From Refugees to Minority: Palestinians in Post-War Lebanon
Source: Middle East Report 200 (July-September
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
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
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
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
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."
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. 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 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
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.
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.
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).
 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 .
 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.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 For the text of the decree see the Journal of Palestine Studies 25/2
(1996), pp. 145-146.
 See "The Palestinians in Lebanon: Interview with Salah Salah, August
29, 1994," The Beirut Review 8 (Fall 1994), pp. 161-162.
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