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Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps
Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Israel Wants to Have Its Ice Cream and Cybersecurity, Too
Israel Wants to Have Its Ice Cream and Cybersecurity, Too
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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Executive Summary

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

Israel Wants to Have Its Ice Cream and Cybersecurity, Too

Originally published in The New York Times

It is never quiet in Israel, but July brought new scrutiny. First, news broke that governments around the world have used spyware purchased from an Israeli cybersurveillance company, NSO Group, to target journalists, human rights activists and politicians. The revelations could implicate the Israeli Ministry of Defense in granting NSO permission to export hacking software that was then used by countries with authoritarian governments to suppress dissent. The scandal topped international news for days, but Israeli officials were instead preoccupied with ice cream. On July 19, Ben & Jerry’s announced it will no longer be available in the occupied Palestinian territories as of 2023. The divestment story (inaccurately characterized as a boycott) diverted attention from the role Israeli technology plays in global antidemocratic practices. Together the stories highlighted two of Israel’s defining national enterprises: high tech and perpetual military occupation.

The Israeli government’s response to the Ben & Jerry’s announcement was swift and voluble. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid insisted the move was anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, appealed to governors of 35 U.S. states to activate anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions measures against the company.

The Israeli government portrayed itself as the victim of a hostile and unethical move on the part of the ice cream company. As if Israel itself did not partake in any immoral behavior of its own; as if home demolitions, institutionalized discrimination, land expropriation, administrative detention and shooting at unarmed Palestinian protesters were not problematic; as if an Israeli company selling highly controversial technology to authoritarian regimes were not more questionable than an ice cream company denying its pints to customers who live in certain areas.

The uniformity of official reaction in Israel to the Ben & Jerry’s decision reflects an Israeli political consensus — unlike that of the international community — that does not distinguish between Israeli territory within its internationally recognized 1948 borders and the territories it occupied in 1967.

Yet the message Ben & Jerry’s is sending that the territories are not a legitimate part of Israel is not only consistent with international norms but also aligns with some of Israel’s political accords. In 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government signed a cooperation agreement with the European Union that excluded the settlements, without crying anti-Semitism.

Israeli officials, of course, want the world to see Israel as a moral, benevolent and liberal start-up nation, notwithstanding the decades-long occupation. With Mr. Netanyahu out of office, Mr. Lapid has been hard at work to mend Israel’s diplomatic relations around the world.

Israel is a belligerent occupying power with a thriving, offensive cybersurveillance industry.

But while the new government’s tone has slightly changed from that of its predecessor, its position remains the same — as reflected by what the NSO revelations make very clear: Israel is a belligerent occupying power with a thriving, offensive cybersurveillance industry.

Israel is a leading exporter of state-of-the-art surveillance technology such as face recognition, internet monitoring and biometric data collection. (High-tech industry constituted 46 percent of Israeli exports in 2019.) It tests and utilizes these tools every day in the occupied territories as part of its intricate system of control over the movement and lives of millions of Palestinians. In recent years, the Israeli military has installed thousands of cameras and monitoring devices at checkpoints in the West Bank, including facial-recognition software developed by an Israeli company, AnyVision. The director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the ACLU of Washington, Shankar Narayan, described such surveillance as “possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces.”

Israel also operates an extensive network of cameras tasked with observing every corner of the Old City of Jerusalem. The city of Hebron, where some 800 Israeli settlers live cordoned off from its 200,000 Palestinian residents, is known in the military as a smart city because of its sophisticated system of data collection that helps field observers monitor the urban landscape from the safety of their control rooms. Israel conducted its last war, in May, with Hamas in Gaza primarily from an underground bunker, relying on intelligence and digital technology to direct its air force on which targets to strike. Many Israeli soldiers and officers who serve in elite intelligence units in the army — for example, Unit 81, known for its covert cybertechniques — have gone on to found cybersecurity start-ups. Roughly 100 veterans of the unit have started 50 companies.

In excoriating Ben & Jerry’s, the Bennett-Lapid coalition is, in effect, defending decades of illiberal policies: military rule of the occupied territories, creeping annexation and a blurred distinction between 1948 and 1967 borders that insists on Israeli sovereignty between the Jordan River and the sea. At the same time, they are implicitly acknowledging that it’s not easy to maintain an enlightened and peace-seeking image (the Abraham Accords notwithstanding) when an ice cream company calls attention to the gap between rhetoric and reality. Nor when a duly licensed Israeli company climbs into bed with some of the most repressive governments on the planet.

The question is what happens now. Israel sees its high-tech sector as a point of national pride, and it constitutes an integral part of its economy and power in the world. It is not clear whether heightened scrutiny will bring consequences for Israel’s actions, either at home in the occupied territories or secreted in mobile phones around the world. Although the United States and other Western democracies have largely come to terms with Israel’s restrictions of Palestinians’ rights, now that some of that surveillance technology is being exported to restrict free speech in other parts of the world, the world is standing up and noticing. Israel is accustomed to having its ice cream and eating it, too. That apparently comes with a price, and not just for Palestinians.