Lebanese expert on public policies and refugee issues
There is no doubt that much has been said and much has been written about Lebanon’s relationship with Palestinian refugees since their expulsion from their homes by Israeli gangs in 1948. Lebanon was still new to its independence and no one expected the refugees’ forced presence on its territories to last to this day, a period spanning 70 years. There is also no doubt also that much of what has been said or written and inevitably printed in the minds of the Lebanese on the one hand, and the Palestinian refugees on the other, is ripe with fallacies based on ideological approaches mixed with political dogmatism, sectarian conflicts, confessional incitements and undeniably personal attitudes.
These fallacies, based on an embryonic distortion of concepts, rendered the clash inevitable among the Lebanese themselves on the one hand, especially concerning their manner of support to the Palestinian cause, and some Lebanese and Palestinian refugees with their political and military constituents on the other hand, concerning the same issue. Naturally, the embryonic distortion of Lebanon’s relationship with Palestinian refugees on the conceptual level and the provocative perception of the Palestinian refugees of their right to use Lebanon as a founding site for their resistance supported in that by some Lebanese, prevented the strategic establishment of a sound Lebanese-Palestinian relationship led by Lebanese and Palestinian legitimacy, instead the way was paved for external powers to exploit both the Lebanese and the Palestinian refugees in order to carry out their own agendas, far from the interests of these two entities. A healthy Lebanese-Palestinian relationship would serve the interests of each in confronting Israel on the basis of the spirit of rights and duties.
The axes of this article, which cannot be further from history and documentation, lean toward a reconstructive approach of the distorted concepts, with a view of correcting them, while attempting to objectively read the experience that has governed the Lebanese-Palestinian relations since 2005 and until the recent challenges they have faced in this final stage, particularly with the ongoing events in the region.
Over 57 years (1948-2005), the Lebanese-Palestinian relations were marked by tensions that reached the point of violent clashes. The fact that the Palestinian refugees who were displaced by the Zionist gangs in 1948 and who came to Lebanon, estimated to have been around 100,000 at the time, imposed a demographic and economic burden on Lebanon. All historical documents indicate that the primary care of these refugees fell on the shoulders of Lebanese citizens, each lending assistance inasmuch as his/her capacities allowed, as well as on Christian and Islamic institutions, up until the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) emerged to assume its responsibilities in providing essential humanitarian services to refugees.
Before 1948, Lebanon’s relationship with Palestine was mutually valuable. The ties of history and geography were crowned with the culmination of commercial-economic cooperation and cultural-media interaction, not to mention the presence of three consulates for Lebanon in Palestine. All historical documents confirm that in 1948 some 100,000 Lebanese who lived or worked in Palestine returned to Lebanon.
The demographic burden and newly acquired independence contributed to the emergence of mutually terrorizing Lebanese-Palestinian contexts. The Palestinian refugees were distributed among 15 camps, 12 of which have persisted to this day, and one of which, Nahr al-Bared camp, is still under reconstruction after battles fought there between the Lebanese Army and the Fatah al-Islam terrorists who, in 2007, raided the camp and dozens of compounds scattered all over the Lebanese territories. In 1969, the Cairo Agreement, which legalized the Palestinian guerrilla operations from Lebanon, was signed.
The Lebanese split among those who wanted to match the logic of the “revolution” with the “state”, those who saw this as a deconstruction of the Lebanese formula, those who feared “resettlement” and those who reimagined the “Arab unity” on the basis of adopting the concept of Arab resistance mixed with extreme Islamic or Marxist views.
Tensions persisted until 1975, when a Palestinian-Lebanese conflict erupted. A bloody phase began in which mutual estrangement prevailed. The Palestinians made mistakes, and the Lebanese made mistakes. The enemy, brother and friend participated in fuelling confrontations. In 1982, following the Israeli invasion, PLO fighters left Lebanon. This was followed by an era of war camps. In 1987, the Lebanese Parliament abolished the Cairo Agreement. But no discussion of Lebanese-Palestinian relations took place. Before the Taif Agreement, the Lebanese initiated devastating wars. After the Taif Agreement and the Israeli occupation, Lebanon lived a period of Syrian tutelage as a fait accompli, which kept Lebanon’s relationship with the Palestinian refugees as a bargaining chip.
In any case, any objective approach to understanding Lebanon’s relationship with Palestinian refugees before 2005 should shed light on the concepts and implications surrounding this relationship first, acknowledge the fragmentation of policies, and challenge the formulation of a unified policy second in order to recognize the common mistakes that ignited Lebanese-Palestinian, Lebanese-Lebanese and Palestinian-Palestinian conflicts.
Concepts and implications
There are three sticky dimensions that have governed Lebanon’s relationship with the Palestinian refugees: the first is entity, the second sovereignty-security, and the third humanity.
Entity problems between Lebanon and Palestinian refugees emerged following the Nakba of 1948, even with an implied strategic agreement, and stemmed from Lebanon’s rejection of any form of resettlement due to the recognition of the right of return, as stipulated in Resolution 194 in its basic philosophy, despite all calls to read it pragmatically as “optional” and not “mandatory” as well as the recognition of the establishment of the State of Palestine, as stipulated in Resolution 181, also in its basic philosophy, in spite of all attempts to strip this resolution of its Israeli and international content.
Lebanon also agreed to the Arab peace initiative, which recognized the inadmissibility of the resettlement of Palestinian refugees where they were. However, this recognition of the right of return, the establishment of the State of Palestine, and the armament of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as a reaffirmation of its right to resistance from Lebanese territories -which in turn called for a counter-armament by the Lebanese, as a reaffirmation of its right to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and stability- created a Lebanese or pseudo-Lebanese phobia of turning Lebanon into an alternative homeland for the Palestinian refugees and a Palestinian phobia that Lebanese parties would like to liquidate their holy cause. This Lebanese phobia toward the Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian phobia toward some Lebanese were translated into bloody and violent practices that reached the point of massacres.
Of course, all the blood shed on the basis of this mutual phobia of ideological and religious combinations remained a stigma in the history of Lebanese-Palestinian relations and later on called for repentance and apology from both sides. Hence, it is necessary to understand the problem of entity in terms of advocating justice rather than fear or investing in the demographic agitations.
Sovereignty problems exist between Lebanon and Palestinian refugees, specifically with the Palestinian factions that have two contradictory dimensions. Their contradictions led to an inevitable clash. Some Palestinian refugees continued to attack the Lebanese security grip imposed on them, intentionally overlooking their exceptional appropriation of the sovereignty of Lebanon since before the Cairo Agreement (1969). Proof of this appropriation is the intensification of armament that peaked after the signing of the agreement.
Some Lebanese insist on the security grip, but in the absence of an integrated strategy to deal with all the Palestinian refugee issues, especially the legal and humanitarian ones, failure to control the reckless Palestinian armament was inescapable. Moreover, the Lebanese division on the manner of supporting the Palestinian cause, prominently represented by a harsh confrontation between the Lebanese Front on the one hand, and the National Movement on the other. The notion of achieving sovereignty from a security angle, which the Lebanese exercised, as well as portraying the Palestinian refugees themselves as permanent victims, was truncated and produced the opposite effect. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the sovereign problem from the perspective of human rights rather than the Lebanese security and the Palestinian military.
The humanitarian problem since the Nakba (1948), and its escalation since the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), is complex and requires dismantling. Some Palestinian refugees often tend to attack the Lebanese state, accusing it of discrimination, especially in refraining from granting them basic human rights, including “work” and “ownership”, while they shirk their duties toward the state that hosted them out of a brotherly duty; yet they did not hesitate to completely usurp its sovereignty.
In contrast, some Lebanese consider that granting these rights to Palestinian refugees may lead to their gradual social integration in Lebanon, which will facilitate their subsequent resettlement and negatively affect sectarian demographic balances. Many seem to forget that a Palestinian strategy was put in place to keep the camps impoverished in order to take advantage of the resistance factor within. Likewise, a Lebanese strategy sought to limit the improvement of the humanitarian conditions in the hopes of encouraging emigration, which would mean a systematic exorcism, even if for the long term, of the resettlement ghost.
An international strategy as well aimed at gradually withdrawing funding from the UNRWA, placing Palestinian refugees at the mercy of the host countries, and Lebanon, in particular, is the weakest link. International responsibility toward the Palestinian refugees would turn into a regional-Arab responsibility at first and later on into the host country’s responsibility, thereby annulling Resolution 194. Based on the aforementioned, the humanitarian problem must be understood from Lebanon’s civilizational heritage in its respect for human rights, on the one hand, and the restrictions on impeding any gradual social integration under the umbrella of respecting these Palestinian refugees’ rights, which would mean the final blow to their right of return, on the other hand.
Policies and the challenge of formulating a unified policy
Lebanon did not expect the forced presence of Palestinian refugees on its soil to last long. The repercussions of the successive crises were experienced by Lebanon internally, most of which represented the aftermath of international setbacks and regional wars that effectively contributed to the absence of any strategy to formulate a unified policy towards them on all humanitarian, legal, security and diplomatic levels. The Cairo Agreement (1969), which maliciously exploded in 1975, had a significant impact on the destruction of the possibility of formulating such a strategy. Divisions started between the Lebanese followed by the Palestinians, and the beneficiaries were those with hidden agendas to destroy the trust among the Lebanese themselves, the Palestinians themselves, and between the Lebanese and the Palestinians. The Lebanese and Palestinian causes were exploited for schemes that had nothing to do with them and were turned into kindling for them. The absence of Lebanese legitimacy and the deviation of the Palestinian legitimacy from its rightful track by establishing its military power in Lebanon made it impossible to reconcile the concepts of “state” and “revolution”. The Lebanese state was devastated, and the Palestinian revolution fought battles that were unrelated to its central cause. Thus, Lebanese partisan policies toward the Palestinian refugees and Palestinian political policies, some of which were linked to regional and international hubs that did not commit to the cause as well as to the sovereignty of Lebanon, were set. Between 1943 and 2005, the Lebanese state did not establish an integrated policy toward Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian refugees usurped the Lebanese sovereignty. The Lebanese committed themselves to a policy of strict security restraint against them. Palestinian refugees tended to accuse the Lebanese state of violating their human rights, ignoring the international responsibility to their original cause. The Lebanese believed that failure to grant Palestinian refugees these rights precluded resettlement, discounting the fact that poverty and destitution gave rise to extremism and terrorism. The Palestinian refugees drowned in the division of their lines, unaware that division meant the death of their dream of a return to a unified state of authority. The Lebanese expressed their fear of resettlement, intimidating and betraying each other by accepting or rejecting it, and they failed to formulate an effective diplomatic policy to wake up international legitimacy. These are mutual mistakes which have destroyed the concepts of state sovereignty, the dignity of the refugee and the right of return, underpinning any just solution. The challenge remains in taking a deep breath, moving towards admitting the mistakes, and embarking on building a new trust.