Palestinian refugees in Lebanon may soon receive passports from the Palestinian Authority.
Speculation that the Palestinian Authority is planning to issue passports to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon began as embattled Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced plans to raise the issue with senior Lebanese officials during a visit to Beirut later this week.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, estimated to number 250,000 to 350,000, have been stateless since the 1948 Arab Israeli war.
While the Palestinian refugees who fled to camps in Egypt, Jordan and Syria during the 1948 War were eventually granted residency or citizenship in those respective countries, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have remained stateless, face extensive discrimination, and are mostly confined to refugee camps surrounded by checkpoints.
Parts of the new Lebanese government advocated finding a solution to the refugees' plight during the country's recent electoral campaigns.
The Palestinian Authority has already issued a limited number of passports to senior members of the Palestinian refugee community. But while the move to issue hundreds of thousands of Palestinian passports is intended to make international travel somewhat easier for the refugees, the passports will not provide the refugees with the right to come to the West Bank, Gaza or Jerusalem, as permits to enter the Palestinian territories controlled by Israel require Israeli approval.
Leila Hilal, a legal advisor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), argued that the principal barrier to Palestinian freedom of movement in Lebanon is their lack of citizenship.
"When these Palestinians were displaced in 1948, Israel subsequently adopted a law which denationalized them," she told The Media Line. "So they're stateless and have been living in Lebanon since that displacement without citizenship or an internationally recognized passport."
"States can give specially issued travel documents to the refugees, which Lebanon does, but these documents are not like passports like you and I would understand," she said. "They are specially issued travel documents issued for specific travel, so it's not like they have a permanent travel document that they can use to go on vacation in the Maldives whenever they want. They need special permission each time they want to travel."
In addition to local fears over the way the naturalization of Palestinian refugees might affect the country's delicate religious balance, Hilal argued that Lebanese society was nowhere near to accepting the refugees as equals.
"The Lebanese are very far from the position of giving Palestinians citizenship," Hilal said. "There is extensive discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon and that's not going to change overnight. There needs to be some kind of internal conversation to move the opinion of Lebanese people towards Palestinians in the country."
"Palestinian Authority passports would not signify citizenship, they are just a more robust travel document," she stressed. "If the Palestinian refugees were given Palestinian Authority passports they may not need permission each time they want to travel, but then again the Lebanese may still impose particular restrictions on Palestinian travel. For example the Lebanese make it particularly hard for Palestinians to return from overseas."
"It's not clear to me whether or not Palestinian refugees in Lebanon would accept Palestinian passports," Hilal added, in reference to the commitment of the Palestinian Authority to a two-state solution with Israel. "Some Palestinians will see it as relinquishing their right of return to Israel. From their perspective, it would be acknowledging a Palestinian state in just the West Bank and Gaza."
Ali Hweidi, director of the Palestinian Organization for the Right of Return, an organization which assists Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, said refugees were undecided about the Palestinian passport proposal.
"We need to know more about what President Abbas means by this," he told The Media Line. "If the passports are to help facilitate the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in Palestine, it will be supported by all Palestinian factions, but if it is to facilitate the rejection of those rights, we will reject it."
Hweidi argued that most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not support local nationalization.
"We are against Lebanese nationality," he said. "If it is given to all Palestinians it will mean the rejection of our right of return."
"What we want is to be treated like the Palestinian refugees in Syria and have our civil rights acknowledged," Hweidi added. "Civil rights are not about Lebanese nationalization, they are about hospitalization, education, social services, relief and the ability to register Palestinian organizations."
Arafat Madi, director of the Palestinian Return Centre, an academic research organization focused on Palestinian refugees, said that the heightened sensitivities surrounding the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon centered around their symbolic role.
"The principal problem with Palestinian refugees today is in Lebanon," he told The Media Line. "So the concern is that if you sort them out then the problems of all Palestinian refugees will be seen as 'solved' without having solved the right of return."
"That's why this will be rejected by the Palestinians," Madi said of the Palestinian passports. "We are for giving the Palestinians freedom of movement, for example with Lebanese passports, but giving a passport to any Palestinian, whether in Egypt, Jordan, Syria or Lebanon, means you are solving the problem of freedom of movement but you are doing so by negating their right to return to their localities which were destroyed by Israel by formally resettling them. Any Palestinian will reject this."