Palestinian refugees Lebanon 311.
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druse leader who crossed the lines a year ago and left the pro- Western coalition to join the Syrian camp, has thrown another bombshell into the political arena. The aim is further exacerbating tensions and conflicts within Lebanese society. On June 19 he stunned the political community by submitting to parliament four bills which, if adopted, would grant Palestinian refugees a number of rights – not including citizenship.
They would be given the right to own a place of residence outside refugee camps, to be free to gain employment in whatever field they chose and to enjoy attendant social benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans.
The move was sure to heighten hostilities between Christians and Muslims and it did not fail. All Christian political parties – including that of Michel Aoun, the Christian general who joined the opposition led by Hizbullah – opposed the proposals and managed to send them to various parliamentary committees for further consideration. As to the Muslim parties, Hizbullah included, their reaction was muted and they let it be known they were open to discussion.
At the core of the problem is the fear shared by all that granting rights to Palestinian refugees would not only ultimately lead to their settling in Lebanon for good – thus destroying the fragile equilibrium between all communities – but also violate the unanimous Arab consensus against settling refugees in host countries, since they must return to Palestine.
According to UNRWA there are 425,000 Palestinian refugees – a number which includes those who fled in 1948 and their descendants – living in 12 camps scattered all over Lebanon. The number is probably inflated, since many managed to move to other Arab countries or to the West to find suitable employment.
FOLLOWING THE 1969 Cairo Agreement between the Lebanese government and the PLO and other understandings reached over the years between the Lebanese government and the PLO/Fatah under Yasser Arafat, the refugees must live in the camps, where they enjoy administrative autonomy, are allowed to have weapons and to “train toward the liberation of Palestine.” Lebanese security forces do not enter the camps but are posted around them.
Created in 1949, UNRWA sees to the welfare of the denizens of the camps, provides education and health services as well as food; however its budget is steadily shrinking. Buildings have replaced tents, but the refugees cannot leave to find work or buy a home outside, and the camps have turned into slums whose inhabitants are exploited by a number of Palestinian organizations with their own agendas. Fatah rules most of the camps, but Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and all the other groups are there; more recently jihadist organizations loosely affiliated with al- Qaida have also moved in. Quarrels often turn violent and can degenerate into gunfights.
It is from some of the camps that jihadist organizations planned their operations before going outside to fire rockets into Israel.
Lebanese authorities are forbidden to enter the camps and they can only watch helplessly. But in 2007 extremist elements in the Al-Barad camp near Tripoli, doing Syria’s bidding, planned a series of terror operations in northern Lebanon to further destabilize the country. Syria wanted to pressure the Lebanese government into stopping the operation of the international court of justice it had set up with the UN Security Council to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus is the prime suspect.
There ensued three months of bloody fighting between the extremists and the Lebanese army, leaving 400 dead, including 168 soldiers. The camp was totally destroyed and tens of thousands of refugees were left homeless.
Pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, such as Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-General Command, also set up fortified positions outside the camps, mainly in the eastern part of the Bekaa Valley along the Syrian border. The Syrians are using these positions, where the Lebanese army dares not enter, to stockpile ammunition and to train Jibril’s militants, who bear arms openly, to carry out subversive operations against Lebanon.
The overall picture is bleak, but no one in Lebanon or in the Arab world will
acknowledge the fact that this situation is the result of the deliberate Arab
policy not to settle the refugees in neighboring Arab states to preclude any
attempt at putting an end to the conflict born of the Arab refusal to accept the
partition plan which would have provided for a Palestinian state. It was the
concerted attempt of Arab states to destroy the newly born State of Israel that
created the plight of the Palestinian refugees.
MORE THAN 60 years later,
Lebanon is the main victim of this impossible state of affairs that threatens
its very existence.
Putting the refugees into camps was supposed to be a
temporary solution. Successive Lebanese governments repeated that the refugees
would ultimately go back to Palestine and refused to let them settle in the
country. This was set in the constitution and included in the Taif agreement of
1989 that ended the Lebanese civil war.
The agreement also stipulated
that all militias outside the camps – Hizbullah and Jibril’s organization
included – would be stripped of their weapons. It did not happen. No Lebanese
government was able to enforce that part of the agreement.
terror and lack of hope have turned the camps not only into a festering sore in
the heart of the country, but also a powder keg which could explode at any time,
throwing Lebanon into chaos and threatening to splinter into a myriad of warring
All parties understand that this can’t go on much longer and that
“something” has to be done. So far Lebanon is clinging to the so-called
Saudi/Arab initiative which reiterated that the refugees would not be settled in
their host countries – an empty statement by all accounts.
has dropped his bombshell, knowing full well that his country alone cannot solve
the problem, and that even discussing it will only deepen the chasm between the
communities and weaken the government.
The committee for legal affairs to
which the proposals were submitted first postponed the debate, then scheduled it
for July 15. The refugees, however, are restless and they held a mass
demonstration in Beirut demanding civil rights “to be able to live decently.”
Hamas chairman Khaled Mashaal told Palestinian students in Damascus that
Palestinians must be given full civil rights, while adding that this by no means
meant that the refugees would be settled in Lebanon, since the Palestinians
would never give up their right of return.
UNRWA chairman Filippo Grandi,
who was in the Lebanese capital at the end of June, also called on the Lebanese
government to grant civil rights to the refugees, claiming that creating a
stable Palestinian society was in the interest of Lebanon.
The purpose of
his visit had been to collect funds to rebuild the Al-Barad camp, which had been
destroyed in the fighting.
In a press conference he said that he had only
been able to raise half of the $450 million needed. In other words, in
all the problems the UN is willing to rebuild the camp, thus
refugee status of the Palestinians.
Christian political parties are
standing firm in their opposition. Aoun declared at a recent congress of
party that he will never agree to a measure which would let Palestinians
real estate in his country.
It is worth mentioning no human rights
organization has seen fit to comment on the plight of the Palestinian
in Lebanon. Arab countries feel bad about a situation which is of their
and choose not to interfere.
The end of June also saw a meeting of the
Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee in Beirut. Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas sent a delegation headed by Azzam al-Ahmed, a
the Fatah central committee, which was joined by representatives of the
Lebanon. The delegation met with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and
Minister Saad Hariri as well as with Christian party representatives
Gemayel and Aoun. They had the same message for all: Palestinian
remain guests in Lebanon according to the laws of the country and would
abandon their right of return – but they demanded civil rights to enable
All were waiting to see what the prime minister would have
to say when he rose to speak at the meeting. They were disappointed:
nothing new in his speech. Hariri repeated that though the Lebanese
was responsible for the Palestinians living in Lebanon, the
community must assume its share and ensure that they are given their
return to Palestine.
He added that the government and the parliament
would do what they have to do, but the world must do the same.
Lebanese prime minister has no miracle solution and is in deep
Granting refugees the right to buy real estate throughout the
country and to work in whichever profession they choose would be a blow
Lebanese who are trying to buy a home and find a job. It would also be a
step toward settling in Lebanon for good. The Christian parties are
such a move and the Muslim parties are not keen either: They know only
that it would only deepen Christian antagonism and could lead to a
war. Tearing the country apart is just what the Syrians want because it
leave Lebanon weak and helpless.
Nobody knows how to deal with Jumblatt’s
bombshell or how to defuse it. For the present, the Lebanese will deal
in the traditional way – by doing nothing and hoping that the camps do
up in their face.The writer is a former ambassador to
Egypt and Sweden.