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Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps
Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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

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