Lebanon’s Palestinians

Rami G. Khouri
Agence Global
June 30, 2010

BEIRUT — The current debate in Lebanon about the legal status of several
hundred thousand resident Palestinian refugees reflects the best and worst
of the Arab world. The mistreatment, abysmal living conditions and limited
work, social security and property rights of these Palestinians are a lingering
moral black mark — but change is in the air, initiated largely by Lebanese.

(To be fair to Lebanon, all Arab countries similarly mistreat millions of
Arab, Asian and African foreign guest workers, who often are treated little
better than chattel or indentured laborers. Racism and discrimination are
alive and well in most Arab societies. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,
however, are a distinct case, for most of them were born here and know no
other country of residence, they are involuntary long-term refugees, and are
not here by choice to work.)*

Four related dynamics these days highlight the brisk movement to end
official and legal discrimination against Palestinians: draft legislation in
Parliament to give the Palestinians full civil and human rights (work and
property ownership mainly); the public, often heated, discussion of this in
the media, the peaceful marches in four parts of Lebanon last Sunday by
(mostly) Palestinians and (some) Lebanese, culminating in a rally in central
Beirut; and, the event this week in which Prime Minister Saad Hariri
“re-launches” and invigorates the work of the five-year-old Lebanese
Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC).

The official discrimination against Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and
their awful living conditions in a dozen refugee camps — large rats jump
across electricity boxes adjacent to densely packed cinderblock homes, like
squirrels cavorting on fir trees in rural Maine – have long contrasted with
the positive aspects of Lebanese-Palestinian ties. Many Lebanese have
steadfastly supported the Palestinians in their national struggle with
Zionism, while Palestinians have often contributed significantly to the
Lebanese economy and society. The two sides exude tensions and suspicions,
as much as a desire to clear the air and restore positive ties.

The breakthrough came in 2005 when the Lebanese government
courageously acknowledged the unacceptable nature of the constrained
rights and living conditions of several hundred thousand Palestinians
in camps, and created LPDC to initiate a political dialogue and improve
relations with the Palestinians in Lebanon. The process elicited a reciprocal
Palestinian affirmation of the need to move ahead in this arena, and the
initiative has moved slowly and fitfully since then.

The breakthrough that has been experienced in the past month is significant,
but like all such historic moves it is not always fully clear as it occurs.
The main achievement is that the matter of giving Palestinians their full
human, refugee and civil rights according to existing international
conventions that Lebanon has signed is now an issue that is openly discussed
— in parliament and in the media. An ugly taboo has been shattered. Many
Lebanese are ashamed of how their country treats the Palestinian refugees.
They feel that allowing the refugees to live as normal lives as possible
(short of granting them citizenship, so that they do not vote or change the
delicate political-sectarian balance among Lebanese) is the right and moral
thing to do, simply on the basis of human decency.

A few others admit — as I believe is the case — that Palestinian refugees
who enjoy full labor, business, social security and property rights and can
live dignified lives will generate material and intangible gains that will
benefit them and all Lebanese. By living like normal human beings rather
than penned animals or exploited fugitive employees, Palestinians would
generate greater income and spend it in the country, contribute to higher
standards in professional jobs, open new businesses, hire Palestinians and
Lebanese alike, and expand Lebanon’s already impressive economic
creativity and dynamism.

Improved social, economic, health, educational and environmental
conditions in the refugee camps will impact constructively on surrounding
Lebanese communities. Refugees who enjoy basic human rights and dignity
will feel more positive about, grateful to, and protective of their host country
and the Lebanese people. This would surely lower political tensions, resolve
some disputes, and significantly remove negative sentiments among some
camp dwellers that now allow armed elements to create security problems in
the country.

Lebanon faces a moment akin to the political, legal and ethical challenges
that Americans grasped when they faced and vanquished the crime of official
racial discrimination in the 1950s and 60s, or when South Africans seriously
mooted changing their Apartheid system in the 1980s. Like those historic
transformations, and any other human and legal transition from indignity to
dignity, removing the official discrimination against Palestinian refugees
in Lebanon will happen slowly. It seems to have started, though, and the
Lebanese people can look back on this one day with pride. It can also be a
shining example to other Arab countries to face their own shameful
mistreatment of the foreigners amongst them.

This article first appeared in The Daily Star.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the
Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the
American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2010 Rami G. Khouri – distributed by Agence Global