is about land, and therefore priority should be given to resolving the problem of the refugees as a way to settle the Arab-Israel conflict.- Published 9/6/2005 © bitterlemons-international.org
Riad Kahwaji is CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis - INEGMA, in Dubai.
From neglect to participation
The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are held hostage in a variety of cruel ways. Above all this is because of the reason they are there in the first place: several generations of Palestinian refugees living in recognized and unrecognized refugee camps since 1948, not too far from their original homes across the border, where they have been prevented by force from returning. Everything else follows from this. Next are the conditions in which they are now living, reminiscent of a besieged medieval city. For this, the blame lies with the policies of the Lebanese government, which exclude refugees from the basic tenets of international human rights conventions and international labor laws. There is simply no justification for these policies.
Added to these two primary systems of imprisonment is the manner in which the refugees are dealt with by the international community--the policy experts of what is optimistically known as the Middle East peace process. Quite simply, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are treated like objects. They are quarantined inside a reified exclusion zone where they are assessed, categorized, surveyed and classified, objects in a rational-theory game played by "experts"--sociologists, diplomats, political scientists, charities, NGOs and international agencies. Refugees are asked in some surveys if they have a washing machine or a mobile phone, as if this could identify their level of poverty; by others if they want to stay in the hell they live in, go to some mythical new place, move to Canada perhaps, "return" to a Palestinian state (although this is actually resettlement, as the vast majority of them are from inside the green line), or return to their original homes, even as none of these prospects are, in reality, anywhere in sight. These "scenarios" are cruelly played out on them with no prospect of their civil, social, political, and economic rights actually being addressed, nor any political will used in their favor by those who are in a position to do so.
This has created many problems, and has also led to a terrible mischaracterization, whereby Palestinian refugees are subjects not citizens, "problems" to be solved rather than the victims of a terrible injustice that they are. Most of all, it has stopped people listening to them, afraid of what they will say, fearful they will not fit in with the plans.
This avoidance has led to a profound miscalculation. The people in the refugee camps, old and young, are full of creative and practical suggestions about possible ways forward. A series of public and syndicate meetings that have been running in the refugee camps and exile communities in the Middle East, Europe, and North America this past year were organized by Palestinian grass roots organizations using the same means they always have: engaging with the people on the ground, relying upon their participation as the very energy to generate positive change and creative suggestions for that change. Based on the premise that the only experts on the refugees are the refugees themselves, and that they are best placed to articulate both their needs and their rights, these meetings follow principles already existing within Palestinian refugee and exile life--relying on the people themselves to define their own path.
What has emerged from this work in refugee communities across the world is that when people set their own agenda about what the issues are and how to solve them, the results are enormously positive. From the twenty-plus public meetings and syndicate workshops that were held right across the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon (with gatherings of between 40 and 400 people in open debate), the first thing one becomes aware of is that the refugees want the right to speak for themselves. They desire to shape their own future, and to actually be the ones making the decisions that concern them. The refugees are highly articulate, and are naturally well aware of their rights and their needs and of the discussions that are being held about them in both national and international arenas. They all state that their sole legitimate representative is the PLO, and that they are working toward enhancing its institutions and rebuilding them.
Palestinian refugees don't like being represented in surveys as objects, and they certainly don't like economic needs-assessments that look only at their social or economic conditions in the absence of the all important political context, or ignore the question of their civic and political rights. Refugees say that many of these studies and opinion polls are a way to try to force them to choose between economic rights and other rights, such as the right of return--a right that is the very essence of their dignity. It is much more than a legal right or a property right or an individual and collective right (although it is also all these things). It remains the touchstone of shared Palestinian historical identity. It has shaped us completely. It is why we have stayed refugees for so long. Indeed, the ways in which legal, political, social, and economic issues were discussed illustrate that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon understand their social and economic realities as being intertwined with civil and political ones, and accordingly that these must be addressed together.- Published 9/6/2005 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Karma Nabulsi is a fellow in politics and university lecturer at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University.
The first priority
an interview Saji Salameh
BI: When the issue of Palestinian refugees crops up, the refugees in Lebanon are almost always mentioned as a separate issue. Why is that?
Salameh: The issue of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is often highlighted because of the special conditions of the refugees there. The Lebanese government maintains that it will not accept that any Palestinian refugee can stay in Lebanon for good. This has created some kind of speculation about the intentions of the refugees and the PLO.
But the PLO has always emphasized the right of refugees in Lebanon as well as elsewhere to return to their homeland. This is the answer to what is said or hinted, that Palestinians in Lebanon want to stay for good. This is not the fact. By emphasizing the insistence of refugees in Lebanon to return home, we try to answer all Lebanese concerns about Palestinian intentions.
Secondly, there is the issue of the living conditions of refugees in Lebanon, which are very harsh. The refugees suffer under regulations that deprive them of their civil rights to work, to move, to leave and return to their houses. That's why the PLO always emphasizes the condition of the refugees. The official position of the PLO remains that the refugees in Lebanon insist on their right of return.
BI: Is there a sense that in any solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees the priority must first be given to the refugees in Lebanon?
Salameh: Yes, because they are suffering more. They live in very miserable conditions in their camps, they are not allowed to improve their houses, the infrastructure is very poor, and the overcrowding is getting worse. Also, they cannot work. They are deprived of the means to make a livelihood. Many jobs and vocations are closed to them. Other regulations deprive them of the right to own real estate. There is a kind of discrimination against them that continues until now.
Recently, however, we have noticed some change in the position of the Lebanese government and the political elite concerning the civil rights of the Palestinians. There are Lebanese voices now calling for an end to this discrimination.
BI: But they also call for the disarming of groups within the camps.
Salameh: The PLO has always supported the sovereignty of Lebanon and the sovereignty of Lebanese law over all Lebanese territory, and I think there is a consensus among Palestinians in Lebanon and among the Palestinian leadership that Lebanon must practice its sovereignty over every inch of land, including the camps. But the refugees are asking for their civil rights. There are a lot of arms in Lebanon and many parties and organizations. The Palestinian are willing to cooperate to solve the problem of arms, but in the context of a comprehensive solution to easing their living conditions until the time comes when they can return to their homes.
BI: So can you foresee in the relatively near future a deal whereby the Lebanese government grants civil rights to the refugees and the Palestinian groups in the camps disarm?
Salameh: Yes. I can assure you that the PLO is ready to open a new page in relations with the Lebanese government, especially after recent developments: the Syrian withdrawal and the elections. The PLO wants to reorganize and normalize relations with the Lebanese government. I think the PLO and the Lebanese government can reach an agreement over the status of the refugees in Lebanon. I assume that this will require changes in the regulations that harm and limit the freedom of the refugees in Lebanon, particularly those regulating property, work and movement rights. Some steps need to be taken by the Lebanese government and institutions. An agreement should be easy to reach to correct the situation and living conditions of the refugees.
BI: The bigger picture is an overall solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees. Here again it seems the refugees in Lebanon are prioritized, as we saw in the Camp David negotiations in 2000. Is that still the position?
Salameh: Yes. I think the refugees in Lebanon must have priority. In general, I think a solution to the refugee issue is something practical even if nowadays people speak of it as something impossible. I think if a partner is found on the Israeli side, the refugee issue is a solvable one. Israel should recognize the right of refugees to return, as well as other rights for compensation and restitution. Israel should also recognize responsibility for the issue, and then negotiations can be conducted to reach agreement on the mechanisms and the details and elements of the solution. In general, the Palestinians are for reaching a negotiated and mutually agreed upon solution. Arab countries also supported this in their recent summit. If such an agreement is reached, the issue of the refugees in Lebanon will take priority.
BI: One thing is to say a solution can be reached, another is to say that it will. Are you optimistic?
Salameh: I think a solution is realistic, and I think it can be reached, but I am very pessimistic about Sharon's government. If the political scene in Israel changes and we find ourselves with a new Israeli government and new policies, negotiations may lead to a solution.
BI: Is there a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without a solution to the issue of refugees?
Salameh: No. Without a solution to the refugee issue the conflict will continue. The refugees constitute more than two-thirds of the Palestinian people. Without solving that problem an overall solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is unimaginable.- Published 9/6/2005 © bitterlemons-international.
Saji Salameh is Director General of the PLO's Refugees Department.