Who really wants them? Palestinians in Lebanon fed up with being a bargaining chip
Source: Jerusalem Times
By Ulrike Koltermann
The Jerusalem Times,
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.
High life in Lebanon
This was in Beirut - in 1973. It
was the glorious time of the Palestinians
in Lebanon, days of heroes and martyrs,
political activity and intellectual
mobility. After being expelled from
Jordan, the PLO settled in Lebanon,
warmly welcomed by the Lebanese National
Movement. Although the two groups
did not have a common ideology, they
were both in need of military power.
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
The price for the taste of real power
was the advancing entanglement of
the PLO in the Lebanese domestic
conflict. Acting as the sword of
the Lebanese National Movement in
the beginning, the PLO turned out
to be one of the major militias in
the torn capital. Thomas Friedman,
the former New York Times' correspondent
in Beirut, called Arafat "the effective
mayor of West Beirut."
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.
Refugee or returnee?
Palestinians in Lebanon stood out as a major demographic
problem from the first days of their arrival. In a small country with roughly
1,100,000 inhabitants, 100,000 refugees represented a much heavier burden
than they did to Syria or Egypt. Since the beginning of the fifties, one
in every ten inhabitants of Lebanon has been a refugee.
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.
Threatening the confessional system
For the majority
of the new-arrivals from the south, however, the change of nationality was
unimaginable. Lebanon's fragile socio-religious formula meant that their
situation was worse than in any other host country. In an unwritten National
Pact, dating back to 1943, Christian and Muslim leaders agreed upon a 50-50
power-share, equal to the religious partition of the population.
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
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.
It took some years to define the political status
of these new immigrants, who never thought about obtaining a new 'status.'
On the part of the UN, the rights of the refugees were as clear as illusory.
As early as 1948, UN Resolution 194 states, "It is necessary to allow the return, as soon as possible,
[..] and to pay compensation [...]."
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.
Honor of UNRWA
Since the Lebanese government did not show the slightest interest
in integrating the new arrivals, UNRWA was faced with the Sisyphus task of
providing them with their basic needs and political representation. The agency
literally grew with its task. Starting with a staff of 6,000 to take care
of 876,000 Palestinian refugees, the number of both multiplied. In 1996,
UNRWA counted more than 21,000 staff members and 3,368,000 registered refugees
in the various host countries. In Lebanon, the original Palestinian community
of 100,000 increased to up to 350,000 holders of UNRWA refugee documents.
"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.
Unromantic camp life
The Lebanese way of refugee life has always been on
the hard side. It is noteworthy that Lebanon is the only host country where
the quota of camp inhabitants is still higher than 50 percent. Rosemary Sayigh,
author of a huge volume with the meticulous title Too many Enemies describes
the present situation in the camps.
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."
NGOs replacing PLO
Alongside UNRWA - and sometimes in its place - various
private organizations have committed themselves to facilitating camp life.
Since 1982, they have filled up the infrastructure vacuum that the PLO left
behind when moving on to Tunis. Scholars estimate the number of direct and
indirect jobs created by the PLO in the 60s and 70s as up to 40,000. The
PLO-ruled Gaza Hospital in Sabra was one of the best-equipped hospitals in
the country. Pillaged during the Israeli invasion, it now serves as a scanty
shelter for several hundred Palestinian families.
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.
Right of return
For both scenarios, scene-painters choose gloomy colors.
The 'Right of return' is the Amen after every PNA-sermon about the future
of the refugees. The more distant its implementation seems to the speakers
the more passionate sounds their demand. In fact, the 'return' of the refugees
of 1948 is but a ritual formula. To where should a man in his forties return,
who lived his whole life in an UNRWA camp and who finds that his grandparents'
house in Jaffa is now inhabited by a Jewish-American widow, running a fashion
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."
UNRWA does not want to intefere in the implementation of
the 'Right of return' either. "We are only concerned with facilitating the life of the refugees.
We are not making plans for their future," says Samra and she refuses to
make any further "political statements." However, the reshaped structure
of UNRWA may reveal its unofficial vision.
'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
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
While watching their cake turn into dough, Palestinians in
Lebanon have noticed a growing hostility towards their group. Tawtin, or
resettlement, is the sword of Damocles, hanging above the nation. It is probably
the only issue on which the views of the Lebanese - across ideological and
confessional lines - agree.
"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.
Citizen minus citizenship
It seems likely that the play 'Repatriation or
Settlement?' will not have a happy ending. Therefore, the most practical
course of action would be to search for solutions on the ground. For this
purpose, Najdeh and 16 other NGOs established a 'Coordination Forum' in 1994.
They turned away from the UNRWA focus on humanitarian aid and began to campaign
for social and civil rights for the refugees.
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.
Foreigners with Palestinian passports
On a long-term basis, the establishment
of the Palestinian state might help to solve the refugee problem even without
insisting on their collective return. As the 1988 Declaration of Independence
proclaims a "state of all Palestinians,
wherever they may be," the PNA should aspire to issue Palestinian passports
not only to the West Bankers and Gazans but also to the refugees. This move
would reduce the psychological pressure on the Lebanese government, which
stems from the potential naturalization of the refugees and the stirring
of the confessional status quo.
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 sZjour" 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
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.
When the Lebanese psyche is no longer preoccupied with the fixed idea of
the confessional balance and when the Palestinians know that they could return
to their homeland if they want, Lebanon, in all probability, would be able
to return to its splendid and cosmopolitan pre-War nonchalance, integrating
a Palestinian community that rediscovers its political and intellectual resources.
If the first post-camp generation is characterized by the scissors-work of
hairdressers - one of the eleven permitted 'professions' - the next one will
be perfectly adapted to Lebanese society. After all, the Lebanese society
has always been a minestrone rather than a melting pot.
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)