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Palestinians in Lebanon can no longer be treated as second-class residents

With politicians who play nothing but lip service to the Palestinian cause, an economic elite that exploits them for cheap labour and corrupt leadership in refugee camps, Palestinians in Lebanon have been hung out to dry

Uninvited guests. The cause of the civil war. A security threat. An existential threat. These are some of the labels that are commonly associated with Lebanon's Palestinian refugee population.

Doesn't justice for Palestinians also include Palestinians in Lebanon who, for several generations, have basically been second-class residents?

And while Lebanon is known for its disenfranchisement of migrant workers through its "kafala" sponsorship system and a similar system applied to Syrian refugees, Palestinians face a different experience as they are registered through the UN refugee agency, UNRWA.

Among the roughly 450,000 Palestinians registered under UNRWA, 53 percent live in the 12 remaining refugee camps administered by the UN. Within those camps, more accurately described as poverty-stricken slums, 65 percent live below the poverty line.

In 2007, the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon was destroyed following a three-month battle between the army and militant group Fatah al-Islam, accused of terrorist attacks and bank robberies, who had holed up in the camp.

Palestinian children search through the garbage in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut (AFP)

Once that ended, the Palestinians no longer made major headlines in the Lebanese media for quite some time.

When they have made it into the news, Palestinian communities in Lebanon are often seen only through the lens of security, because of the presence of Palestinian militias and armed factions among them - an issue that has only intensified following the revolution and now war in Syria.

Lebanon and Syria's porous borders, plus the emergence of former al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the Islamic State, were the recipe for greater xenophobia towards refugees, including the 50,000 Palestinian refugees who have fled Syria in their second displacement.

Clashes and concrete

Setting the Syrian conflict aside, events over the past year played a role in bringing Palestinian refugees under a greater security lens, especially in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, which houses 100,000 Palestinians.

Earlier this year, Ain al-Hilweh was rocked by a series of clashes which started after al-Qaeda-affiliated fugitive Bil Badr led an assault on the camp's joint-factional security force led by Fatah.

Clashes culminated in early April, leaving 10 dead and 50 wounded, and flattening the al-Tireh neighbourhood inside the camp where Badr’s armed group was entrenched.

Palestinians who fled have since demanded compensation from UNRWA and NGOs involved in supporting the camp for their destroyed homes and stores, and condemned corrupt factions within the camp.

Smoke rises from violence in Ain al-Hilweh earlier this year (AFP)

Meanwhile, clashes started up again earlier this month, wounding three.  

Rather than addressing all the internal socioeconomic issues in the camp, the Lebanese state opted to build a concrete wall around it despite the fact that the Lebanese Army already heavily guards the camp's entrance.

The increased documented arrests of militants, notably IS emir, Imad Yassin, in September 2016, in addition to the high crime rate, intensified the security lens through which the Lebanese state views Ain al-Hilweh and other Palestinian refugee camps.

Though the Lebanese Army froze the wall project in November 2016, they resumed construction in May.

Exploiting Palestinians (and their cause)

When Lebanese political parties and their leaders talk about Palestinians in a positive light, it's about the overall cause: the siege of Gaza, the continued colonisation of the West Bank, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

A recent example was the hunger strike in which 1,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons went for on strike for 40 days to demand better conditions.  

In response, Hezbollah secretary-general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah condemned Arab leaders for their inaction, though the party boasts a large parliamentary bloc and two ministers and took no political action of its own.

A banner with the names of Palestinians killed in Israel's 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip hangs on the landmark Pigeon Rock in Beirut in July 2014 (AFP)

Many Lebanese politicians have expressed their support for Palestinian statehood and justice. In February, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri went to Tehran and expressed his support for Palestine, the right of return, and against the occupation.

Lebanese officials were also quick to express their solidarity with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when he visited Lebanon that same month; all were vocal in condemning the occupation, continued settlement building and Israeli aggression on Palestinian territory.

Aside from these public displays of support, leaders entirely ignore the legitimate grievances of Palestinians, which are their basic human and labour rights, and the end to life as second-class residents. They are treated as a security threat: nothing more.

Excuses and obstacles

Political leaders in Lebanon unsurprisingly rush to dismiss the possibility of naturalising Palestinians refugees. If naturalised, Palestinians would be protected under the law, including labour law and could benefit from social welfare. Currently, while they are taxed from their paychecks, they don't benefit from any of these services.

And while the Lebanese state is deeply flawed and corrupt, it can be argued that even this would trump being under the sole care of an underfunded UN agency.  

If Palestinians were naturalised, leaders argue, this would impede their right to return. But that’s just not the case

Two excuses are commonly used to explain this. The first one: if Palestinians were naturalised, leaders argue, this would impede their right to return. But that's just not the case. A Lebanese passport would in no way change the facts of their homeland.

That said, in March 2016, during the Islamic Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, former environment minister Mohammad Machnouk, speaking on behalf of former prime minister Tammam Salam, said: "Any settlement that allows Palestinians to settle on [Lebanese] land is a rejected settlement; such settlements come at the expense of the interests of the Palestinian people and in the interest of concerned countries – including Lebanon." 

Recently, Prime Minister Saad Hariri stressed the right of return as the key item on the agenda for Palestinians in Lebanon.

"The presence of the Palestinians in Lebanon is welcomed, but this work emphasises their right to return to their country," he said.

The second excuse – that Palestinians would change the religious balance of the Lebanese society - is rather shameful.

The second excuse – that Palestinians would change the religious balance of the Lebanese society - is rather shameful

While speaking to Mahmoud Abbas at that same event in 2016, Machnouk also said that such a settlement would be "incompatible" with Lebanon’s constitution and National Pact.

Lebanon's National Pact was a verbal agreement between the Christian and Muslim political elite in 1943 and is usually associated with sectarian appointments of political figures, notably the fact that the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

However, another element of this pact is that parliament must maintain a six-five ratio of Christians to Muslims. It was eventually modified in the Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war to one-to-one.

Either way, this doesn't bode well for almost 500,000 Palestinians who are predominantly Sunni Muslims.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil echoed similar words in Australia in March.

"We are not racist ... but no one can give us advice and lectures, or [impose on us] international obligations," he said, while speaking to Lebanese expats, talking about the refugee crisis in Lebanon.

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The only solution for the Syrian refugee crisis, Bassil said, was for Syrians to return to their land because "we don’t want to lose Lebanon again or lose you".

He was hinting, of course, that Palestinians caused the Lebanese civil war and are behind Lebanon's large diaspora population that fled the war-torn country.   

Given that women in Lebanon cannot pass citizenship to their offspring, this stance might not be surprising. However, Bassil publicly said that he supports the right for women to pass on their citizenship, but wants to exclude those married to Syrians or Palestinians to "preserve the land".

Again, none of this bodes well for a Palestinian population that is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

Justice for (some) Palestinians?

Palestine solidarity movements globally have surged in size. However, their focus for the most part lies on the West Bank, Gaza, and Palestinians within the state of Israel.

Beyond Palestine's borders, the campaign focuses on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign. That's not to discredit the non-violent tactic, but it's evident that Palestinian refugees aren't often on the agenda of Palestinian solidarity movements.

'The Lebanese state needs to treat us like humans, and allow us to have our basic human and civil rights'

- Hala al-Aqraa, Palestinian social worker from Ain al-Hilweh

While important events in Palestinian history, notably the Nakba of 1948, are commemorated, it's important to remember that Lebanon alone has 450,000 survivors and descendants of the Nakba and the Naksa following the 1967 Six-Day War.

Hala al-Aqraa, a Palestinian social worker from Ain al-Hilweh told me one year ago, that what's needed is "some kind of 'life resistance'".

"The Lebanese state needs to treat us like humans, and allow us to have our basic human and civil rights."

Palestinian children play in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on the outskirts of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli (AFP)

So this begs the question: doesn't justice for Palestinians also include Palestinians in Lebanon who, for several generations, have basically been second-class residents?

There is no excuse for their rights not to be granted, and can no longer be excluded from the narrative.

The arguments that have been used are either factually incorrect or motivated by sectarianism.

However, with a political elite that pays nothing but lip service, an economic elite that exploits them for cheap labour, corrupt, factional leadership in the camps, and restrained grassroots movements in Lebanon and within the camps, the Palestinians have been hung out to dry.

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut. You can follow him on Twitter @chehayebk

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinians walk along a shopping street in the Beddawi refugee camp in Tripoli in August 2010 (AFP)