Building Better Relations

Building Better Relations
Former Minister, Director of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs
Before the Nakba of 1948, the Lebanese people found in Palestine various fields of work, while Lebanon was a summer destination for the Palestinians. Intermarriage was common at the time, especially between the people of Acre (Akka) and Sidon (Saida). After the Nakba, around 110,000 Palestinians sought refuge in Lebanon, accompanied by approximately 90,000 Lebanese living in Palestine. The amount of money transferred by the Palestinian refugees to Lebanon was estimated at $15 billion in current value, and a number of wealthy and middle-class Palestinians obtained the Lebanese nationality after their forced displacement to Lebanon. Today about a third of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have extended and extensive blood ties with Lebanese families
Lebanese legislations treated Palestinians as foreigners, and then they were deemed “foreigners among foreigners”. They were excluded from the right to property when the amendment of the Foreign Ownership Act (Law No. 296) was amended in 2001. Their right to work has been severely restricted, including the lack of access of those with work permits to social security services. Their enrolment in the Lebanese University and public schools was subject to the principle of national preference.
After the overlapping conflicts between some Lebanese groups on the one hand and between several of them and the armed Palestinian organizations on the other, and after the departure of Palestinian militants following the Israeli invasion in 1982 and the subsequent massacres of civilians, and although some militants returned in limited numbers for a short period of time, the number of Palestinians living in Lebanon has decreased and their capabilities have been weakened. They were unable to defend themselves when the camps were besieged and heavily attacked as part of disturbing military operations that affected the civilians and increased their suffering. Some of them emigrated while others stepped aside. For various reasons, including those related to the succession of conflicts in Lebanon, without the Palestinians being a party to them, deep feelings of hostility between Palestinians and some Lebanese groups have diminished. 
A change in the official Lebanese policy toward the Palestinians began in 2005, when the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora formed a special committee called the LPDC under the supervision of the Lebanese Cabinet. This committee was called upon to improve Lebanese Palestinian relations, reinforce dialogue between both communities, and seek to deal with the arising problems in a manner that would reconcile their mutual interests and perceive their concerns. 
Contacts between the Palestinian leadership and the Lebanese officials resulted in the reopening of the office of the PLO representative in Lebanon. Later, and after a Lebanese internal debate, a decision to officially recognize the State of Palestine led to the establishment of its embassy in Beirut, during a celebration marking the 43rd anniversary of the Palestinian revolution. The representative of the PLO in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, presented the “Declaration of Palestine in Lebanon”, which included a radical and bold re-examination of the experience of the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon. Cited in it is: “We apologize for any harm we may have inflicted on our dear Lebanon, consciously or unconsciously. This is an unconditional apology. We do not expect any one in return”. 
During the confrontations between the Lebanese Army and the Fateh al-Islam gang in Nahr al-Bared camp in 2007, which led to its destruction and the displacement of its inhabitants, Lebanese-Palestinian cooperation was strengthened. The Palestinian factions formed a “unified political leadership”, a “the High Security Command” and security committees in the camps. They controlled the situation to a large extent with the Lebanese Army, the General Security and other government institutions. In mid-2005, a decision was issued by the Ministry of Labour allowing Palestinians to work in fifty professions and jobs, excluding the liberal professions such as medicine, engineering, pharmacy, law, journalism and so on. In August, the Lebanese Parliament passed Law No. 129, which amended Article (59) of the Lebanese Labour Law, allowing for the issuance of “free” work permits for the Palestinians. Law No. 128, which amended Article 9 of the Social Security Law, was issued to grant the Palestinians benefiting from the National Social Security fund as well as from the end-of-service indemnity fund, after the Palestinian workers used to contribute to the Fund without enjoying the right to profit from indemnities.
In January 2015, the Lebanese Working Group on Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, which included Lebanese political forces of different backgrounds and affiliations, sought to reconcile two objectives: addressing the concerns of the Lebanese, especially their fears of Palestinian resettlement in Lebanon, which could upset its sectarian balance; and attending to the difficult living conditions in the Palestinian camps. This Working Group succeeded in creating a common area of understanding among the Lebanese embodied in a document which for the first time reflected a deep Lebanese understanding on how to deal with the Palestinians in a way that respects their basic right to a decent life until their return. 
The official results of the “Population and Housing Census in Palestinian Camps and Gatherings in Lebanon”, which were announced in the Grand Serail, showed that there were no more than 174,422 refugees in Lebanon, living in 12 camps and 156 Palestinian gatherings in the Lebanese governorates. This compelled the Lebanese parties to reconsider many of the prevalent perceptions and attitudes regarding the relationship with the Palestinian refugees, a matter that was confirmed by LPDC Chairman, Dr. Hasan Mneymneh, when he called attention to the possibility of breaking a lot of taboos and resuming a real and responsible dialogue.
Such a dialogue would rebuild Lebanese-Palestinian relations on mutually agreed-on bases that are almost within reach. There is no deep disagreement about the rejection of resettlement and the assertion of the right of return, no matter how some people may have exploited it or its risks to intimidate or threaten, investing that in domestic politics. The issue of national sovereignty with regards to the Palestinians is no longer a Lebanese obsession as it was in the past, especially since Palestinian officials at all levels are declaring their concern for Lebanon’s sovereignty and are working toward this concern. However, reconciliation also requires more joint effort to cleanse the memory in a manner that captures many previous attempts at dialogues, writings and works of art. Moreover, practical cooperation necessitates that Palestinian refugees are granted their human and civil rights.
The Lebanese Working Group on Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon adopted the document titled “A Unified Lebanese Vision for the Palestinian Refugee Affairs in Lebanon” and presented a definition of resettlement, which dispels some of the confusion and deliberate ambiguity surrounding it. The document helps lift barriers against the Palestinian refugees imposed on their socio-economic rights, including the right to work, to social protection, and residence ownership. For this, legislation and policies that preserve Lebanon’s supreme interest without any discrimination between Palestinians and other non-Lebanese shall be established. 
Perhaps a new path has been paved for us.