Lebanon’s baby step on the refugee problem

Leaders have exacerbated Palestinian misfortune.

Palestinian refugees Lebanon 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Palestinian refugees Lebanon 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
On the face of it, the Palestinian refugee problem is one of the most intractable of the core issues that will have to be resolved if there is ever to be a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
By the UN’s count, there are no fewer than 4.7 million Palestinian “refugees” scattered throughout the region. How does the UN reach that astronomical figure? Because it designates as “refugees” not only those Palestinians who themselves fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War, but all their descendants too. In so doing, it fosters both the practical refugee problem, and a psychological refugee culture, from generation to generation.
The Palestinian leadership, though it has sometimes informally intimated a willingness to compromise, has always formally insisted that all those millions of “refugees” should be granted a “right of return” – to Israel. Since Israel’s population is only seven and a half million people, some three-quarters of whom are Jewish, any such influx would represent national suicide for the Jewish state. A peace treaty that granted the “right of return” would not only involve the establishment of the new state of Palestine, but would turn the Jewish state of Israel into Palestine as well.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, while some prime ministers have contemplated a limited influx of Palestinians into sovereign Israel for “family reunification” purposes, no Israel government, of any political hue, has entertained the notion of accepting any such “right of return,” and nor will any government do so in the future. Hence the apparent deadlock.
IN FACT, however, the refugee problem can be one of the most easily resolved of the final-status issues, provided, that is, that the Palestinian leadership, Arab states and the rest of the international community genuinely seek to resolve it.
Ironically, the government of Lebanon, where “refugees” have suffered some of the most appalling treatment, this week reluctantly demonstrated how to do this.
The more than 400,000 Palestinian “refugees” of Lebanon are forbidden from owning property. Their travel is drastically restricted. Most professions are closed to them. Denied social welfare, they subsist in massively overcrowded refugee camps in festering poverty. This situation has been tolerated – in fact, encouraged – to deliberately foment their grievance against Israel, to ensure no let-up in the pressure for that unrealizable “return.” To what should be the enduring shame of the international community – notably international human rights activists – the Lebanese and the rest of the Arab leadership have been allowed to maintain this cynical exploitation of hundreds of thousands of people for decades.
Amid the internal tensions of Lebanon, however, and given the proven capacity for despair within the camps to explode into widespread violence, Beirut decided this week that it would have to ease, if only a little, the pressure-cooker discrimination.
And so it voted on Tuesday to partially lift some of the most stringent limitations on employment: From now on, the Palestinian “refugees” of Lebanon are permitted to work in the same professions as “other foreigners.”
In practice, this will likely mean merely that some of the work the “refugees” have been doing illegally will now be legal, while opening up few new opportunities. Many professions are off limits to all foreigners. And even some of those that aren’t – such as law, medicine and engineering – require the employees to be members of a professional association, and those associations demand reciprocal membership from the foreigners’ home country – which the Palestinian “refugees,” of course, do not have.
AND YET, whatever the practical consequence, and whatever the motivation, the Lebanese move still represents a step in the right direction. The further steps that need to be taken, in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere, are those that ultimately acknowledge in law the reality that has long since concretized on the ground: Despite the best efforts of those who sought its destruction from birth, the state of Israel is not going anywhere. And precisely as it has fully integrated those hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa who were no longer able to live in their countries of birth after the revival of our sovereign state, so too must the neighboring Arab states fully integrate the genuine refugees and their generations of descendants who were dislocated by that historic upheaval.
By definition, the establishment of “Palestine” would provide a sovereign identity for the “refugees” who live in Gaza and the West Bank. And the international community, with Israel’s support, has already made plain a willingness to provide financial assistance for all Palestinian “refugees” to ease the transition from the disadvantaged circumstances to which their leaderships have cynically reduced them.
Reluctantly, because of domestic concerns, Lebanon this week made a tiny move toward integrating an abused sector of its populace. However inadvertently, it highlighted a potential route to real progress. The original misfortune of Palestinian refugees has been exacerbated by cynical Arab leaders, and a scandalously indifferent international community, for far too long.