Joseph A. Kechichian
Gulf News (Opinion)
July 15, 2010 - 12:00am

Once again, the fate that befell 450,000 plus Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has preoccupied that hapless country's leaders. Like other neighbouring states, Lebanon warmly welcomed Palestinians expelled from Israel over the years, providing them with relative security even if weak governments failed to regularise their presence. After the hugely mistaken 1969 Cairo Accords, which allowed refugees to arm themselves — ostensibly to attack Israel — Lebanon compounded the Palestinian tragedy by authorising a new battlefront on its own territory. In what must be one of the worst Arab political decisions of the 20th century, Palestinian officials fought against their Lebanese hosts in a civil war that recorded at least 150,000 dead, which further tightened the noose around their necks.
Though forward-looking Lebanese considered the civil war a sad chapter of their history, few forgot its devastating consequences, and fewer amongst them forgave those who placed regional concerns ahead of the national interest. There is now a debate on granting Palestinians basic civil rights, with some Lebanese politicians calling for guarantees that would allow refugees the right to own and inherit property, while others wish to restrict those privileges to a right to work and study only. A few are even supporting the establishment of new refugee camps, proposing that Beirut allow the building of high-rises in existing sites, which would address overcrowding.

Under the circumstances, it is fair to ask what will become of Lebanon's Palestinian exiles, at a time when Lebanon has embarked on a roundtable discussion to address and resolve the thorny issue of Hezbollah's weapons, itself a nearly impossible task. In fact, the legal status of the refugees deserves attention because Palestinian-Israeli negotiations seem to be frozen in time, with few prospects for a genuine resolution any time soon. Simply stated, Israel is not in a hurry, because it is in the stronger position vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Consequently, it will not agree to an independent Palestinian state, despite lofty rhetoric that pullulates the media. Israelis have argued they lack worthy interlocutors while Palestinians rely on their Arab brethren to defend the cause. Needless to say, United Nations resolutions were cavalierly ignored, while major powers diddled with peripheral subjects, delivered aid after each disaster, and assessed various blowback situations when neglect fortified hatreds and generated violent reactions.

Given all of this, few should except members of the Quartet the United Nations, European Union, United States, and Russia to lift much more than a finger, because no one in the international community since Dwight D. Eisenhower has the cojones to speak the truth on this matter. A series of recent envoys, including former British prime minister Tony Blair and the affable George Mitchell, racked up significant air miles through repeated excursions to the region, where one is well received, fed and entertained in exchange for promises that will never materialise. All wish to bring peace to the Middle East and to work towards the creation of a viable Palestinian state, even if the odds are stacked against such an outcome for the time being.

Instead, everyone is talking about the peace process, rather than the end result. In the case of refugees scattered across Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, the unbecoming focus is on naturalising Palestinians, which is truly unfair to the refugees who endured misery for all these years, and the smaller Levantine states that cannot absorb them for political reasons.

In the case of Lebanon, a consensus has now emerged amongst the vast majority of the Lebanese that Palestinians in exile should not receive Lebanese nationality, even if many are sympathetic to finding a compromise legal solution. Everyone agrees that unfortunate refugees should not remain perpetually in limbo, since their circumstances are time bombs that will not go away. Regrettably, the 2007 siege of the Nahr Al Bared camp, which pitted the Lebanese Army against the illegal Fatah Al Islam militants, was probably the tip of the iceberg.

It is precisely to avoid such tragedies that the time is probably right to close the camps permanently and put the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East out of business. To date, and except for generous financial assistance, no Arab leader has had the foresight to address the difficult questions associated with providing protection to Palestinians. Still, doable solutions exist, including the necessity to legalise the status of Palestinians by granting them specific rights.

In other words, rather than see them as refugees, Lebanon for example should transform Palestinians into residents. The latter can work, earn decent wages, live wherever they can afford to, and travel as they wish. Many would opt to work abroad and those who return to temporary homes in Lebanon would be treated as privileged guests. Lebanon cannot grant citizenship to the Palestinians, though it would — unlike other states — finally address the fate of 450,000 plus of its residents, with a solution in mind. That is when Beirut can and must insist on its sovereignty, which will see all of the camps permanently closed, and all of the weapons stored in underground bunkers turned over to the Lebanese Army.


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