Posted by: sean | November 20, 2009

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

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:

  1. 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
  2. become citizens of the countries where they currently reside
  3. emigrate to third countries, mostly in North America, Europe or the Gulf
  4. continue to rot in ungoverned and poorly serviced camps
  5. be accorded full residence rights without citizenship
  6. 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.

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Responses

  1. Interesting and sensible enough post.
    My only comment is that there is also room for a “5″ between “2″ and “4″. That is, one can also imagine a situation where Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are not citizens of the country but do not have either to “rot” (in camps). That would mean, in broad strokes, giving them all the civil rights enjoyed by Lebanese citizens but not citizenship (at bottom, not the right to vote). Not a panacea, I know, not a “solution”, but a practical possibility for the short- and medium-term whose moral character and, I believe, political feasibility should not be dismissed.

  2. Sorry — just found out that of course you make just that obvious point in the comment section of QN.
    (BTW The issue affects my future family too…)

  3. Ya Darwish: First of all, thanks for stopping by, and secondly, you’re absolutely right. While I make that point in the QN comment section, I should also make it in this post. And as my friend and housemate R is yelling at me from the other room, I should also explicitly give the one-state solution its own number, so without any further ado, I’ll put both up now.

  4. I’ve commented on the QN blog on this. Just wanted to point out two things: 1) Citizenship also implies the right to travel with less restrictions and not simply voting. If one could get around the traveling restrictions then I think few will care about the right to vote, which comes with more headaches than any real power.
    2) I think we need to be more brave about talking about a one-state solution with equal rights for Jews and Arabs as ONE people. So #5 makes the most sense but of course, it needs a lot of elaboration as to what is meant by one-state and what is meant by return within that kind of solution. I foresee that lebanese/Palestinian/Israeli/Jewish relations would be changed within this solution and more accepting of each other. I also foresee more free flow of movement which would solve a lot of issues. So point 5 requires some imagining, but also bravery in thinking of how to imagine this future and working towards it.

  5. Sam, you’re 100% right about travel restrictions. Syria allows Palestinian refugees into the country without much hassle, and Turkey is possible for a week, but Jordan takes about a month and a half and a guarantee that you have $7,500 in your bank account. Traveling on the “blanket” or the Lebanese travel document for Palestinians is a real hassle. In fact, I’d say that traveling on a Palestinian Authority passport is much easier.

  6. In terms of travel I was also talking about around the world. I think it is disgustingly difficult to travel on those documents if one just wanted to tour France for example, or go see the Big Ben. So I think that question of citizenship is more important for Palestinians than voting in Lebanon. All that would subject them to is more slimy Lebanese political haggling – or maybe a new school and nice roads like in Akkar ;)

  7. Yeah, I mention countries in the region, since those should be the easiest to travel to. I think it’s somewhat difficult to get a tourist visa to see the Big Ben or Tour Eiffel whether you’ve got a Syrian passport, Palestinian travel documents or papers from Yemen. Apparently, though, it’s actually easier for a Palestinian refugee to get a tourist visa to India than it is for an American.

  8. Very clever of Moshe Sharett to frame the Palestinian refugee problem not as their responsibility as the causer of the problem but as a humanitarian initiative, so to speak. Would be too insensitive to say that even Moshe’s viewpoint is missed since that Israel DOES seem to “remain indifferent to the suffering and distressed by which the problem is surrounded. “??

  9. Also, a very recent poll of the matters: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/Flash.aspx/174891

  10. won – i have not been able to source the ownership of israel national news but based on its regular columns i would suggest that it is not representative of the mainstream but rather of the extreme right who obviously delight in publishing these sorts of polls..

    an interesting tale is that channel 7 (your source) wanted to set up an offshore floating radio station like the voice of peace was.. and the government in response apparently changed the relevant laws to prohibit the operation of that station requiring the boat to anchor 12 miles rather than the previous 5 from teh shoreline..

    http://www.inn.co.il/News/News.aspx/179075

    sean – i think an issue i see with your reasoning is that there is a difference between acknowledging a right and recognising responsibility for cause.. for example – a population may be ravaged by natural disaster and their country of citizenship will be responsible at many levels to ameliorate their situation.. this does not mean that they caused it..

    i think there are some interesting arguments that can flow from this in terms of originating responsibility ie if the palos of 48 were subject to british rule – then the brits had a duty to protect them.. to the extent that they failed then perhaps they owe restitution.. if they were citizens of some other entity perhaps that country owed them a duty..

    nowtwithstanding any of the above – and blame aside – now as subjects of the state of lebanon (irrespective of citizenship) the state of lebanon has a duty to assure the welfare of these people..

    these are complex issues.. and i am fully aware that similar arguments may be mounted towards israel with respect to the welfare of gazans and the residents of the west bank..

    i think international law falls short here.. it is based on assumptions that do not hold..

    so throwing all of that aside: in connection with the lebanese palestinians i would bein favour of the following:

    (a) that at the very least they receive full residence.. so they can study any subject of their choice and fully partake in the relevant profession and alleviate poverty.. i think their camps should be officially recognised as towns and relevant infrastructure should be provided.. i think the refugee status issue should be maintained at the personal level ie if someone seeks to register they should but it should not be forced upon everyone.. people should be able to determine whether or not they would like to sacrifice their lives for the national cause..

    i dont think the two state solution is dead.. i just think its very very unwell right now.. but i dont believe any other option short of jordan and egypt resuming control of the territories is workable..

    i think a land swap is inevitable..

    i hope we achieve peace.. even blogging is getting tiring..

  11. Lirun- Yes, I do realize that it isn’t exactly a Gallup poll, but they did survey 6,400 Israelis, which means that more than 3,000 people said “away with the Palestinians!”

  12. what do you expect ultra nationalists to say.. won.. think for second.. why dont you go take a poll at a hippie commune..

  13. sean do you offer them any choice at all with options 5 and 6? or are they like a plan you would support?

  14. I don’t think full rights in Lebanon and exercising the right of return as part of a one-state solution are mutually exclusive. And both are policies that I would support.

  15. my question is-why lebanon and other arab states does not allocate enough money to solve their own problems? they have enough money to create the nuclear weapon but for people lifes there is some shortage of money????

  16. Ilona: the only country with nuclear weapons in the region is Israel. And I’m not sure which exact problems you’re referring to, but it’s unclear to many Lebanese why they should pay for a problem that Israel created in the first place.

    How about this, why doesn’t Israel offer compensation to all the people who were dispossessed in 1948 and 1967, and then you can talk about spending money to alleviate people’s suffering?

  17. why doesnt lebanon (and the rest of teh arab world) pay compensation to the jews that were dispossessed from tehir assets in lebanon.. i know a good few.. one sitting across the hall from me in my office..

    ur veiws are so one sided its incredible..

    i think the arab world is better off leaving that sleeping tiger alone..

  18. I’d love to see Arab Jews come back to their homes throughout the region. I’m really excited to see the Beirut synagogue being rebuilt in Wadi Abu Jamil downtown.

    I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but Lebanese Jews were not dispossessed; they emigrated like so many Lebanese during the civil war (most to New York, Paris and Montreal, others to Brazil and Italy, and only some to Israel). The Jewish population in Lebanon actually increased after 1948 with an influx of Iraqi and Syrian Jews. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Lebanese Jews really started to leave, and again, they left for the same reasons as so many Lebanese, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

    If you’d actually like to learn about the Lebanese Jews, you could start by reading Kirsten Schulze’s book, The Jews of Lebanon.

  19. Sean, well u can go check now on the reconstruction of the Synagogue in DT Beirut, it’s almost done!
    on the other hand, i ma a palestinian refugee in lebanon and i strongly condemn all the Arab leaders, those who defend our case in their speeches when they restrict us from traveling/ working in their counties. since we r discriminated in (my country LEBANON for that i was borne, raised and lived all my life here and from a lebanese mother and never been to palestine and know nothing about it but what i see on TV) we can never get a decent job especially cannot work in any job that requires to b listed in its association like medicine, legal, engineering extra… as about the arab countries, it is a SHAME disgustingly shameful, i traveled to KSA and tried for almost 2 years to get a stay/working permit but never succeeded, it is prohibited by law and the only way to get it is by a ROYAL WRITTEN ORDER never unless u get to meet the king himself (yeah right). the only country that used to accept us WAS the UAE yet not anymore, Emirates now DOES NOT EVEN ACCEPT VISIT/TOURISM visas applications from palestinian refugees and they do not issue iqama (stay/work permit) for palestinians anymore!!! its a simple question.. WHY?????? we are a good % of Very well educated palestinian refugees here with NO mean of help from where we live or any other ARAB country!! it is a real SHAME… oh and did u guy know about the new law??? WE CAN NOT INHERIT!!! my mom is Lebanese and the law prevents me form inheriting after her!!! (Long life dear mom) what do u call that!!!!!! i am now seriously considering immigrating to any EU country and if any of you guys can help i will be thankful… desperate i became after all doors r sealed closed by fellow arabs… again NO ONE IS WITH US none of u arabs support us SHAME ON U, U disgust me.

  20. Sean, well u can go check now on the reconstruction of the Synagogue in DT Beirut, it’s almost done!
    on the other hand, i ma a palestinian refugee in lebanon and i strongly condemn all the Arab leaders, those who defend our case in their speeches when they restrict us from traveling/ working in their counties. since we r discriminated in (my country LEBANON for that i was borne, raised and lived all my life here and from a lebanese mother and never been to palestine and know nothing about it but what i see on TV) we can never get a decent job especially cannot work in any job that requires to b listed in its association like medicine, legal, engineering extra… as about the arab countries, it is a SHAME disgustingly shameful, i traveled to KSA and tried for almost 2 years to get a stay/working permit but never succeeded, it is prohibited by law and the only way to get it is by a ROYAL WRITTEN ORDER never unless u get to meet the king himself (yeah right). the only country that used to accept us WAS the UAE yet not anymore, Emirates now DOES NOT EVEN ACCEPT VISIT/TOURISM visas applications from palestinian refugees and they do not issue iqama (stay/work permit) for palestinians anymore!!! its a simple question.. WHY?????? we are a good % of Very well educated palestinian refugees here with NO mean of help from where we live or any other ARAB country!! it is a real SHAME… oh and did u guy know about the new law??? WE CAN NOT INHERIT!!! my mom is Lebanese and the law prevents me form inheriting after her!!! (Long life dear mom) what do u call that!!!!!! i am now seriously considering immigrating to any EU country and if any of you guys can help i will be thankful… desperate i became after all doors r sealed closed by fellow arabs… again NO ONE IS WITH US none of u arabs support us SHAME ON U, U disgust me (leaders i address).

  21. [...] justification. In any case, that’s not the issue I wanted to address, especially since my perspective on that is pretty clear. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); [...]


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