The Impossible Situation of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

Lebanon's Palestinian refugees cannot return home, but are treated with disdain in Lebanon. How can an impossible situation change?

Intifada has an article concerning the life of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, one that basically laments the terrible conditions while chastising the Lebanese government for denying the refugees equal rights under Lebanese law.  The living conditions for Palestinian refugees is pretty awful and they are forced to cope with many hardships.  But, unfortunately, there is a better chance that Israel will allow them to return to their homes in what is now Israel proper than give them equal rights.

The article (though more of a rant than a organized argument) said:

Generally speaking, Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are not much better off than their couterparts [sic] living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank or under siege in Gaza. Their life is a sad chapter full of sorrow. They are denied basic civil and human rights and their movement is restricted. In fact, they are caged inside the twelve camps like animals with armed guards at the gate…

Finally, the aforementioned stories of abuse and mistreatment of Palestinians are used by Zionists to counter critics of Israeli policies. For instance, how can the government of Lebanon or Egypt demand Israel comply with U.N. Resolution 194 granting the right of return, but at the same time deny Palestinian refugees living in their countries very basic human and civil rights. Case in point is the traitorous regime in Egypt who is currently aiding Israel in starving Palestinians to death in Gaza.  These governments serve one master, and we know who that is.

Clearly the author blames Israel for the condition of refugees in Lebanon – whether that is fair or not is another argument – but he does not mention the reality of the Lebanese political system.  I have railed against the constitutionalized Lebanese system before and I probably will again.  By reserving certain governmental posts for certain sects, it is in the interest of many Lebanese to maintain the status quo.

The last official census in Lebanon was in 1932 and the current constitution based its sectarian division of government on those numbers.  Due to different birth rates and migration patterns, the number of Muslims in Lebanon has grown considerably faster than Maronite Christians.  Thus, any new census would prove the irregularities in the Lebanese constitution.  For this reason, Maronites strongly oppose any new census information as it would mean an inevitable decrease in their share of governmental power.

For this same reason, Palestinians will not receive better treatment from the government.  Granting Palestinian refugees more equal rights is seen as a slippery slope by many Lebanese; give them rights and there will be pressure to grant them citizenship.  If Palestinians are seen as part of Lebanese society – or, indeed, as Lebanese citizens – the Muslim/Christian balance in the country becomes even more skewed, leading to more calls for political reform to better represent the sects.  Thus, any serious calls for equal rights for refugees have been sharply cut down before they gain any traction.

The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon received a very raw deal.  Many left their homes in 1948 under the pretext that they were going to return weeks later.  There are many stories of unfortunate Palestinians who left most of their possessions in their houses, all under the assumption that they were to return shortly. Others were forcibly driven from their homes by Israeli forces, leaving most of their possessions under the threat of death.  This is why Palestinians view 1948 bitterly and call the exodus An-Nakba, the catastrophe.

And in Lebanon, the refugees were seen as unfortunate guests who would soon leave Lebanon and return to their homes.  60 years later, this view is still help by many, Palestinians included.

[tweetmeme] I worked with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon last summer and one, Rasha, told me that her grandmother kept the key to her house in what is now Israel.  She kept the key because she was told that she would be return home and, to this day, she believes that her return to Palestine is a question of when, not if.

Realistically, there is no chance of her returning home.  Her village has been completely integrated into Israel.  Her home, most likely, was destroyed or given to Israelis.  Her possessions – including family photos, furniture and dishes that were passed down through generations – were probably discarded.  And today she is in Lebanon living as a second class citizen.

The refugees in Lebanon are stuck without a country.  They are unable to return home (and for many, never will be able to – even under a peace deal) and are refused in Lebanon.  There is no doubt that the Palestinians in Lebanon deserve better from the Lebanese government.  Unfortunately, given the reality of the convoluted Lebanese system, naturalization or even an increase of rights will be impossible.

Generally, I am an optimist.  I believe that eventually there will be a Palestinian state – perhaps even with East Jerusalem as its capital; I believe that Palestine and Israel can eventually live in peace as neighbors; I believe that Israel’s policy of perpetual war will eventually die out (I prefer the word optimism to being naïve).  The refugee situation, though, seemingly cannot be fixed.  Presently, Lebanon will never give the Palestinians more rights.  Assuming a peace agreement is made, Israel will not allow Palestinians to return to houses that are now inhabited by Jews and Lebanon will not allow Palestinians to stay in Lebanon if there is a Palestine.

The Palestinian refugees are a question in Lebanon without an answer.  It is true that the way in which they are forced to live in Lebanon is horrendous, but it is unlikely to change.

Photo from Intifada

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