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Who really wants them? Palestinians in Lebanon fed up with being a bargaining chip

Source: Jerusalem Times

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.

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 substitute homeland.

Palestinian scapegoats
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 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.

Professional marginalization
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 jewelry-shop?

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's retention
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 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.

Rejection front
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 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.

Cosmopolitan recipe
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

Country population
Leb: 3,400,000
Jor: 4,139,458
Gaza: 963,000
WB: 1,571,575

Registered refugees
Leb: 352,668
Syr: 347,391
Jor: 1,358,706
Gaza: 716,930
WB: 532,438

Registered refugees as % of country population
Leb: 10.4
Syr: 2.4
Jor: 32.8
Gaza: 74.4
WB: 33.9

Registered refugees as % of total registered refugees
Leb: 10.7
Syr: 10.5
Jor: 41.1
Gaza: 21.7
WB: 16.1

Existing camps
Leb: 12
Syr: 10
Jor: 10
Gaza: 8
WB: 19

Registered refugees in camps as % of registered refugees
Leb: 54.5
Syr: 29.1
Jor: 19.0
Gaza: 55.2
WB: 27.8

Special hardship cases
Leb: 35,382
Syr: 21,374
Jor: 34,335
Gaza: 59,692
WB: 28,395

Special hardship cases as % of registered refugees
Leb: 10.0
Syr: 6.2
Jor: 2.5
Gaza: 8.3
WB: 5.3

Leb: 40.0
Syr: 8.4
Jor: 18.8
Gaza: 50-60
WB: 30-40

(UNRWA, Program Planning and Evaluation Office, August 1996)

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