Palestinians in Lebanon

The Lebanese parliament has decided to postpone voting on a divisive bill on the rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It proposes a radical reconfiguration of the position of Palestinians in Lebanon, granting them the right to own property, receive social security benefits, and get better jobs. Proposed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the bill came somewhat out of the blue – as one person I met in Beirut would say, ‘that’s just so Druze of them’.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have long been marginalised by the economic and political structure of the country in which they have lived for decades. A brief period of liberalisation during the 1970s when the PLO moved their operations to Beirut had unfortunate consequences; since the end of the civil war, the Lebanese government has gradually removed the rights they had earlier accorded them. In their present situation, most Palestinians live in camps of varying degrees of officialdom; they are denied entry into several key fields of employment and are in practice excluded from anything but manual labour due to prejudice and bureaucratic obstacles. The proposed legislation would change much of this, affording Lebanon’s Palestinian population a better quality of life and removing them from the limbo in which they currently live.

It is this that provides the rationale behind some of the opposition to the bill. Rights for Palestinians in Lebanon have been portrayed by parties opposed (i.e. the Christian Lebanese Forces and Phalangists) as legitimating their presence to such an extent as to make them Lebanese, rather than Palestinian. This, according to figures such as Gemayel and Aoun, will settle them permanently – and thus obviate their right to return to Palestine. The measures, they argue, play right into Israel’s hands by naturalising the Palestinians through a process of tawteen – making them part of the nation. The Christian opposition, despite being deeply divided on most issues in Lebanon, have united behind the Palestinian question to raise the spectre of tawteen and reject the measures as harming the Palestinians more than helping them.

Visiting Sabra and Shatila a couple of weeks ago, the disparity between the quality of life there and the rest of Beirut was striking; just a short taxi ride from Hamra, we could have been in an entirely different city. A largely informal economy has developed based on the markets that line the streets of the camps. The buildings were run down and leaned into each other at crazy angles; it was reminiscent of other ‘informal’ or ‘unplanned’ housing areas I had visited, such as Bulaq in Cairo or Yarmouk in Damascus. The word ‘camps’ is, as usual, misleading; where are the tents, asked someone I was with. But Shatila was created by UNWRA in 1949; its Palestinian residents have been there for decades and have developed an established, if precarious, existence.

The right to return is a concern shared by all involved in the politics of Palestinians in Lebanon; Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians are all keen to avoid tawteen and what this would imply for the possibility of return to Palestine. But this should not be used to legitimise the marginalisation of the Palestinian community. Walking around Sabra and Shatila, everyone I spoke to told me within a few seconds of conversation that they were Palestinian. The various political factions were strongly represented: Hamas banners were strung across the streets, Arafat posters were pasted to the walls, and down a back street you could find the headquarters of the PFLP, covered in Che Guevara pictures and under Kalashnikov-carrying guard. The sense of not belonging in Lebanon is acute. Giving Palestinians the right to work and buy houses will not, ultimately, change this. Yet it will go some way towards remedying the injustice of a stateless people whose adopted state will not welcome them.

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