Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon:A New Power Keg? Zvi Mazel

Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader who crossed the lines a year ago and left the pro Western coalition to join the Syrian camp, has thrown another bombshell in the political arena. The aim: further exacerbating tensions and conflicts within the Lebanese society. On June 19 he stunned the political community by submitting to the Parliament four law proposals which, if adopted, would grant Palestinian refugees a number of rights - not including citizenship. First and foremost would be the right to own a place of residence outside refugee camps, to be free to gain employment in whatever fields they chose and 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 Hezbollah - opposed the proposals and managed to send them to various parliamentary committees for further consideration. As to the Muslim parties, Hezbollah 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 for good in Lebanon - thus destroying the fragile equilibrium between all communities – but also violate the unanimous Arab consensus against settling refugees in host countries since said refugees must return to Palestine.

According to UNWRA 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. These numbers are probably inflated since many managed to move to other Arab countries or to the West in order to find suitable employment. Following the 1969 Cairo Agreement between the Lebanese Government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other understandings reached over the years between the Lebanese government and the PLO/Fatah under Arafat, the refugees must live in the camps, where they enjoyed administrative autonomy, are allowed to have weapons and to “train towards the liberation of Palestine”. Lebanese security forces do not enter the camps but are posted around them. Created in 1949, UNWRA 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 and 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 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 in order 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 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 General Command also set up fortified positions outside the camps, mainly in the Eastern part of the Beqaa 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 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 in order 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 reborn state of Israel which created the plight of the Palestinian refugees.

More than sixty years later, Lebanon is the main victim of this impossible state of affairs which 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 which ended the Lebanese civil war. An agreement which also stipulated that all militias outside the camps – Hezbollah 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. Poverty, terror and lack of hope have turned the camps not only into a festering sore in the heart of the country but also as a powder keg which could explode at any time, throwing Lebanon into chaos and threatening to splinter into a myriad of warring units.

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.

Now Joumblatt has thrown his bombshell, knowing fully 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 postpone the debate and then scheduled it for July 15. The refugees, however, are restless and they held a mass demonstration in Beirut demanding civil rights in order “to be able to live decently”. Hamas chairman Haled Mashaal told Palestinian students in Damascus that Palestinians must be given full civil rights while adding that it by no means meant that the refugees would be settled in Lebanon, since the Palestinians would never give up their right of return.

UNWRA chairman Pilippo 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 dollars needed. In other words in spite of all the problems the UN is willing to rebuild the camp thus perpetuating the refugee status of the Palestinians.

Christian political parties in Lebanon are standing firm in their opposition. Michel Aoun declared at a recent congress of his party that he will never agree to a measure which would let Palestinians buy real estate in his country.

It is worth mentioning no Human Rights organization has seen fit so far to comment on the plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Arab countries feel bad about a situation which is of their making, and choose not to interfere.

The end of June also saw a meeting of the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee in Beirut. Abu Mazen sent a delegation headed by Azzam ElAhmed, a member of the Fatah central committee, which was joined by representatives of the PLO in Lebanon. The delegation met with Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Saad Hariri as well as with Christian parties representatives Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun. They had the same message for all: Palestinian refugees would remain guests in Lebanon according to the laws of the country and would not abandon their right of return – but they demanded in their name civil rights to enable them to live decently. All were waiting to see what the Prime Minister would have to say when he rose to speak at the meeting. They were disappointed: there was nothing new in his speech. Hariri repeated that though the Lebanese government was responsible for the Palestinians living in Lebanon, the international community must assume its share and ensure that they are given their right to return to Palestine. He added that the government and the parliament would do what they have to do but that the world must do the same.

The Lebanese Prime Minister has no miracle solution and is in deep trouble. Granting refugees the right to buy real estate throughout the country and to work in whichever profession they choose would be a blow to young Lebanese who are trying to buy a home and find a job. It would also be a first step towards settling in Lebanon for good. The Christian parties are opposed to such a move and the Muslim parties are not keen either: they know only too well that it would only deepen the Christian antagonism and could lead to a renewed civil war tearing the country apart. Tearing the country apart is just what the Syrians want because it would leave Lebanon weak and helpless.

Nobody knows how to deal with Joumblatt’s bombshell or to defuse it. For the present, the Lebanese will deal with it in the traditional way – by doing nothing - and hope that the camps powder keg does not blow in their face.

Zvi Mazel was The Israeli Ambassador to Sweeden

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