Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Silent Palestinian Refugee Crisis

Lebanon, which has long placed severe restrictions on the Palestinians in the country, may finally give them the rights they deserve.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

In 2007, the jihadi group Fatah al-Islam infiltrated the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon, engaging the Lebanese army in a protracted three-month battle. The violence resulted in the deaths of more than 450 people, the complete destruction of the camp, and the displacement of its nearly 30,000 residents. The conflict also garnered the attention of al Qaeda, which tried to turn the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon into a new front for global jihad. "[T]he brothers in Fatah al-Islam are heroes of Islam," declared al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2008. Lebanon, Zawahiri stated, "is a Muslim fort on the front line. It will play a pivotal role, God willing, in future battles with the crusaders and the Jews."

The structural marginalization and legal discrimination suffered by the nearly 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continues to be a catalyst for conflict and violent extremism, meaning that Palestinian rights and Lebanese security are inextricably linked. In the words of a February 2009 International Crisis Group report, the situation in the camps is nothing less than a "time bomb." But until recently, it seemed that Lebanese lawmakers might never take action to remedy the problem.  

In 2007, the jihadi group Fatah al-Islam infiltrated the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon, engaging the Lebanese army in a protracted three-month battle. The violence resulted in the deaths of more than 450 people, the complete destruction of the camp, and the displacement of its nearly 30,000 residents. The conflict also garnered the attention of al Qaeda, which tried to turn the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon into a new front for global jihad. "[T]he brothers in Fatah al-Islam are heroes of Islam," declared al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2008. Lebanon, Zawahiri stated, "is a Muslim fort on the front line. It will play a pivotal role, God willing, in future battles with the crusaders and the Jews."

The structural marginalization and legal discrimination suffered by the nearly 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continues to be a catalyst for conflict and violent extremism, meaning that Palestinian rights and Lebanese security are inextricably linked. In the words of a February 2009 International Crisis Group report, the situation in the camps is nothing less than a "time bomb." But until recently, it seemed that Lebanese lawmakers might never take action to remedy the problem.  

Then, on June 15, in a remarkable development, the Lebanese Parliament considered a series of draft amendments that would provide the country’s Palestinian refugees with an increased measure of basic rights. The proposed legislation, introduced by the notoriously unpredictable Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, would expand Palestinians’ employment opportunities and give them the right to prosecute violations of their employment rights before the Labor Arbitration Board, to own property, and to collect social security.

Critics of the legislation say it has all happened far too fast. To give lawmakers more time to consider, Speaker Nabih Berri announced that parliament would convene a month after the amendments were introduced to vote on the issue. This vote was first scheduled to take place on July 13, then again on July 15, but it has now been postponed until mid-August in favor of achieving consensus between the various Lebanese political parties — unless, of course, the further delay gives nervous politicians time to retrench and dilute the draft legislation. Already, fierce debate in the Justice and Administration Committee of parliament has resulted in concessions. To the dismay of onlookers, the right to own property, which was proffered a month ago, has by all indications been one casualty of negotiations.

Nevertheless, even granting the right to work in a month’s time would be a historic turning point in a longstanding impasse, dating back to Lebanon’s reception of the Palestinians in 1948. Activists have been seeking the right to work for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon for years, though this right alone will not be enough to pull the refugees out of the dire poverty in which most live.

Today, refugees in Lebanon are denied the rights afforded to Palestinian refugees living in Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank. But this was not always the case. Older Palestinians in Lebanon recall the years from 1969 to 1982, known as "Ayyam al-Thawra" or "The Days of the Revolution," with considerable nostalgia. They remember how the transfer of Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Jordan to Lebanon resulted in an explosion of job opportunities and improved living conditions in the refugee camps. Yet Palestinians still suffer from their involvement in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, in which they played a major political and military role. Since the war’s end, the Lebanese government has progressively stripped Palestinians of rights they once enjoyed.

"The Palestinian is deprived of everything! Who knows, maybe a decision will be soon issued to decrease his share of oxygen!" one Palestinian resident of the Beddawi refugee camp told us sardonically. "Palestinians are deprived of all human rights, whether in regard to work, health, education, safety, residence, or shelter. Palestinians live in constant fear."

Most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in the country’s 12 remaining camps or in the nearly 50 unofficial Palestinian "gatherings" located on the outskirts of major Lebanese cities. They are legally denied entry into 25 professions, including medicine, law, and engineering. In practice, they are barred entry into all but the most menial of jobs by bureaucratic red tape and employer prejudice. 

It has been nearly a decade since a nationwide assessment of Palestinian income was last completed, but a 2000 study conducted by Fafo, a Norwegian research foundation, revealed that most Palestinians in Lebanon lived in extreme poverty, surviving on an average annual household income of just $3,667. Seventeen percent of Palestinians over age 15 were unemployed; many more were what the International Labor Organization would call "discouraged workers," who were either not looking for work or were only working intermittently. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is in the process of updating these statistics, but there is currently no indication that these numbers have improved.

The vast majority of Palestinians in Lebanon make ends meet only because they are cared for by UNRWA, which has provided humanitarian aid to the refugees since the organization was established in the wake of what Palestinians call "al-nakba," or the "disaster" of Palestinian displacement during the 1948 war. The effects of the 2007 financial crisis, however, have resulted in the largest fiscal shortfall to date for UNRWA, which relies on annual donations from the United States and Europe’s industrialized countries. Accounts for the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared are short $209 million, and despite a recent emergency injection of $60.3 million from the United States, the agency’s operating budget is still running a deficit of $103 million. Both newly appointed UNRWA Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi and Lebanon Director Salvatore Lombardo have warned that failure to meet the organization’s budgetary needs could result in deteriorating living conditions for the refugees and increase the appeal of Islamist extremist groups in the camps.

But Lebanese lawmakers are clearly not motivated by humanitarian concerns or they would have acted long ago; so why the current rush to address the refugee crisis? The London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat has suggested that Syria might be behind the push. Syria, which occupied large parts of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005 and continues to exert influence on the country’s internal affairs, has made use of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon more than once in the past to advance its agenda. Syria could be attempting to use the bill to divide its Lebanese opponents.

By linking any move to grant Palestinian rights with the disarmament of Palestinian factions like the Syrian-backed Fatah al-Intifada, Syrian authorities might also be trying once more to shift Lebanese decision-making from Beirut to Damascus. As reported by the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Fatah al-Intifada head Abu Musa warned in January, "The existence or non-existence [of Palestinian arms outside the camps in Lebanon] is an internal Palestinian decision that has nothing to do with other political forces," suggesting also that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri had traveled to Damascus that month to discern Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s position on Palestinian weaponry in Lebanon.

If this move is part of a Syrian ploy to sow dissent between members of the anti-Syrian and pro-Western March 14 alliance, it seems to have already met with some success. The public debate of recent weeks has driven a wedge between the two largest March 14 constituencies: Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement is in favor of granting additional rights to its co-religionists, but March 14 Christians, including the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb, staunchly oppose any move that might be construed as leading to "tawteen," or the permanent settlement of the refugees.

Despite commonly held fears that the granting of civic rights will result in the naturalization of the refugees, no party to these talks, least of all the Palestinians, supports tawteen. In fact, the rejection of tawteen is one of the very few issues on which all Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian actors agree.

Outspoken Christian leaders like former President Amin Gemayel and former army commander Michel Aoun, who represent opposite sides of Lebanon’s political divide, have nevertheless jointly marshaled the Christian opposition by raising the straw man of tawteen. Both charge that granting Palestinians these basic rights is a slippery slope to granting them Lebanese citizenship. "When we give them all these privileges," Gemayel argued recently, "it means we are helping in their naturalization … and this is rejected."

The prime minister, on the other hand, has come out strongly in support of the new legislation. At the session in which the amendments were introduced, Hariri analogized the mistreatment of the Palestinians by the Lebanese government with Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Referring to two Lebanese vessels then scheduled to follow in the wake of the ill-fated Turkish Mavi Marmara, which was boarded by Israeli forces on May 31, he warned, "In Lebanon today, there are those who go out on flotillas to lift the siege on Palestinians in Gaza; however, there may come a day when we see the world heading to Lebanon to lift the siege on the residents of the Palestinian camps."

The stakes are high for Lebanon as it debates this issue. If the amendments pass without being severely watered down, we will see improvements in the Palestinian camps, and normalizing the conditions there will contribute to Lebanon’s stability. It will also demonstrate that the Lebanese are able to move beyond the factional ghosts of their civil war and exercise sovereign decision-making independently of regional pressures. Finally, the legislation provides a chance to foster intra-Palestinian harmony within Lebanon, where the PLO factions led by Fatah and the Islamists of Hamas enjoy far better relations than they do in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

On the other hand, if Lebanon misses this opportunity, the conditions of the Palestinian community in the country will continue to deteriorate — dragging Lebanese, Palestinian, and regional interests like the Middle East peace process down with them.

Taylor Long and Alistair Harris of Pursue Ltd reside in Lebanon, where they conduct research and implement development assistance programs on behalf of international donors.

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