Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps
Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute
Report 84 / Middle East & North Africa

Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps

The vast Palestinian refugee population is routinely forgotten and ignored in much of the Middle East. Not so in Lebanon.

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The vast Palestinian refugee population is routinely forgotten and ignored in much of the Middle East. Not so in Lebanon. Unlike in other host countries, the refugee question remains at the heart of politics, a recurrent source of passionate debate and occasional trigger of violence. The Palestinian presence was a catalyst of the 1975-1990 civil war, Israel’s 1982 invasion and Syrian efforts to bring the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to heel. Virtually nothing has been done since to genuinely address the problem. Marginalised, deprived of basic political and economic rights, trapped in the camps, bereft of realistic prospects, heavily armed and standing atop multiple fault lines – inter-Lebanese, inter-Palestinian and inter-Arab – the refugee population constitutes a time bomb. Until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved, a comprehensive approach is required that clarifies the Palestinians’ status, formally excludes their permanent settlement in Lebanon, significantly improves their living conditions and, through better Lebanese-Palestinian and inter-Palestinian coordination, enhances camp management.

The history of Lebanon’s Palestinian population has been always tumultuous, often tragic. All sides are at fault. Although their presence at first was peaceful, it rapidly became militarised; by the late 1960s, the PLO advocated armed struggle against Israel, and in 1970 it transferred its leadership from Jordan to Lebanon. Palestinians also involved themselves directly in the domestic strife that marred Lebanon for close to two decades. Israel’s invasion, aimed at destroying the PLO, led to large-scale devastation as well as the ugly massacre at the Sabra and Chatila camps conducted by a Lebanese militia under the Israeli military’s passive eye. Syria, seeking to assert its hegemony over its neighbour and ensure control over the Palestinian national movement, conducted its own military campaign against Yasser Arafat and his followers. The Lebanese state distinguished itself by shameful treatment of its refugee population.

Today, the refugee question is intricately related to Lebanon’s sectarian divisions. Palestinians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims and, as the prospect of any significant return of refugees – most of whom have never set foot in their former homeland – to Israel diminishes, fear has revived of their permanent settlement or naturalisation (tawtin) in Lebanon, which would affect the confessional balance. The Christian leadership in particular has played on such apprehension, deploying it as a tool to mobilise its base. In turn, successive governments have enacted measures to foreclose any such possibility, notably by ensuring that refugees live in extremely precarious conditions. Refugee camps are denied basic public services; Palestinians face severe employment restrictions; and, more recently, have been denied property rights.

The effort to hold refugees at bay and prevent their social or economic absorption has dangerous implications. Because their presence is deemed to be temporary and justified by the unresolved conflict with Israel, Palestinians have been granted a remarkable degree of political autonomy. The notion of armed struggle in particular remains sacrosanct and is used as a reason for the existence of multiple paramilitary groups. In the wake of the civil war, manifestation of this right to armed resistance increasingly has lost its meaning: Palestinians can bear arms, but only in their camps and on a few training grounds; these in turn become zones of lawlessness that Lebanese authorities cannot enter; and their weapons are aimed not at Israel, the purported rationale for continued armed status, but inward. The explosive end result is camps that harbour a marginalised, impoverished population; an abundance of weapons; and a leadership that, no longer in a position to fight Israel, is adrift, without a sense of purpose.

The situation has become more complicated still. Palestinian camps are another instrument in the regional tug of war. For the West and its Lebanese allies who currently hold power, challenging the status quo in the camps is one way of advancing both Lebanon’s sovereignty and the cause of disarming all groups, Hizbollah included. The internal Palestinian conflict opposing Fatah and Hamas also manifests itself in the camps. For Syria, some of the Palestinian armed groups are cards to be used both in the context of negotiations with Israel and as allies on the Lebanese domestic scene. Finally, the spread of militant Islamist groups within the camps suggests they are becoming recruiting grounds for international jihadist movements.

Despite the gravity of the challenge, management of the crisis by all relevant players has left much to be desired. Given their fragmented and discredited national movement, Palestinian refugees seldom have been as deprived as they are today of a legitimate and recognised leadership capable of providing them with either concrete assistance or a vision for the future. Until very recently at least, the Lebanese government had adopted an exclusively reactive, security-minded posture, focused on containing the destabilising impact of the Palestinian presence and of its own misguided policies. Nor has the international community been of much help. By concentrating almost entirely on the disarmament issue, it has polarised the situation without in any way helping to resolve it. Meanwhile, it has reduced support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the body responsible for providing vital health, education and other relief and social services to refugees.

Such short-sightedness makes sense neither for Lebanon nor for broader pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace. As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know well, the refugee population in Lebanon constitutes one of the more vexing problems: Lebanese do not want them to be assimilated in their country; Israel will not allow them to return; they are well-armed, socially marginalised and economically disenfranchised; and they could well be mobilised by opponents of an eventual peace deal to undermine it.

In 2005, in the wake of Syria’s military withdrawal from their country, members of Lebanon’s political class began long-overdue discussion of these issues. However, the domestic Lebanese crisis quickly brought it to a standstill. Today, after the Doha agreement between Lebanese factions, formation of a unity government and election of a new president, the possibility once again exists for a serious dialogue aimed at better managing the Palestinian problem. The worrying recurrence of camp-related violence – and, most notably, the weeks of bloody confrontation in May-September 2007 between the army and Fatah al-Islam, a jihadist group based in the Nahr al-Bared camp – should be reason enough to act.

Beirut/Brussels, 19 February 2009

Demonstrators carry a banner and flags during a protest against Israeli gas extraction that Lebanon says falls in disputed waters near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon, June 11, 2022. The banner reads " The Line 29 is a red line". REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Time to Resolve the Lebanon-Israel Maritime Border Dispute

Domestic politics in Israel and Lebanon could scuttle talks about their claims in the Mediterranean – and to the gas riches underneath. With the U.S. mediator’s help, the two countries should refocus on achieving an accord that serves their mutual interest and spares them a confrontation.

U.S.-mediated maritime border talks between Lebanon and Israel have entered a perilous new phase. The parties have been engaged for over a decade in indirect negotiations over the ownership of natural gas fields discovered, or presumed to exist, in disputed offshore territory. Israel is reportedly on schedule to start extracting gas from the area as early as September. These plans have prompted Hizbollah – the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia and party – to threaten attacks if Israel proceeds without first resolving the territorial dispute. While the two neighbours are reportedly closer than ever to an accord, political crises in both may delay the agreement or make reaching it impossible. Washington has invested significant political capital in fostering a compromise, and it should intensify its efforts to help the two negotiating teams clear the remaining hurdles. Israeli and Lebanese leaders, for their part, should keep their sights trained on concluding an agreement that carries clear mutual benefit, while avoiding a conflict with dangerous consequences for both countries.

Lebanon and Israel have conducted indirect negotiations over demarcating their maritime border since the two sides became aware more than a decade ago that lucrative gas deposits may lie off their shores. Originally in dispute were 860 sq km of waters between the southern boundary of the Lebanese claim (known as “line 23”), which it formally asserted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the boundary Israel sought to draw to the north (known as “line 1”). In 2012, U.S. mediator Frederic Hof proposed a compromise that would have split up the area at a ratio of 55 per cent for Lebanon and 45 per cent for Israel. But – without offering clear reasons – the Lebanese government failed to approve the proposal and the negotiations lapsed. When indirect talks resumed in late 2020, the Lebanese delegation presented new legal and hydrographical studies to support an expanded claim (bounded by what is known as “line 29”) encompassing an additional 1,430 sq km south of line 23; it did not, however, formalise the expanded claim by amending its prior UNCLOS filing, which remains pegged to line 23.

Lebanon’s subsequent insistence on staking its claim based on line 29 has brought previously undisputed gas reserves into play, setting the stage for the recent escalation of tensions. Under Lebanon’s original line 23 claim, the Karish field – the one from which Israel is preparing to extract gas as soon as September – lay far to the south in Israeli waters. By contrast, the new Lebanese claim would put the northern half of Karish in Lebanese maritime territory, turning the field into a source of contention. Predictably, Israel has rejected the new Lebanese position, and the parties have struggled unsuccessfully to narrow the gap between them – engaging first through five rounds of indirect talks at the UN base in Naqoura, a small city in southern Lebanon, and then via shuttle diplomacy conducted by U.S. mediator Amos Hochstein. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, preparations have continued for Karish’s development, which is expected to add around 1.41 trillion cubic feet of gas to Israel’s proven reserves. The expected quantity of gas available at Karish falls well below the estimated size of the Leviathan and Tamar fields, which Israel is already exploiting, suggesting that Karish is not integral to Israeli energy security at present.

In June, Israel signalled that it could begin extraction at Karish in a matter of months. On 5 June, the London-listed company Energean – which Israel has enlisted to develop Karish on its behalf – deployed a floating production, storage and offloading facility to the field. Israeli officials point out that the company began its work at a spot clearly south of line 29, and also note that Lebanon has never amended its UNCLOS filing to bring its claim to that line. Thus, Israel argues, Lebanon has not formally claimed the area where Energean is working.

Hizbollah ... has vowed to defend the country’s maritime claims.

These arguments have triggered a harsh response in Lebanon – particularly on the part of Hizbollah, which has vowed to defend the country’s maritime claims. In several speeches, the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, maintained that the Karish field is disputed. He threatened to attack the offshore gas infrastructure if Israel began extracting gas before the two countries agreed on a border. On 2 July, Hizbollah’s military wing, the Islamic Resistance, deployed unarmed reconnaissance drones toward Karish, which the Israeli air force intercepted. Two days later, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati publicly denounced interference in the negotiations by non-state actors, saying it exposed Lebanon to “unnecessary risks”. Undeterred, Nasrallah spoke of military action if the dispute was not settled by September. On 31 July, Hizbollah released a video displaying its capacity to attack gas infrastructure. The same day, the group published footage of black-clad fighters patrolling unarmed near the Israeli-Lebanese border.

With Hizbollah putting its credibility on the line, and Israel doubtless reluctant to back down in the face of threats from a group that it characterises as a terrorist organisation, the risk of some form of escalation is significant. While Nasrallah expressed hope that the dispute can be resolved without a fight, Hizbollah’s brinkmanship – in marked contrast to the more cautious approach to Israel the group has taken in recent years – suggests that the organisation is prepared to take greater risks this time. Even a limited military confrontation could spin out of control, due either to miscalculation about the other side’s red lines or to operational error – such as a missile or drone attack aiming to inflict only material damage but causing casualties instead.

That said, there are grounds for hope that a confrontation can be averted. Despite the threat of conflict, or perhaps because of it, the two sides now appear closer to a deal than ever. During U.S. mediator Hochstein’s last visit to Beirut on 31 July, Lebanon reportedly proposed a compromise that moves its claim back from line 29 to line 23, on the condition that Israel cedes an additional 80 sq km south of line 23. This extra pocket of maritime territory would put the Qana prospect – a gas deposit of unproven potential to the north east of Karish – entirely within Lebanese waters. In practical terms, the suggested compromise treats Lebanon’s claim to line 29 as a bargaining gambit to secure its claim up to line 23, along with the entire Qana prospect.

Israel is reportedly ready to accommodate this proposal, which would entail giving up on the nearly 400 sq km north of line 23 it was supposed to receive under the 2012 Hof proposal, as well as Qana. It is possible that Israel may ask for a share of future proceeds from Qana should gas exploitation prove viable, or for territorial compensation north of line 23, which would mean an S-shaped rather than a straight demarcation line. While Israel’s official response to the Lebanese proposal remains unknown at this stage, a territorial swap would appear to be a more straightforward solution than a profit-sharing arrangement, given the antagonism between the two countries.

Israeli officials also told Crisis Group that they would welcome ... resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence.

Israel has good reason to make such substantial concessions. The energy crisis in Europe, triggered by the war in Ukraine, provides a window of opportunity to expand gas exports. But if that is the goal, securing stable access to the offshore reserves is imperative – and that will require an accommodation with Hizbollah and Beirut. While Israel may be confident that it can defeat Hizbollah in a military confrontation, private corporations are unlikely to undertake investments and expose staff and multi-million-dollar equipment if they risk being caught in the crossfire. Israeli officials also told Crisis Group that they would welcome the precedent a deal would set for the two countries resolving disputes through negotiation, rather than violence.

For Lebanon, wrapping up the negotiations swiftly would also be a win, not least because it would receive a far larger share of the disputed maritime area than appeared possible even a few months ago. A comprehensive solution to the demarcation issue would also clear the way for exploration in Lebanon’s promising southern waters. Until now, the international consortium commissioned to explore the area, led by French energy giant Total, has made clear that operations cannot proceed before the parties resolve their dispute. As for Hizbollah, despite its bellicose posture, it has never committed to defending any specific line, and has repeatedly stressed that the Lebanese government alone is responsible for reaching a settlement; that said, Hizbollah would likely take credit for helping Lebanon achieve a favourable outcome if a deal is struck.

Yet despite an accord being within reach and to clear mutual benefit, the process may still falter in the final stages because of dysfunctional domestic politics on both sides. Lebanon’s politicians have been unable to form a new government since the country’s elections on 15 May. Leaders are increasingly preoccupied with the debate over the succession of President Michel Aoun, whose term expires on 31 October, and the spectre of an open-ended constitutional crisis if no compromise on his replacement can be found. This matter has reduced Beirut’s bandwidth for the border negotiations, and indeed for major political decisions of any kind. There is also a risk of last-minute sabotage by leading Lebanese politicians, who have long competed with one another to claim personal credit for a successful outcome in the maritime talks. In Israel, the ruling coalition’s collapse has left a caretaker cabinet in charge that likewise finds it difficult to make big decisions. With elections approaching in November, hardliners may exploit any border compromise for political attacks.

It would be a missed opportunity for both sides, and a blow to regional stability, if an otherwise achievable agreement were to fall through for any of these reasons. After more than a decade and many false starts, the maritime border negotiations are tantalisingly close to a viable solution. As the parties move toward a deal, outside actors that have influence with key players in each system should urge them forward over the finish line. The U.S., whose shuttle diplomacy has contributed significantly to the process, should in particular redouble its efforts to get the deal done. It may need to hold more regular meetings with, and lean on, the two countries’ negotiators to get them to recognise the matter’s urgency. Washington should also encourage Lebanese interlocutors to dissuade Hizbollah from hardening its confrontational stance and Israel to hold off on gas extraction while the deal is hammered out – even as it works to maintain the talks’ momentum and keep them from being held hostage to political developments in either country.

Ultimately, it will fall to Israeli and Lebanese political leaders to make the deal happen. Their task may be difficult amid jockeying for electoral and partisan advantage. The prize, however, is well worth the trouble. The parties have the chance to make an agreement that is good for both countries, sets an important precedent for greater bilateral comity and averts the prospect of dangerous escalation. They should seize it.

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