Media attention has focused on the loss of life and property in the bombardment of Gaza, the domestic skirmishes between Jewish and Arab Israelis, and Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel. Yet there are unique implications for Palestinian communities in Lebanon, too.
In Lebanon, more than 470,000 Palestinians are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Of this number, around 180,000 currently seek refuge inside the country. Most of these Palestinians are descendants of refugees from the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. In addition, Lebanon hosts a further 27,700 Palestinian refugees who had lived in Syria but fled that country after a civil war erupted in 2011. According to unofficial estimates, there were already 250,000 Palestinians in Lebanon and another 53,000 who arrived from Syria.
The Future of Jerusalem Matters to Us All
If fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians were to resume after the brokering of the current ceasefire, and if violence spread to northern Israel, adjacent to the Lebanese border, there is the potential for a new Palestinian exodus to neighboring countries. Yet in Lebanon, one of the taboo topics among the political elites is an open dialogue about the country’s responsibility toward Palestinian refugees. This is rooted in two historical facts: First, the existence of Palestinian camps in Lebanon as a state within a state, having their own community rules and norms, and second, the vivid memories of the role Palestinians played in the Lebanese Civil War between 1975 and 1990 and subsequent agreements that enshrined their extra-legal status.
Second-Class Residents in Lebanon
The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) recently published a policy brief titled, “Legal Limbo: Who is a Refugee in Lebanon?” According to the LCPS, Lebanese “authorities have been unwilling to recognize … [the] refugee status [of Palestinians] or carry out their responsibilities in providing them with key rights.” Lebanon refuses to acknowledge their status because it would entitle Palestinians to certain rights under international law, such as freedom of movement, health care and education. The paper states that “the Lebanese government insists that Lebanon is not a country of asylum, and provides refugees with limited protection space and rights. … [Palestinians] are among the most deprived communities in Lebanon: They face poor living and housing conditions, high unemployment, restrictions from exercising 39 liberal and syndicated professions, restrictions on property ownership, and limited access to public services.”
Some fortunate Palestinians in Lebanon have been able to surreptitiously own businesses fronted by Lebanese companies, while others have found specialized employment as a result of their educational credentials. But the reality remains that Palestinians are second-class residents in Lebanon with restricted rights. Their only available employment options are limited to guest worker status in construction, agriculture, domestic services and similar low-paid jobs that Lebanese citizens have been reluctant to perform. Generally, Palestinians have double the poverty level and unemployment of the Lebanese.
For decades, Lebanese leaders have insisted that recognizing Palestinians as refugees would impose enormous costs on Lebanon. They argue that doing so could lead to consequences that would upset the sectarian balance that is the basis of the government; political offices in Lebanon are split among the country’s three biggest communities — Christian, Shia and Sunni.
In the 1950s and 1960s, around 50,000 Christian Palestinians were given Lebanese citizenship. In the 1990s, about 60,000 mostly Shia Muslims received Lebanese nationality. This resulted in an uproar by Lebanese Maronites, which led to citizenship being given to “mainly Christian Palestinians.” The majority of the remaining stateless Palestinians are Sunnis. If they were to be given citizenship, Lebanese authorities “fear that integration of so many Sunnis would upset the country’s precarious sectarian” makeup, posing challenging questions.
Lebanon is not a signatory to most international protocols extending protections to refugee populations. The Lebanese Constitution was amended after the civil war to explicitly state, “There shall be no segregation of the people on the basis of any type of belonging, and no fragmentation, partition, or settlement of non-Lebanese in Lebanon.” This was done to make clear that any resettlement of Palestinians in Lebanon would violate the constitution.
This question becomes relevant in light of the reality that the latest Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas may reach the West Bank. Such a scenario would lead to more Palestinian refugees and the possibility of fighting spreading to the north of Israel.
Under international law, there are three durable solutions for refugees: voluntary repatriation, resettlement and local integration. Voluntary repatriation, referred to as the “right of return,” is anathema to Israelis who cannot consider even a fraction of Palestinian refugees and their descendants attempting to reclaim property they owned before 1948 but now largely occupied by Israelis. Resettlement refers to third-country placement, which has seen Palestinians emigrating to Europe, Gulf Arab states, the US and other destinations where quotas for refugees are recently being curtailed.
Local integration would require Lebanon to follow Jordan’s example and allow Palestinians, over time, to acquire citizenship and the rights entitled to them. This is further complicated by the fact that under the UN Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to see and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Since that document is a reference point in the preamble to the Lebanese Constitution, it can then be argued that the right to seek asylum in Lebanon is a constitutional right.
So, the outcome of this latest conflict has consequences for Lebanon, even though there were no cross-border provocations that the Israelis may deem acts of war — yet. It is not inconceivable that Israel may turn to forced emigration of Palestinian-Israeli citizens as a security measure, should there be a major conflict within its borders. Whether or not this is being considered at this point remains to be seen, but it is an issue that cannot be overlooked. It is up to Lebanon’s friends to insist under any scenario that the country’s territorial integrity be honored and that the Lebanese government does all that it can to limit provocations from its territory.
It is also time for the Lebanese to face the reality that Palestinians are not returning to Palestine. A more creative and stable set of options must be discussed before the choices become constrained by another conflict.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.