Emile Hokayem
The National
June 28, 2010 - 12:00am

Three years ago, Fatah al Islam, a jihadi group based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al Bared in northern Lebanon, launched a bloody attack on the Lebanese military. In the next three months, most of the camp was destroyed and dozens of civilians, nearly 200 Lebanese soldiers and several hundred fundamentalist militants – most of them not Palestinians – were killed.

The calamity highlighted the humanitarian plight of Lebanon’s 250,000 Palestinian refugees and the danger to the country’s security of ignoring it. More significantly, it underscored the deep ambivalence of the Lebanese people towards the Palestinians. In short, while Lebanese, regardless of their sectarian affiliation, tend to sympathise with the Palestinian cause in the abstract, they hold far less esteem for the Palestinians actually living in their midst. This schizophrenia is being played out in the current tug-of-war over the civil rights of Palestinians in Lebanon.

For Lebanon’s Palestinians, life is unquestionably bleak. Their freedom of movement is constrained, their entry to many jobs restricted, their right to own property nonexistent, and their access to public services denied. Lebanese citizenship is barred them under the constitution.

Due to this kind of institutional discrimination, Palestinians are poor, marginalised, confined to squalid camps and dependent on foreign and UN assistance. Those few with means can leave the country, while most have no prospects for a better life.

Despite the moral arguments in favour of measures to alleviate the second-class status of Palestinians, Lebanese are deeply conflicted. Recent history explains why.

Palestinians did not always have the short end of the stick in Lebanon. Until the 1980s, they enjoyed considerable self-rule. But in the view of most Lebanese, they abused this freedom. Palestinian factions had turned a weak Lebanon into a convenient operational base against Israel, eroding the country’s sovereignty.

During the 1975-1990 civil war, they were active participants, as well as victims. They muddled its politics by aligning themselves with competing domestic factions, sharpening its already combustible sectarian tensions. In 1982, they brought unwanted Israeli wrath on Lebanon in the form of an invasion. The trauma of the civil war and the fact that camps remain outside the authority of the state spawn the belief that Palestinians are a source of instability, extremism and crime as well as a Trojan Horse for outside players.

The result of this tumultuous history is that today, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees are largely pawns in the country’s sectarian dynamics and regional power games.

Syria, which occupied Lebanon until 2005, now manipulates Palestinian factions to pressure Israel, the Palestinian Authority and its Lebanese opponents. Hizbollah champions the Palestinian cause but, wanting absolute monopoly over the resistance, tightly controls its fighters.

At the same time, fearing that it, too, would have to give up its arms, Hizbollah opposes the disarmament of Palestinian factions, including those allied with Syria. The Palestinians themselves refuse to disarm, unwilling to entrust the Lebanese army with their security, especially after the excessive brutality of Nahr al Bared.

Palestinian refugee camps have become a fertile ground for political activism that mirrors the divisions among Palestinian factions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – some are dominated by Fatah and others by Hamas and its pro-Syrian allies. The camps, bristling with weapons and out of reach of the weak Lebanese state, are also havens for anyone from outlaws to al Qa’eda militants.

Security is one reason why the Palestinian civil rights issue is so contentious in Lebanon. Another is demographics. The country’s Christian community, already anxious about its fate in a region where Christian minorities are shrinking, fears that any relaxation of discriminatory measures against Palestinians would inevitably lead to “Tawteen” – their permanent settlement and eventual naturalisation. This would, they believe, tilt an already unfavourable population balance at a time other political issues, such as Hizbollah’s weapons and political reform, remain unresolved.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Sunnis have long been suspected of secretly encouraging Tawteen to shore up their community (Palestinian refugees are overwhelmingly Sunnis). Sadly, Tawteen has become a convenient political instrument even as its prospects are remote.

In fact, the refugees themselves insist they have no intention of settling in Lebanon and hope to return to Palestine. But these assurances carry little credibility. Given the deadlocked peace process, unwavering Israeli opposition to the right of return, Palestinian political disarray and the sense that a weak Lebanon will be on the losing side regardless, there is an understandable, if misguided, instinct to deny Palestinians basic rights.

These quandaries may explain, but do not justify, the current treatment of Lebanon’s Palestinians. Their disenfranchisement is the reason that camps are a source of insecurity, not the other way around.

Beyond the moral imperative, it benefits the Lebanese to loosen the grip on Palestinian refugees so they can live more productive lives. Ceasing to infantilise them and giving them brighter prospects will make it easier to hold them accountable for threats arising from their midst.

Fortunately, momentum for change is building. A law is being debated that would allow Palestinians to own property and to have access to more jobs. On Sunday, several thousand demonstrators rallied in Beirut to demand more dignity. Even minor progress would erode a debilitating taboo.

Still, it would be unwise to dismiss Christian concerns too hastily. For them, the issue of Palestinian civil rights is inseparable from Lebanon’s other woes and so far, they have failed to receive necessary assurances from other sects about the country’s trajectory. No wonder they see every issue as a zero-sum game.


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