The question of Palestinians’ rights in Lebanon: a political impossibility
*Freelance journalist based in Lebanon; she was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
In August 2019, for a brief moment, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were back in the center of the news cycle as mass protests broke out in the camps in response to a crackdown by the labor ministry on businesses employing non-Lebanese citizens without work permits. The raids had swept up many Palestinian workers and, in the process, revived the question of their labor rights in Lebanon.
At the time, I wrote an article speculating that the incident might have opened a space for “at least modest reforms to the economic and civil rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.” As it turned out, I was wrong, because a series of other events soon pulled attention away from the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon: first the October Revolution, then the economic crisis, then the COVID-19 pandemic, and finally the Beirut Port explosion.
With so many Lebanese struggling and unemployed, reopening the question of Palestinians’ labor or property rights in Lebanon currently looks like a political impossibility.
Yet, even as Palestinian refugees have receded from the headlines, they have been struggling with the same economic and political crises as Lebanese citizens over the past year, with the added pressure of a shrinking budget at UNRWA in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal of US funding in 2018.
This has left the agency unable to provide any significant financial assistance to refugees who have been dealing with increasing unemployment and poverty. Instead, Palestinian communities have largely relied on mutual aid and remittances from the diaspora abroad to help them get by.
Meanwhile, the shift to online learning during the COVID-19 lockdown has been frankly impossible for many Palestinian families, who live in areas with spotty electricity and internet services and many of whom share one smartphone for the whole family, which during the lockdown had to be shared between multiple children to keep up with their schoolwork.
The upcoming change in the White House may or may not signal any significant shift in the US approach to the question of Palestine, but it will likely mean a reversal of some of the more extreme pro-Israeli positions of the Trump administration – such as the open encouragement of settlement building in the West Bank – and a return of funds to UNRWA.
However, amid the ongoing economic crisis and impending removal of subsidies on essential items, it’s far from clear whether those funds will come in time or be enough to provide the safety net Palestinian refugees, like the Lebanese, desperately need.