Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
June 30, 2010 - 12:00am

The current debate in Lebanon about the legal status of several hundred thousand resident Palestinian refugees reflects the best and worst of the Arab world. The mistreatment, abysmal living conditions and limited work, social security and property rights of these Palestinians are a lingering moral black mark – but change is in the air, initiated largely by Lebanese.

To be fair to Lebanon, all Arab countries similarly mistreat millions of Arab, Asian and African foreign guest workers, who often are treated little better than chattels or indentured laborers. Racism and discrimination are alive and well in most Arab societies. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, however, are a distinct case. Most were born in the country and know no other residence. They are involuntary long-term refugees, and are not here by choice to work.

Four related dynamics these days highlight the brisk movement to end official and legal discrimination against Palestinians: draft legislation in Parliament to give Palestinians full civil and human rights (work and property ownership mainly); the public, often heated, discussion of this move in the media; the peaceful marches in four parts of Lebanon last Sunday by Palestinians and Lebanese, culminating in a rally in central Beirut; and the event Tuesday at which Premier Saad Hariri “re-launched” and invigorated the work of the five-year-old Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC).

The official discrimination against Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and their awful living conditions in a dozen refugee camps – large rats jump across electricity boxes adjacent to densely packed cinderblock homes, rather unlike like squirrels cavorting on fir trees in rural Maine – have long contrasted with the positive aspects of Lebanese-Palestinian ties. Many Lebanese have steadfastly supported the Palestinians in their national struggle against Zionism, while Palestinians have often contributed significantly to the Lebanese economy and society. The two sides exude tensions and suspicions, as much as a desire to clear the air and restore positive ties.

The breakthrough came in 2005 when the Lebanese government courageously acknowledged the unacceptable nature of the constrained rights and living conditions of the Palestinians in camps, and created LPDC to initiate a political dialogue and improve relations with the Palestinians in Lebanon. The process elicited a reciprocal Palestinian affirmation of the need to move ahead on this front, and the initiative has moved slowly and fitfully since then.

The breakthrough that has been experienced in the past month is significant, but like all such historic moves it is not always fully clear as it occurs. The main achievement is that the matter of giving Palestinians their full human, refugee and civil rights according to existing international conventions that Lebanon has signed is now an issue that is openly discussed, in Parliament and in the media. An ugly taboo has been shattered. Many Lebanese are ashamed of how their country treats the Palestinian refugees. They feel that allowing the refugees to live as normal lives as possible (short of granting them citizenship, so that they do not vote or change the delicate political-sectarian balance among Lebanese) is the right and moral thing to do, simply on the grounds of human decency.

A few others admit – as I believe is the case – that Palestinian refugees who enjoy full labor, business, social security and property rights and can live dignified lives will generate material and intangible gains that will benefit them and all Lebanese. By living like normal human beings rather than penned-in animals or exploited fugitive employees, Palestinians would generate greater income and spend it in the country, contributing to higher standards in professional jobs, open new businesses, hiring Palestinians and Lebanese alike, and expanding Lebanon’s already impressive economic creativity and dynamism.

Improved social, economic, health, educational and environmental conditions in the refugee camps will impact constructively on surrounding Lebanese communities. Refugees who enjoy basic human rights and dignity will feel more positive about, grateful to, and protective of their host country and the Lebanese people. This would surely lower political tensions, resolve some disputes, and significantly remove negative sentiments among some camp dwellers that now allow armed elements to create security problems in the country.

Lebanon faces a moment akin to the political, legal and ethical challenges that Americans grasped when they faced and vanquished the crime of official racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s, or when South Africans seriously mooted changing their Apartheid system in the 1980s. Like those historic transformations, and any other human and legal transition from indignity to dignity, removing official discrimination against Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will happen slowly. But it seems to have started, and the Lebanese will look back on this development one day with pride. It can also be a shining example to other Arab countries to face their own shameful mistreatment of the foreigners amongst them.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017