Qifa Nabki has decided to touch the third rail of Lebanese politics (or at least one of them): the status of Palestinian refugees, who make up somewhere in the neighborhood of 10% of the population of Lebanon. He discusses the arguments against tawteen, or the naturalization of Palestinians, and finds them wanting.
To add to the discussion, I’ve decided to do a series of posts discussing refugees, one of which will explore the arguments for naturalization (and not just for ameliorating conditions, which most people seem to support, or at least in the abstract). That post will probably have to wait until this weekend or even next week, but in the meantime, I’d like to address some of the comments made in Qifa Nabki’s post reflecting the Israeli perspective and give an outline of the basic issues surrounding the politics of the refugees.
One Israeli commenter states,
The Palestinians in Lebanon, whether naturalized or not, have forfeited any claim to their former homes. Furthermore, the only way they will return to their “homes” is literally over my dead body. Zionism is about building a Jewish state and it is a cause I am willing to sacrifice much for including giving my life. There has to be one place on earth where a Jew does not need a visa to come.
This is a pretty clear-cut declaration and is fairly consistent with the line that Israel has had since the war. Here, for example, is Israel’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs, Moshe Sharett, writing to the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (pdf):
The new development on which I should like to report concerns the question of the Arab refugees. Members of the Knesset are fully aware of the basic attitude of the Government on this problem, that in the main a solution must be sought, not through the return of the refugees to Israel, but through their resettlement in other states. There has been no change in this basic attitude.
…[T]he state of Israel cannot consider itself in any way responsible for the problem of the refugees. Israel places the responsibility for this problem and for the grim suffering it has caused fully and squarely on those who violated the U.N. decision on the solution of the Palestine problem, either through armed revolt inside the country to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel, or through invasion in order to stifle the State at birth. On the other hand, while disclaiming all responsibility for the problem, the State of Israel cannot remain indifferent to the suffering and distressed by which the problem is surrounded. The State of Israel is vitally concerned with a solution of this problem and deems it its humanitarian duty to do what it can to bring it about.
The extent of Israel’s contribution, however, cannot be determined by the dimensions of the problem. Its scale must be measured only in terms of the security and economic capacity of the State. From bitter experience, the Government of Israel is convinced that the return of Arab refugees will involve serious economic difficulties.
So actually, the first comment is somewhat more lenient towards the refugees in that by stating that they have “forfeited any claim to their former homes,” he is implying that they had a legitimate claim in the first place. The Israeli government has been careful not to ever cede that point, for Sharett insists that Israel is in no way responsible at all for the plight of the refugees, but that through magnanimous generosity, the Jewish State is willing to accept a token number of refugees on the condition that the whole affair is considered closed for all refugees.
This, of course, runs counter to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (not to mention several UN general assembly resolutions), which in Article 13 states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” So if we are to take the line that the Palestinians have “forfeited” their right to return, it’s helpful to ask what exactly that means. Palestinians have certainly not agreed to give up that right, so one can only assume that we’re talking about some sort of a statute of limitations here. Because it’s been 61 years, this means that their right becomes null and void?
That might be a defensible position if it weren’t for Israel’s “Law of Return,” which awards automatic Israeli citizenship to anyone born a Jew, anyone with Jewish ancestry (ironically following the Nuremberg criteria of one Jewish grandparent), and converts to Judaism. Based on the Zionist idea that the Jews form a discernible nation that was dispersed and forced to live in exile for 2,000 years away from their homeland (the promised land, no less), the “Law of Return” frames its preference for Jews as a rhetorical return. Now I’m no expert on Judaism, and there are plenty of indications that the Zionist founding myth is, well, a myth, but if we are to take Zionism at face value, it’s clear that the ideology doesn’t include a statute of limitations on exile. The second temple, after all, was destroyed 2,029 years ago. So even if all Jews are actual descendants of the Israelites, which is extremely doubtful, it doesn’t make much sense to invalidate a 61-year-old claim while honoring one that dates back two millennia.
It stands to reason, then, that the reason why Israelis don’t want an influx of Palestinian Arabs is much more mundane: ethno-religious nationalism. Israelis want to live in a Jewish state with other Jews and aren’t interested in a pluralist society that would be shared with Arabs.
So where does this leave Palestinian refugees in Lebanon? Ironically, they are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Jews of Israel don’t want to share power with Arabs, and the Christians and Shi’a of Lebanon don’t want to lose their sectarian edge by giving a boost to the Sunnis. In short, sectarian tribalism is keeping the Palestinians in squalid refugee camps. In fairness to the Lebanese, they don’t see why they should have to make allowances for the actions of the Jewish State.
But let’s not leave the Palestinians out of their own drama here. After all, Arafat and the PLO were as much against tawteen as the Lebanese nationalists, albeit for different reasons. On the surface, the PLO claims to be afraid that by gaining Lebanese citizenship, Palestinians would forget their Palestinian identity and give up their right of return to what is now considered Israel. The first reason is hard to justify considering the strong Palestinian identity that remains in Jordanian society, where Palestinians make up the majority of the population and were for the most part given Jordanian citizenship. The second issue, however, is somewhat murkier. According to UNRWA, the definition of a Palestinian refugee is as follows (emphasis mine):
Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. UNRWA’s services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. The descendants of the original Palestine Refugees are also eligible for registration.
The key word here is “operational.” So this is how UNRWA decides who can register, but they don’t seem to be making any legal distinctions here. So while a Palestinian refugee can apparently (correct me if I’m wrong) have another citizenship and still be registered with UNRWA, it’s not clear what effect this would have on her or her legal status.
But Palestinians are not alone here. Up until 1994, Zaire, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi hosted scores of thousands of Rwandan Tutsi refugees who had been forced to flee the country either during the 1959 “Hutu Revolution” that preceded the end of Belgian rule or during the periodic spurts of anti-Tutsi pogroms that flared up in the 1960s and 1970s. Two Hutu regimes in Kigali continuously denied the right of return to the Tutsis, by the reasoning that tiny and densely populated Rwanda didn’t have room for them. It finally took an armed invasion of Rwanda from neighboring Uganda that finally led to a genocide against the remaining Tutsi before the diaspora was able to return to Rwanda.
But back to the legal question: I’m not really sure what the official status of Palestinian refugees is, but it’s largely irrelevant, because as in the case of the Tutsi refugees, the issue has become political more than legal. Israel has made it clear that it will not accept the right of return, or in the case of the previous commenter, only over his dead body. So barring an eventual demographic collapse of the Jewish State (something that is looking more and more inevitable given the dead end the two-state “solution” has taken), Palestinians are left with several unappealing options:
- in the (unlikely) event of a negotiated two-state solution, move to the newly formed Palestinian state in the crumbs of the West Bank or Gaza
- become citizens of the countries where they currently reside
- emigrate to third countries, mostly in North America, Europe or the Gulf
- continue to rot in ungoverned and poorly serviced camps
- be accorded full residence rights without citizenship
- return to their homes as part of a one-state solution.
Option 1 is extremely unlikely, and given Lebanese politics, option 2 may even be more so. This leaves option 3 for those who are able to get out and option 4 for everyone else. The current situation in Ain el-Helwe and the recent violence in Nahr el-Bared show how such a situation leads to increased radicalism and possibly to violence.
Over the next couple of weeks I’d like to address each of these four options in more detail, so stay tuned.
UPDATE: I’m not really sure why, but I didn’t explicitely mention points 5 and 6 in the original version of this post, even though both are steps that I support wholeheartedly. In any case, Darwish in the comments and my housemate in the other room have suggested I add them, and I’m happy to oblige.