Ahmed Moor
The Guardian (Opinion)
September 8, 2010 - 12:00am

Lebanon is regenerating. On balance, the country's collective sloughing off of history has been more successful than not. It is only 20 years since the civil war ended, and the memories of internecine atrocities remain; sporadic sectarian violence is a fact of life here. Fortunately, the Lebanese have avoided descending once more into civil war's morass but, despite all the healing, the Palestinian refugee issue still festers.

I was visiting a friend of mine – a magazine editor – for coffee at her office in east Beirut. The new labour law for Palestinians had just been enacted and we talked about it for a while. I told her it didn't go far enough, and she insisted that it ceded too much.

Her view was that the Palestinians in Lebanon have to offer more before making demands on the Lebanese state. More specifically, Palestinian arms in and out of the camps must be reined in. If the Palestinians want full rights and access, they've got to give something in return. The fear is that guns and greater access to economic opportunities will result in Palestinian dominance – which is the way it used to be. So it's one or the other.

Palestinian guns – or more broadly, resistance – became an institutionalised part of Lebanese life in 1969. That's the year that the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, brokered the Cairo agreement between Yasser Arafat and General Emile Bustani, the Lebanese army leader. The agreement's purpose was to define the scope of Palestinian life in Lebanon. It ceded security control within the camps to Palestinians, and affirmed their right to join in armed resistance against Israel.

In practical terms, the agreement contributed to the continuous erosion of state control in Lebanon, which led to its eventual abrogation by the state in 1987. Despite that, the Palestinian camps are still mostly self-administered and heavily armed.

I've heard repeatedly from Palestinians in the camps that their guns are trained only to the south – towards Israel. And, for a long time, they were. Palestinians contributed heroically to guerrilla campaigns against invading Israeli forces in the 1970s and 1980s. But the intervening decades have seen the resistance mantle pass from the Palestinians to a strong and vibrant Lebanese force, Hezbollah.

It was Hezbollah fighters, not the Palestinians, who were credited with liberating most of southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation. And it was Hezbollah that repelled the Israeli onslaught in 2006. Along with the Lebanese army, Hezbollah claims to be part of the country's national defence – a claim that few would dispute on factual grounds, regardless of whether it's a rightful role.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's Palestinians live in the thrall of dark memories. They commune with the spirits of Sabra and Shatila and clutch their weapons. They recall the War of the Camps and grasp them more tightly. Theirs is an endless insecurity. They exist outside the social fabric and rely on an illusion of martial security.

I use the word "illusion" deliberately. When terrorists infiltrated the Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007, the army simply razed the camp to eliminate them. Here the Palestinians felt their second-class status acutely – a Lebanese village would not have been razed – and saw that their guns were powerless to prevent the destruction.

The Lebanese state has an interest in demilitarising its territory. Indeed, the Taif agreement – which precipitated the end of the civil war – called for the disarmament of all the militias in Lebanon. However, the issue of national security still prevents its complete implementation.

The only party that ought to exercise martial control is the Lebanese army. But while the army manages internal security effectively, it is Hezbollah's intelligence services and strategic use of force that fends off Israel. So while the Taif agreement and the disarming of militias is accepted in principle, honouring it should not come at the expense of diminished national security.

If the Palestinians are to disarm, Lebanon must provide them with security guarantees – which means that other historically antagonistic militias must also be disarmed. Palestinians won't consent to relinquishing their arms so long as the Lebanese Forces militia possesses the strength to massacre civilians in the camps once again. Therefore, Palestinian disarmament has to occur within the context of a greater Lebanese disarmament.

Simultaneously, the state ought to incentivise Palestinian disarmament by increasing access to Lebanese society; it's not enough to say that Palestinian security is guaranteed. In an ideal world, Palestinian rights – which are human rights – would be unlinked to the issue of arms. But Lebanon's is a fractious society, and one must take other communities' legitimate concerns into account to realistically promote the country's progress.

To be sure, what I'm proposing here isn't feasible in the near term. The issue of sectarian self-defence is not going to be solved overnight, or in the next decade. But the status quo is inherently unstable – Lebanese leaders realise that.

For the country to progress and succeed, it needs a strong central government, and it needs to drastically improve the lot of its second-class population. The Lebanese – all of them – along with the Palestinian refugees can only benefit from a stronger state apparatus. Before Lebanon can move past the civil war, it needs to neutralise the factors that contributed to its eruption.


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