By Ulrike Koltermann, The Jerusalem Times, 27 June 1997
Almost half a century has passed since after the outbreak of the War of 1948 that forced many Palestinians to settle as refugees throughout the Arab world, including Lebanon. It has also been 15 years since the Lebanese War which was launched by Israel in June 1982 with the aim of obliterating the PLO as a political and military organization. TJT's ULRIKE KOLTERMANN looks back on the turbulent history of the Palestinians in Lebanon.
Ehud Barak, the newly-elected Head of the Israeli Labor Party, once put on a long skirt and covered his head with a fancy wig. His vanity bag did not contain lipstick and a powder-box but a rifle. He was out to 'eliminate' some PLO leaders in revenge for the assassination of 11 Israeli sportsmen during the Olympic Games in Munich.
Beirut became a sweet nest for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Playing off all the Lebanese factions against each other, he managed to carve out his own mini-state between them. The Sabra and Shatila neighborhoods in Muslim West Beirut were his first quasi-sovereign territory. Beirut provided Arafat with a base for launching guerrilla attacks and maintaining contacts with the international press. This combination meant that the Palestinian cause was impossible to ignore. The cosmo- and metropolitan atmosphere changed the Lebanese exile into a most comfortable watan al-badeel, a substitute homeland.
The price was even higher than expected, since those who remained were charged for the installments. Whereas the Israeli invasion in 1982 kicked out the revolutionary intellectuals, most of the refugees had to stay. The only change was that of the common opinion which now looked upon the Palestinians as responsible for the new outbreak of civil war.
1997 marks the 15th anniversary of the first major part-payment: Shortly after the PLO moved on to Tunis, up to 1,300 Palestinians were killed in Sabra and Shatila by a Christian Lebanese militia, under the auspices of the Israeli army.
Most of them were registered by the newly established UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Many Palestinians who suddenly became dependent on international charity, experienced the term 'refugee' as a humiliation. Children in the physical education classes at the UNRWA schools exercised to the chant of a-w-d-a (return), and camp residents refer to each other as 'returnees.'
About 3,000 Palestinians never received a refugee document, as they had managed to transfer their wealth and did not apply to UNRWA. The universal picklock of money plus connections opened their doors into Lebanese society.
In the following decades, the proportions shifted. The growth of the Muslim population paradoxically came along with an increase of the political power of Christians. To avoid any adaptation to the religious divisions' reality, Christian leaders preferred to ignore it. Since the 30s, they refrained from holding a census, in order not to endanger the myth of the Christian-Muslim balance.
In this context, the immense number of mostly Muslim refugees was seen as highly explosive, threatening to blow up the entire political system of their host country.
The guidelines developed by the Lebanese government are not only clear but brutally realistic. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon obtained the status of 'foreigners with an unlimited residence permit.' Like every other foreigner they were not allowed to work without obtaining permission from the Lebanese government. Out of 15,000 work permits given to foreigners in 1991, only 125 were given to Palestinians.
Until today, the legal framework has been much more refined. A number of professions are restricted to Lebanese only, either explicitly or by accepting only members of professional societies and associations - who must have be Lebanese nationals. The Ministry of Labor issued a circular, stating the 11 'professions' that were open to a foreigner. This list could have been the result of an opinion poll about the most unpopular professions, ranging from servants to sanitation workers.
"Our work is concentrated on three fields," explains Hoda Samra from the UNRWA in Beirut, "namely education, health and relief and social services." The agency operates 74 schools, offering "an education that takes into account the Palestinian cultural heritage," according to Samra. In the Siblin Training Center, 600 trainees attend courses from concrete-forming to hairdressing, tasks that may enable them to find a job outside the camps. The health sector includes mother and child care, sewage and drainage improvements and contractual arrangements with private hospitals. The poorest among the refugees receive a bi-monthly ration of basic foodstuffs. Soft loans are granted to families who plan to establish micro-enterprises.
The professionally designed UNRWA brochure with its appealing photos of poor-but-happy-pupils and subtitles like "days are always busy at mother-and-child-care-clinics" and "women attend a literacy class" report a splendid story of success. The darker chapters of this history can only be read in between the lines.
Concerning education, she mentions that the percentage of refugee children who attend a school is smaller than in any other host country. Although in Syria there are less refugees than in Lebanon, the number of pupils is nearly twice the size. Every second UNRWA school has to operate according to double shifts.
Furthermore, "a labor market that excludes educated Palestinians, makes the vocational system of UNRWA dubious," Sayigh criticizes. Whereas the official rate of unemployment is already 40 percent, she even considers a quota of 90 percent as justified, since virtually only the UNRWA employees have a regular working contract.
Even more dramatic is the situation in the health sector. As the refugees lack access to the public health service they rely heavily on the agency's assistance. An operation usually costs $8,000. Among the 25 health centers, none has a dialysis machine.
Although their absolute number is declining, Lebanon continues to have the highest proportion of special hardship cases, ten percent of the refugees in mid-1996. A third of this group does not have a solid roof above their heads, or, in UNRWA's words, has "unsatisfactory housing."
Sada Kais is a member of the Najdeh organization whose name denotes its program: help. "We run kindergartens, women's projects and vocational centers," she says. "It is important to know the people personally and to motivate them to do something for themselves." Wandering around in Shatila Camp, smiles and greetings from the people she meets on the way show that her life has had a positive effect upon their fates.
Najdeh's vocational center in Shatila offers the melancholic atmosphere of an abandoned backstage room. Weighty arm chairs of artificial leather sit in front of almost blind full-length mirrors, a fancy ribbon left behind. It is the classroom of the hairdressing course, usually filled with the tittering of apprentices. Moreover, it seems to be a metaphor for the backstage existence of the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon.
Repatriation or resettlement? That could be the title of the play, marking their comeback to the stage. Next year could be a suitable occasion, marking the sad jubilee of 50 years since Palestinians fled to Lebanon and elsewhere.
The Israeli outlook persists that the 1948 refugees do not have any 'right' of return, according to their tenacious myth of voluntary emigration. Israel's readiness to accept the return of a limited number of expellees from 1967 will hardly have any effect in Lebanon where most of the Palestinians are descendants from 1948 refugees.
If a Palestinian state were created in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it would be morally if not legally obliged to organize the immigration of all refugees. As a large number of Palestinian officials consider this as the worst case scenario, little effort is made to develop concrete strategies of repatriation. Regarding their apparent lack of concern, Sayigh laconically states that "the PNA's policy towards the Palestinians in Lebanon nearly does not exist."
'Back to the region' is the motto of New-UNRWA, implying not only the move of the headquarters from Vienna to Gaza last July, but also a new budgetary structure. Palestinians in Lebanon reacted nervously, as this was seen as a first step to the agency's abolition. Commissioner General Peter Hansen may keep repeating that the peace process "should not be perceived as meaning that UNRWA is near finishing its task" and referring to the obligations of the donors as "far from fulfilled." However, the dissolution of UNRWA can be seen as a "tacit component of the Oslo agreement," according to Sayigh.
Analyzing the alterations in the budget distribution, Sayigh comes to this conclusion: "Since Oslo, international aid is transferred from the refugees in the Diaspora to the Occupied Territories, especially to Gaza." In fact, the 'Fund for Extraordinary Measures for Lebanon and the Occupied Territory' (EMLOT) was first used for activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before being completely phased out. Proportionally, Gaza received seven times the amount that was granted to Lebanon, "a clear-cut reward for the concessions Arafat made during the Oslo negotiations," according to Sayigh.
"Usually, we don't care about them. Sometimes we feel pity for them because they are poor. But we don't think that they belong here," says a young woman who prefers to remain anonymous. Although 'camp' seems to be a four-letter-word and the Lebanese prefer not to ponder about the Palestinian question too often, it imposes itself on everybody involved with Lebanon's future.
An excellent example of the common political position is a remark by a prominent Lebanese politician, Abdallah Al-Amin: "The talk about settling the Palestinians does not concern us in any way. We say that the Palestinians must return to Palestine, as we are unable to absorb or settle anyone." Minister of Education Michel Eddeh offers a purely fantastic figure of 600,000 Palestinians in Lebanon - nearly the double of UNRWA's data - coming to the conclusion: "The Lebanon refuses the implantation of the Palestinians on its territories, since this foreshadows the country's division."
The Lebanese government acts in perfect harmony with these statements by preventing urgent reconstruction work in the camps, setting up travel restrictions, canceling the refugee status of Palestinians with a second passport and drawing plans for the 'Beirut 2000 project' that smoothly define three refugee camps as building ground.
Pro-Palestinian voices present a weak chorus in favor of resettlement. A housing project for Palestinians designed by Walid Jumblatt, Minister for Refugees and leader of the Druze community, met violent protests and was unmasked as a confessionalistic move. The Druze minority was mainly interested in a buffer zone of loyal Palestinians between them and the expanding Shi'a population.
A well-defined minority status for the Palestinian community is their first goal, including the right to employment, social security, access to health services and education. The option 'civil rights without citizenship' would avoid both a dissolution of their national identity and the abandonment of the principle of the right of return.
Officially, the Palestinian community does not call for Lebanese citizenship, but those who can acquire it do so. Although there are fears of a legal fracture of the group and a splintered identity of the individual, naturalization is today more acceptable among Palestinians than ever before, and the estimated number of naturalized Palestinians is as high as 100,000.
If the PNA granted passports to the refugees, Lebanon would be free to reshape their political status. The US "green card" or the French "carte de long sˇjour" might serve as a model: limited political rights and duties, diplomatic representation by an embassy or consulate, facilitation of occupation and traveling - all regulations being respectively valid for Palestinians in Lebanon and for the Lebanese in Palestine. In addition to that, the 'right of return' should be pursued so that each Palestinian can make his own choice as to where he wants to settle. The number of actual returnees will probably be limited to those who have close and wealthy relatives in Palestine.
Definitely, it is a positive signal when a person like Nassib Lahoud, a Christian Member of the Lebanese Parliament and candidate for the presidential elections, also supports these ideas.
Table: Palestinian refugees
Registered refugees as % of country population:
Registered refugees as % of total registered refugees:
Registered refugees in camps as % of registered refugees:
Special hardship cases:
Special hardship cases as % of registered refugees:
(UNRWA, Program Planning and Evaluation Office, August 1996)
Rex Brynen * email@example.com * 19 July 1997