Arab News
August 19, 2010 - 12:00am

Palestinians remain barred from working for the government and in the professions, including law and medicine. They are also still forbidden from owning property and taking advantage of government health and welfare provisions.

Nevertheless though these conditions compared unfavorably with those offered to Palestinian exiles sheltering in other Arab states, Tuesday’s decision by the Lebanese Parliament does mark a breakthrough. Any easing of the terms under which Palestinians live in the 12 official camps was always going to raise suspicions among Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community, which found itself fighting the Palestinians alongside the Sunni Lebanese during the 15 years of civil war 1975. The original liberal proposals for a change in the status of refugees, which were put to legislators by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, were roundly condemned by the Christian parliamentary group.

The communal diversities of Lebanon mean that changes of policy can only be achieved by consensus. The compromises made by the Christians are probably the most that could be expected in the current circumstances. What would have been clearly unacceptable would have been a failure to reach any decision, ensuring a continuation of the status quo.

Nevertheless, the fears, not exclusive to Christian Lebanese, that Palestinian refugees would put down roots in their country - the Arabic word “tawteen” is used to describe such naturalization- have produced a dangerous counteraction. While the majority of Palestinians remains dependent on aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), control in the dozen camps is to a greater or lesser extent in the hands of those who find easy recruits among unemployed and disaffected youths. The original idea that Unrwa should run these camps in consultation with community inhabitants and the host government has long passed.

What this can mean for peace and stability was demonstrated dramatically three years ago when Lebanese forces had to battle for days to overcome the radicals in the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli. Lebanese security forces may perhaps now be able to enter the camps but there can be little doubt that it is the armed militants who rule within their confines.

It will never be known, of course, if from the get-go, a more generous Lebanese welcome to its luckless refugees from Palestine might have produced a very different situation. It is, however, obvious that the policies pursued toward their guests by successive Lebanese governments over the last 60 years have created serious problems for both sides.

Lebanese leaders undoubtedly imagine that they currently have far larger problems on their hands than the status of refugees. Nevertheless, the way in which these uprooted and abused exiles are treated is surely a reflection of the wider morality at the heart of the Beirut government. Tuesday’s parliamentary vote to ease their plight was a start and in the circumstances a real achievement. However, all Lebanese politicians need to recognize that it is still not enough either in terms of justice nor as a counterbalance to militant control in the camps.


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