*Independent journalist and president of the Majed Abu Sharar Media Foundation.
It is almost impossible to declare your “Palestinianhood” in Lebanon without soliciting a reaction, whether positive or negative. Being a Palestinian in Lebanon means that you have a collection of funny and often painful stories. If they are telling of anything, it is that Palestinians are stereotyped in the host country.
It is almost impossible to declare one’s “Palestinianhood” in Lebanon without eliciting a reaction, whether positive or negative. Being a Palestinian in Lebanon means that you have a collection of funny and often painful stories. If they are telling of anything, it is that Palestinians are stereotyped in the host country.
The stories we heard or experienced about the Lebanese being accepting of Palestinians are many. I do not forget what a young man in one of the focus groups in a refugee camp told us about an incident that happened to him while at university. “I met some rich students at the university, and when they found out I was Palestinian, their parents told them not to speak to me again. But this situation did not last long, and after they got to know me, they asked me if all people in the camp were like me! I asked them: how are we supposed to be? They replied that they have an image of us having long nails and long hair, and killing anyone we speak with.”
Many of us have been asked: “Are you really Palestinian? This is usually followed by another phrase that is supposed to make the first one not sound as bad, such as “But you’re different”, referring to the negative image that is generally entrenched in the minds of the Lebanese about Palestinians in general and refugees in particular. To be an educated, cultured, smart, or beautiful Palestinian clashes with widespread perceptions.”
The perception of Palestinians in Lebanon cannot be discussed at the official or popular levels without looking back at the history of the Palestinians in this host country, and the pivotal role played by the Lebanese media in establishing many stereotypes in the mind of the Lebanese recipient.
Following the Nakba and their forced exile to Lebanon, Palestinians were viewed as a heavy burden on a country with limited resources and a fragile sectarian balance. However, with the arrival of the PLO in the 1970s, very quickly the perception of “poor refugees” changed into a more problematic one given the role the PLO played in the Lebanese Civil War and its alliances with some forces at the expense of other. There was a dramatic shift in the perception of Palestinians, who were no longer seen as “poor refugees” but rather as an enemy threatening the country’s security and stability. The prevailing Lebanese stereotype of Palestinians did not differentiate between the Fedayeen who took part in the ongoing conflict and the refugees who were condemned to unfair laws from the first day of their presence on Lebanese territory. The departure of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982 eased tensions between the unwanted guests and the host country, but the prevalent view remained dominated by stereotypes and racist perceptions in some Lebanese circles.
In a study conducted by the Majed Abu Sharar Media Foundation, titled “The Perception of Palestinians in Lebanon: How Palestinian Refugees Are Perceived Versus How They Want to Be Perceived” , 80% of respondents believed that the perception of Palestinians is not good in the host country. Despite many years of discriminatory laws and practices against the Palestinians in Lebanon, 50% of respondents in the study assigned the responsibility for the negative perceptions to both Lebanese and Palestinians, because of certain Palestinian practices and the role played by the PLO in Lebanon. However, 47% blamed the Lebanese media for this perception because of its negative coverage of the Palestinians in their camps, taking into consideration the strong impact they have on the Lebanese recipient.
The Lebanese media has for years established a certain image of Palestinians, fueling the fears of the Lebanese public. Rarely has media coverage gone beyond tackling the security framework of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. This coverage came in general to depict the camps as hotbeds of tensions ready to explode at any moment, threatening the security situation, and to portray their inhabitants as either burdening the host country with their endless demands, breaching its security, or threatening its fragile demographic composition.
Focusing on issues that are sensitive to the Lebanese recipient, such as fear-mongering regarding permanent settlement and the hosting of terrorists or outlaws, or rushing to point fingers at the Palestinians in the event of any security event, and ignoring the living, social, and legal reality of the refugees who live in deprivation and poverty because of lack of minimum rights in the host country has bolstered negative perceptions and stereotypes.
A study by Maharat Foundation titled “Monitoring Racism in the Lebanese Media: The Representation of the ‘Syrian’ and the ‘Palestinian’ in the News Coverage” showed that reports about refugees are scarce, accounting for 7% of the surveyed sample compared to news reports, at 90%. This does not help to create a balanced view, especially given that the media publish news reports in the form they receive them from security sources, without re-editing them to avoid negativity. The study draws attention to the scarcity of press coverage of the displaced or refugees or to the presentation of their problems or their views regarding the host population.
It also points to the disregard of the news of negative practices toward the “outsiders.” They are rarely featured, and only when the subject is of particular interest, while the positive economic and cultural contributions of refugees in the host country are ignored.
The Lebanese media do not bear full responsibility for the perception of Palestinians in Lebanon, but they are at the forefront of responsibility for their selection of words and topics, their handling of coverage of Palestinians, their quick resort to judgment in pursuit of exclusive stories, and their adherence to stereotypes, of Palestinians in particular, in the service of certain political agendas.
If the Lebanese media do not take into account the need to “humanize” the other instead of “demonizing” them, and to avoid generalizations and ensure properly contextualizing stories, they will remain a factor contributing to enflaming a discourse that perpetuates stereotypes and racism, builds on a negative rhetoric, and does not promote a positive approach.