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From Refugees to Minority: Palestinians in Post-War Lebanon

Source: Middle East Report 200 (July-September 1996).

by Julie Peteet

As Lebanon's elite strategizes post-war reconstruction and national reconciliation, the future of the Palestinian community in the country hinges on the outcome of the Arab-Israeli peace talks, particularly the multilateral talks on refugees.[l] Popular sentiment holds that "peace" will not produce the conditions for return or compensation. In the meantime, Palestinians living in camps in Lebanon face insurmountable odds, including poverty, unemployment and political disenfranchisement.

Palestinian identity is increasingly fragmented and highly nuanced around differences in geography, experience and legal status. Abandoned by the peace process, Palestinians in Lebanon are rethinking their place in both the Lebanese and Palestinian national orders. In Lebanon, the Palestinian community is contending with its marginalization by seeking to redefine itself as a legal minority. The process is simultaneously one of accommodation in seeking a minority status for a distinctly Palestinian presence in Lebanon and a form of resistance against further displacement to other countries and intensified exclusion from Lebanese public life. Thus minority status emerges not from isolation but from the very specificity of interaction with the broader economic, social and political environment.

In this context, marginalization takes a number of forms and is often linked to exclusion and violence. There is the spatial dimension: confinement to well-demarcated, bounded and surveilled camps. Institutional marginalization includes exclusion from public institutions of social life and from the legal rights and protections the state affords its citizens. Economic marginalization is accomplished by extremely restrictive options for employment and the near-total absence of social welfare provisions, the latter problem compounded by cuts in UNRWA resources and services. There is also an experiential dimension marked by negativeness, fear and apprehension and a generalized awareness of self and community as the object of scorn and hostility. Finally, there is a discursive dimension in which the generic Palestinian is cast as trouble-maker and the cause of Lebanon's post-war woes.

What is the relationship between minority status and marginalization? Because no national census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932, officially recognized population categories and estimates are non-existent. Be ing a minority is a contingent rather than a stable status, constituted by a setting apart and defining of self and community vis-à-vis another. Initially, Palestinian otherness in Lebanon was a national phenomenon related to place of originÑand its destruction as "home." The refugee experience did not include the usual minority attributes of difference in language, religion and culture. Palestinian marginality is contingent, to some extent, on the concept of a Lebanese nation and society, however problematic, that excludes them.

In the post-civil war period, a Palestinian presence has lent Lebanese national identity some cohesion. With few exceptions, there is a Lebanese political consensus on the need to monitor Palestinians in the short-term, and a refusal to grant them permanent right to settle in the country. Religious, or sectarian, differences in Lebanon complicate these assertions, which are premised on the notion of national difference. Palestinian otherness is juxtaposed not to a homogeneous singular category of Lebanese, but to a shifting set of sectarian groups and alliances, each with particular interests and fears. The Palestinian presence, perceived as a problem, can and does serve as a common denominator in unifying often disparate elements of the Lebanese polity.

By seeking to define themselves as a minority, Palestinians are attempting both to accommodate their isolation from the larger Palestinian context and protest their powerlessness and restricted daily lives in the local Lebanese context. While they do have rights of residence as foreign refugees, they are seeking additional civil rights, a sort of well-defined minority position, that should be forthcoming according to international law, such as the right to employment, social security, access to health services and education. Rather than a celebration of difference, this is a strategy for survival in an otherwise desperate situation

Since the arrival in Lebanon nearly 50 years ago, Palestinians have taken up a succession of publicly circulated collective identities. The transformation from refugees to revolutionaries and now to a minority illustrates their perceptions of self and community within a continually shifting spectrum of power in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.

In the pre-1968 era, when Palestinians were politically unorganized and highly dependent on the United Nations refugee apparatus, the term "refugee" often bore the weight of an insult and humiliation. One man I spoke with re called with amusement his physical education classes at UNRWA schools in the 1950s and early 1960s. The children exercised to the chant of A-W-D-A (return) and camp residents often insisted on calling each other "returners" rather than refugees.

In 1969, an agreement between the Lebanese authorities and the PLO, known as the Cairo Accords, redefined the regulations governing refugees in Lebanon The Cairo Accords gave Palestinians the right to employment, to form local committees in the camps and to engage in armed struggle, among other things. Lebanon was transformed for them from a refuge into a site of revolt against displacement.

Times have changed. "Refugee" status has now become an asset in the battle to survive. Palestinians' status as refugees is an international matter by definition and has clear legal implications. Being refugees assures them, at minimum, to residency rights and to scarce UNRWA medical and education resources, however paltry. The term "refugee" doesn't arouse the negative reaction it once did, but even during the height of resistance Palestinians wouldn't give up the legal status of "refugee" because it legitimized their right of return to Palestine. Discourses and categories of identity are not simply fluid; they can be reconfigured in new contexts for quite different purposes.

After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the PLO's evacuation from Beirut, and the PLO-Amal wars of the late 1980s, the political and practical geography of the camps changed dramatically. To the Lebanese, the camps have become spaces to contain Palestinians until the peace talks produce some final resolution. Rumors abound that they are soon to be demolished and the refugees transferred to other Arab states (Iraq or Syria) or to more remote parts of Lebanon.

Palestinian refugees have been pathologized in a manner reminiscent of turn-of-the-century American hyperbole that immigrants carried tuberculosis, and more recent fears of immigrants as carriers of the AIDS virus. Pathology demands quarantine: segregating Palestinians would facilitate the "normalization" of Lebanon in the post-war era with national health restored through the isolation of an infectious presence.

There are several problemns in distinguishing Palestinians from Lebanese and confining them to homogeneous enclaves. Palestinian refugees who came to Lebanon in 1948 share language and culture with their Lebanese hosts. The two communities have a long history of inter-marriage and economic trade. That most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims has been a thorny issue for Lebanon's Christians who have long feared a shift in sectarian demography. Spatial containment was an attempt to produce and sharpen communal distinctions. However, urban camps, such as Shatila and Bourj al-Barajneh in Beirut and Ain al-Hilwah in Saida, had merged with surrounding Lebanese areas. During the war and the current reconstruction process, once fairly in distinct borders once again have become strikingly demarcated. In fixing a relationship between nationality and place, Lebanese authorities and militias have crafted and imposed boundaries where a fluidity of space and so cial relations once prevailed. Refugees describe their lives in terms of abnormality. Narratives of the homeland are less focused on nostalgia and more on an image of well-being and security. Aside from shortages of shelter, food, safety and access to medi cal care and education, there are constant doubts about the security of residence. The nearly 50-year period of exile has been marked by continual displacement. The sense of crisis is commonly expressed through the notion of erasure. Not only were Palestinians landscaped out of Palestine, but the erasure continues in exile. A Palestinian lawyer, echoing popular sentiment, has written " that there are those who believe that the group known as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will stop existing within a few years."[2]

Recasting Palestinian Identity
How has Palestinian identity been legally recast over time and especially in the post-civil war era? Contrary to inter national law governing the treatment of refugees, the state has implemented laws to restrict Palestinians in a variety of ways. Since 1962, legislation placed Palestinians on par with foreigners so that employment required a work per mit. Palestinians circumvented this requirement for nearly two decades because demands for labor made enforcement nearly non-existent, and later, there was little interest in aggravating a now militant and empowered Palestinian community.

Since 1982, however, these laws have been enforced The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs issued a decision on December 18, 1982, setting out the areas of employmentÑ ranging from banking to barberingÑclosed to foreigners. The Ministry also issued a circular detailing the areas of work open to foreigners with work permits. These include construction and its ancillary tasks except on electrical installations) and sanitation, agriculture, tanning and leather works, excavation, textile and carpet works smeltering, domestic labor, nursing, and automotive repair and cleaning.[3 ] This range of options available to Palestinians is limited to the most menial and low-paid sectors. Furthermore, Syrian or non-Arab labor, cheaper and more transient, is preferred, which has exacerbated problems of unemployment and poverty. Economic hardship has been further compounded by a decline in remittances after the Gulf War and the PLO's inability to pay indemnities to families of martyrs.

Rebuilding in the camps has been restricted and legally regulated. Surveillance continues to intimidate Palestinians, making them extremely cautious in their movements outside the camps' perimeters. Outside those boundaries, fear of harassment, insult and physical violence plague Palestinians. The right to organize politically and culturally has also been denied.

Travel restrictions further hinder Palestinian daily life and livelihood. Those travelling abroad on Palestinian travel documents have not always been guaranteed reentry. In 1995, Libya expelled 30,000 Palestinian workers, 10-15,000 of whom were from Lebanon. On September 22, 1995, the Lebanese Interior Ministry issued a decree requiring entry visas for those holding Palestinian laissez-passer documents.[4] Palestinians holding Lebanese travel documents were refused visas, forcing them into a nightmarish shuttle from place to unwelcoming place.

The new, post-civil war focus on obtaining civil rights as a minority is not a call for complete integration; rather, it seeks to mitigate the debilitating marginalization and destitution and to alleviate many daily problems. One former leader explained the desire for civil rights:

It touches directly on everyone's daily life You cannot imagine what it is like. A Palestinian cannot work! For example, if he graduates from the American University of Beirut medical school, he is forbidden to work or open a clinic, while a Lebanese graduate can find a post in a hospital or open a clinic. If he is educated and wants to work, he will have to leave the country which means that family relations are strained This is a huge challenge to the continuity of ordinary life.

With the reestablishment of government sovereignty in Lebanon (except for the Israeli-occupied south), the remaining Palestinian leadership (encompassing 10 factions opposed to Arafat and the peace plan) put forth a plan in 1992 calling for civil rights. A Palestinian involved in the plan described the situation:

The Lebanese authorities agreed to form a interministerial delegation to talk with the Palestinians about civil rights and to conduct a study on their situation It was a serious move because the government assigned two ministers to the delegation, one Christian and one Muslim. They received a unified delegationÑthere was a representative from every Palestinian faction in Lebanon. It was a rare moment of Palestinian unity in Lebanon. They presented one unified memo explicitly calling for civil rights. The Lebanese took the memo and promised to answer in 15 days.. . days and now years have passed.

In April 1994, the Palestinian organizations in Lebanon presented another memorandum to Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, asking for such civil rights as the right to employment, to reconstruct the camps and to open Palestinian cultural and humanitarian organizations. Again, there has been no response.

The popular civil rights option is desirable since Palestinians are wary of diluting their national identity or sacrificing the principle of the right of return. What they want is to live in security and pursue a livelihood. Civil rights and secure permanent residency would go a long way to wards solving this problem.

Does this demand for civil rights without citizenship signal a shift in Palestinian thinking toward the pragmatics of a minority position? Palestinians cannot understand or accept that they are classified as "foreigners" along with Sri Lankans, Thais, Filipinos, Kurds and Syrians, who together constitute Lebanon's imported working class. They may be re hinking themselves and their community as a minority whose citizenship and nationality will not coincide.

The question of permanent Palestinian settlement in Lebanon is the subject of contentious debate among Lebanese, ranging from statements calling for their wholesale removal to more measured and accommodating suggestions that they be granted civil rights and a more secure form of residency. Although the Palesltinian community is not asking for citizenship, those who can acquire it do so, which causes much resentment in the Palestinian community because a legal fracture of the group can have negative consequences for the majority.

In the past several years, around 60,000 Palestinians have been naturalized in Lebanon. In the first round in 1994, most were Shi'a from border villages who had Palestinian refugee status; the rest were Sunnis who, for reasons not made public, were naturalized in 1995, perhaps to balance out the Shi'a naturalization. Maronite protest ensured that the few remaining Palestinian Christians without Lebanese citizenship were then naturalized.

Demographic and sectarian factors were at play here. The bulk of the refugees in the south are Sunni Muslims. Outside of Saida, few Lebanese in the south are Sunnis. Rumour had it that the Lebanese Sunni leadership might have been attempting to build a Sunni demographic and voting bloc in the south. The gradual and quiet way it is being done may be intended to prevent a noisy and potentially explosive Lebanese reaction to Palestinian naturalization, including its sectaian implications.

Palestinians who have acquired citizenship face resentment from those who have not. Naturalization is publicly cast as a betrayal of sorts. Yet, if offered the option, most Palestinians would not reject it for the simple reason that it would alleviate many of their problems. They would be employable and their children would have some security in the future Palestinian leaders publicly oppose the idea of naturalization (although some have quietly accepted it), presenting it as a threat to Palestinian national identity and a negation of their right of return.[5]

The issue is discussed in a thoughtful and provocative way by ordinary people. In the summer of 1994, I asked Samia, a resident of Shatila camp, if she would take Lebanese citizenship if it were offered. She paused for a few seconds to ponder and then said in a very precise way, her words carefully chosen: "If it were offered, I would take it, but only if I didn't have to give up being a Palestinian and the future possibility of Palestinian citizenship." She was making a clear distinction between nationality and citizenship. Even if there was a Palestinian state, many Palestinians who are not from the West Bank or Gaza Strip would not go: "it's not our land. We want our land." These refugees still insist on a long-term aspiration for convergence of place, nationality and citizenship.

The citizenship issue resonates with the contradictions of Lebanese policy and indicates the dilemmas they will face in the eventual peace negotiations. The US and Israel may force Lebanon to naturalize the refugees as part of a peace settlement that would then reward Lebanon with reconstruction funds and a lifting of the US travel ban.

Palestinians desire a host country that is cosmopolitan and open to foreignersÑthe idyllic reminiscence of pre-war Lebanon. They envision a radically different notion of spatiality where difference is related to place of origin rather than to forms of legality relegating them to the margins, literally and figuratively. Their exacerbated marginalization stems from the reemergent semblance of sovereign Lebanese state power. A reconstructive ethos promoting "Lebanon for the Lebanese" coexists with the continued entrenchment of sectarian politics and identities. For now, aspirations for a legally constituted minority status may be the only possible vision allowing for the retention of a Palestinian identity in Lebanon and a continued residency.

Julie Peteet is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Louisville, KY and author of Gender in Crisis: Women and the Palestinian Resistance Movement (Columbia University, 1991).


[1] The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were expelled or left their homes in northern Palestine during the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war and have been denied the right to return. The number of Palestinians in Lebanon is subject to dispute. The current UNRWA figure of 346,000 registered refugees is contested by figures such as 189,000 proposed by a leading Lebanese newspaper, al-Safir .

[2] Souheil al-Natour, "The Legal Status of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon," in Refugees in the Middle East , Nordic NGO Seminar, Oslo, March 26-27, 1993 (Oslo: Norwegian Refugee Council, 1993), p. 41.

[3] Ibid., p. 44.

[4] For the text of the decree see the Journal of Palestine Studies 25/2 (1996), pp. 145-146.

[5] See "The Palestinians in Lebanon: Interview with Salah Salah, August 29, 1994," The Beirut Review 8 (Fall 1994), pp. 161-162.

Middle East Report is published quarterly by the Middle East Research and Information Project. For subscription information, contact MERIP at suite 119, 1500 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC 20005 (telephone 202 223-3677), or by email at merip@igc.apc.org .

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