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Lebanon’s Palestinian shame

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It's no secret that Lebanon is a country full of contradictions, and the fighting that recently broke out in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli in the north of the country has served to re-emphasise that point. Three days after hostilities began on 19 May 2007, a group of young professionals working in the centre of Beirut were quick to tell me that the camp should be stormed as soon as possible and that the priority should be to eradicate the terrorists. If some Palestinians were killed in the process, then that would be a price worth paying, they said. A few hours later, I spoke with a young man who had been visiting the tent city erected in the middle of the downtown area in protest over the Lebanese government's policies. He was wearing a Palestinian scarf, and so I enquired about his nationality. "I'm Lebanese", he said, "but it would be an honour for me on this day to be Palestinian".

Such expressions of solidarity for the poor and dispossessed Palestinians are few and far between nowadays in Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of refugees continue to languish in a dozen camps spread throughout the country, in which they are forced to endure conditions that are unique in the entire Arab region. When confronted with this reality, the Lebanese are at best indifferent and at worst unrepentant. They are also, perhaps more worryingly, in denial about the potential threat that they have created for themselves by oppressing the Palestinians in the way that they have.

Lebanon has been teetering dangerously close to the edge of the precipice for some time; internal political strife, a merciless and unrelenting series of political assassinations - the most recent that of the member of parliament, Walid Eido, on 13 June - and open hostility from its two neighbours, are only some of the many issues that this country's inhabitants have to deal with. Although the conflagration that has broken out in Nahr el-Bared has taken Lebanon even closer to the brink, it also provides us with an opportunity to re-evaluate the situation in the camps, and hopefully to determine a strategy for correcting some of the injustices that continue today.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on the Palestine, Israel and Lebanon:

Robert G Rabil,"Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh"
(11 May 2007)

Mary Kaldor & Mient Jan Faber, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report"
(21 May 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse"
(4 June 2007)

Rosemary Bechler, "Palestinians under siege in the West Bank"
(6 June 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Crises of the middle east: 1914, 1967, 2003"
(15 June 2007)

The camps' conditions

There are twelve refugee camps in Lebanon, all of which are populated by refugees or descendants of refugees who were forced from their homes in 1948 in what had been Palestine and were never allowed to return by the Israeli state. Their tragic circumstance has not earned them many friends in Lebanon today. Although the registered number of refugees living in Lebanon is over 400,000, the Palestinian demographer Khalil Shikaki has calculated that the real figure is closer to 200,000. The explanation is that a majority has fled the camps in search of a better life in Europe or elsewhere. Anyone who has visited the camps will understand why.

A typical Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon is cramped, severely overcrowded, and has very poor infrastructure. The largest camp is Ein el-Hilwa in which up to 70,000 are cramped into one square kilometre. The Lebanese state's mandate to provide services to residents in Lebanon does not extend to the camps, and so that task has been allocated to the United Nations' Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA's responsibilities in that regard resemble those of a typical municipality. It is supposed to provide education, health, relief and other social services to all refugees, but its budget of $71 per capita is woefully inadequate. The effect is that most shelters are not connected to a functioning water supply, and many are not connected to a sewage system. To make matters worse, the Lebanese state does not allow the refugees to improve their living conditions themselves, and prevents them from importing any building materials into the camps. Thus a great many shelters do not even have windows, thereby forcing the elderly, the young and the weak to endure the elements virtually unprotected.

In addition, the Lebanese state for a long time refused Palestinians the right to work in Lebanon, which has had the effect of forcing a crushing majority into a state of dependence on handouts from international aid agencies. The current Lebanese government, which came into power in 2005, was the first to recognise that a problem existed and should be addressed. It moved to establish the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee which was charged with improving the living conditions of Palestinian refugees. The only significant measure that was taken was to permit Palestinians to work in three dozen manual and semi-skilled construction and service-sector jobs previously barred to them, a decision that hasn't had a marked impact on living conditions, as a work-permit is still required to engage in these professions.

Lebanon has also taken a page out of Israel's book by imposing a series of other legal restrictions on the Palestinians, in the hope that life will become so intolerable that they will opt to leave for good. For example, a number of laws prevent Palestinians from owning or inheriting property in Lebanon. Also, during the 1990s, successive governments encouraged Palestinians to travel abroad for study or for work, ensuring at the same time that they would not be able to return, even to visit their families. These rules only apply to Palestinians: the law grants equal and equitable treatment to all other non-Lebanese residents.

This state of affairs stands in stark contrast to the way in which Palestinian refugees have been treated in other countries in the Arab region. Palestinians were not, as a general rule, granted citizenship in the countries where they settled (including Syria and Egypt), but they were allowed to settle and eventually the right to live and work in their respective adopted countries without restriction. The country in which they are afforded the best treatment is Jordan, where the vast majority was granted full citizenship.

An existential threat?

At least two explanations are typically offered to justify and explain the mistreatment that Palestinians are subjected to. The first is that they represent an existential threat to Lebanon's Christian population. According to this argument, Palestinians are 85% Muslim, and to Lebanon's Christians, who were once a majority and today still represent a large segment of the population, integrating these people into public life would amount to renouncing the importance that Christians have been accorded in the state by the 1943 constitution. This is an old and dangerous argument that has often been used to justify all sorts of questionable behaviour, especially during the country's civil war in 1975-90.

It also fails on the merits: there is no reason why the Palestinians could not be allowed to work and live in Lebanon without actually enjoying citizenship, and without being permitted to participate in public life. In fact, Egypt, Syria and other countries in the Arab region actually allow all Palestinian refugees living in their territory access to the same social services that citizens are entitled to, even though the refugees are not themselves citizens. The existential-threat argument therefore merely serves to illustrate the selfish nature of the Lebanese state, which has chosen to condemn hundreds of thousands of people to an open-ended prison sentence for the sake of reassuring a few people that a threat that does not exist will not materialise.

In response, some Lebanese maintain that the high unemployment rates that have plagued their country for decades make it impossible to extend the right to work to Palestinians. That argument also fails. There are today one million Syrian guest-workers in Lebanon, and many thousands of others are also invited into the country from countries as far as Sudan, India and the Philippines. If employment can be offered to them, then there is no reason Palestinians should be excluded from the job market. If there is not enough opportunity for all these people, then preference should be given to the Palestinians, for obvious reasons.

A security threat?

The second argument relates to events that weigh very heavily on the minds of all Lebanese. The allegation is that the Palestinians are to blame for the Lebanese civil war (by creating a state within a state, by using Lebanese land to launch attacks against Israel, and by allegedly creating a set of factual circumstances which made war unavoidable) and so therefore cannot be trusted, and should not be encouraged to stay. The question as to whether this version of history has any merit is beyond the purview of this article, but even assuming it were true, the argument is still both morally and intellectually flawed.

To hold the entire Palestinian population in Lebanon accountable for the actions of a small number of guerrillas - most of whom have either been killed, or have left since - clearly amounts to the worst form of collective punishment. Not only are men, women and children being punished without exception for the actions of a few, but said actions actually took place more than three decades ago. There is no end in sight to the number of generations that will be held accountable for what took place in the 1970s, even though the worst offenders were actually allowed to roam free, and in some cases were even rewarded for their brutality.

Jordan's experience is an excellent illustration of how unnecessary and counterproductive the Lebanese position really is. Prior to 1970, most Palestinian guerrillas were based in Jordan, and it was from there that they launched their attacks against Israeli interests. Their numbers, the equipment at their disposal, and their abilities increased at lightning speed in just a few years, to the extent that the Jordanian authorities considered that their continued presence represented a threat to the survival of the state itself.

On 15 September 1970, the Jordanian army attacked the guerrillas by bombing the refugee camps in which they resided with artillery. Thousands of civilians were killed in just a few days, in a bout of fighting now known as "Black September". The violence was so terrible, and the threat to the Palestinian liberation movement so great, that Syrian tanks actually invaded Jordan on 18 September, occupied several major Jordanian cities and resupplied the guerrillas. The Jordanian military engaged the Syrians and eventually prevailed. However, despite the viciousness of the fighting, and despite the obvious distrust that existed between the state and the Palestinian population, millions of refugees were eventually granted full citizenship in Jordan, to the extent that a large majority of its population is now of Palestinian origin.

The Lebanese are today faced with a lesser threat than the one the Jordanians were up against in 1970, and yet they cannot even bring themselves to allow their Palestinian population the right to reside where they wish, or to work. The result is that they have unnecessarily embittered hundreds of thousands of people living within their borders, and have left them all with nothing to do except dream of escape, or of revolution.

Fatah al-Islam and its origins

Very few commentators and policymakers dispute the fact that Lebanon's refugee camps are time-bombs waiting to explode, for four reasons. First, as a result of all of the above, the camps are brimming with idle, frustrated, oppressed and increasingly violent young men. Second, Palestinian refugees, embittered by decades of abuse and suffering, do not feel any sense of loyalty or duty to protect the Lebanese state, and so therefore never feel obligated to cooperate with investigations or to volunteer information relating to what transpires in the camps.

Third, in the same way that the Lebanese state does not allow for the opportunities that it affords its citizens to extend to the twelve Palestinian refugee camps that are located in its territory, so are Lebanese law-enforcement officials prevented from entering the camps, by virtue of the 1969 Cairo agreement. According to the terms of that agreement, Lebanese law does not extend to the camps, which were placed under the authority of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (a body now falling apart, as events in the Gaza strip make clear). The result is that a furtive legal and security void and distinct sense of lawlessness prevail over the camps, which has been exploited by criminals for decades, and more recently by Islamist groups. Fourth, the Lebanese state has for years proven that it is incapable of securing its own territory, or even its borders. Criminals, refugees and equipment flow freely through the border, sometimes clandestinely and sometimes by means of bribery.

Fatah al-Islam, the armed group that is blamed for the fighting that broke out near Tripoli on 19 May 2007, is merely the latest group to exploit this situation. It established itself in 2006 in the Nahr el-Bared camp near Tripoli, which was originally set up in 1950 to house refugees from the Lake Huleh area of northern Palestine. When the fighting first erupted, it was originally thought that the group had no more than 200 adherents, but that number has been revised in light of the resistance that the Lebanese army has been encountering. Some quarters have maintained that most of Fatah al-Islam's members are Palestinian, while others have claimed that the group is international in nature and that many of its members have previously fought in Iraq. Significantly, of the twenty militants that were captured during the first few days of the fighting, nineteen are Lebanese. Many of those killed were also Lebanese.

Fatah al-Islam's stated objective is to liberate Palestinian lands from Israeli occupation, but no one has lent any credence to that claim. Two main theories have been floated to explain its emergence, and so far neither is supported by any hard evidence. According to the first, which is the most widely believed of the two, Fatah al-Islam is a Syrian creation, which Damascus intends to use to wreck havoc in Lebanon in order to prevent or disrupt the investigation of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri from going ahead. Syria has a sordid history of involvement in Lebanon which goes back to the 1970s, and the Lebanese do no need much encouragement to believe that Damascus is once again meddling in their affairs. Naturally, the Syrian government denies any involvement.

The second theory was originally put forward by Seymour Hersh in March 2007, which is to say months before the fighting broke out, and months before most people had ever heard of Fatah al-Islam. Hersh alleged that the Bush administration, in league with its Saudi allies and some elements linked to the Lebanese government, were arming groups of Sunni militants that would eventually be used in a conflict with Hizbollah, which is Shi'a. Hersh quoted Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence official who now works for a think-tank in Beirut, and who accurately noted that Fatah al-Islam was arming itself in Nahr el-Bared.

After fighting broke out in the camp, Hersh gave an interview to CNN in which he was asked how it could be that Fatah al-Islam was fighting against the army if it had received its funding from interests associated with the Lebanese government. Hersh responded that these were "unintended consequences", and likened the phenomenon to al-Qaida's rebellion against the United States once the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union was over. The difference in this case is that the militants in question rebelled well before they achieved any of their alleged funders' intended objectives.

Once again, Hersh's version of events is not the most widely believed or popular of the two in Lebanon, although it has won some adherents. In any event, the Lebanese state does not look good under either scenario. If Fatah al-Islam is indeed a Syrian-backed group, then it means that a small number of militants was able to import large quantities of weapons in an extremely short period of time without any of the Lebanese authorities noticing, which would be particularly shocking considering that the state has supposedly been on high alert for some time. If the group is the result of a covert US-Saudi initiative, then it would mean that the Lebanese state desperately needs a lesson in how to choose its friends.

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School.

Zaid Al-Ali is currently writing a book on the Iraqi constitution with Jőrg Fedtke; it will be published in 2009.

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles on openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation"
(7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections"
(23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"
(16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere"
(14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination"
(21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith"
(26 October 2006)

"The United States in Iraq: the case for withdrawal"
(19 January 2007)

"Iraqis in freefall"
(21 March 2007)

"Iraq: a wall to conquer us" (8 May)
The fighting in Tripoli

From the accounts that have so far been made available, fighting broke out when militants from Fatah al-Islam attacked a bank in Tripoli on 19 May. The army immediately engaged the militants and was taken aback by how fiercely they resisted. In the first two days, six soldiers were slaughtered in their sleep, which many Lebanese were quick to point out is a signature of Iraqi militant groups. Shortly afterwards, the army surrounded the refugee camp, and pleaded with its residents to leave the area. Tens of thousands have already fled Nahr el-Bared, and have sought shelter in al-Baddawi, another refugee camp close by. The experience could not have been more traumatic for a people who know too well the consequences of being displaced.

A series of bombings - three in consecutive days, in three different areas of Beirut - quickly followed, killing one person but causing mostly minor damage. The effect was to flood Lebanese streets with security forces and to cause a great many of the capital's famed cafes to empty within hours. Since then, the bombings have continued, although not as regularly.

After the first few days of fighting, it became obvious that the situation was more complicated and dangerous than many had originally thought. The army was not advancing as fast as many would have liked, and the death toll was rising fast. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hizbollah, and the Lebanese government's main opponent, weighed in on the matter in a televised address delivered on 25 May. Nasrallah offered his support to the army, which he described as the only patriotic institution remaining in the Lebanese state, and called for any individual or group that is found to have attacked the army to face justice. At the same time however, he unequivocally opposed any effort to storm the refugee camp, which he described as a "red line", for both humanitarian and strategic reasons.

Nasrallah said that "30,000-40,000 people live in that camp and are not related to the problem. Is it conceivable that we should attack 40,000 people and destroy the camp merely for the purpose of arresting some gunmen?" In a clear reference to the civil war, in which several refugee camps, most notoriously Sabra and Shatila, were stormed on a number of occasions, Nasrallah concluded that "(attacking) the refugee camp would be a mistake and a very dangerous one, which would bring back many painful, harsh and difficult memories".

Nasrallah's fear is clear, and is shared by many: there is a danger that, should a significant number of innocent Palestinians be killed or wounded, some of the remaining camps in the country could take the fight to the Lebanese state, which could quickly cause events to spiral out of control and engulf the entire country. As if to underline that point, fighting did break out briefly on 3-4 June in Ein el-Hilwa, by reputation the most militant of all refugee camps, when another armed group attacked the Lebanese army, killing two soldiers.

Despite the merit of this concern, and despite the obvious fragility of the Lebanese state, some blocs in the country (mostly government supporters) have been taken by a sudden and surprising case of hubris. As soon as the fighting began, repeated calls were made for the camp to be stormed and raised to the ground, while very little concern was expressed about possible Palestinian casualties. Others have even called for all the refugees still remaining in the camp, perhaps up to 7,000, to be killed, on the assumption that they must be providing Fatah al-Islam with support.

The way forward

Thankfully, the Lebanese army has not acceded to these demands, and has thus far proceeded with a certain amount of caution, although there is good reason to believe that this was out of necessity rather than anything else. A few days after the conflict began, US military planes could be seen flying over Beirut on their way to the airport, apparently in order to replenish the army's stocks of ammunition, which were quickly dissipating. In any event, the army is now involved in a slow war of attrition, which it will inevitably win, although it is uncertain when. Although this solution is clearly preferable to the alternative, the army has had to bear the brunt of the general insufficiencies of the Lebanese state. The soldiers' inadequate equipment and protection has translated into a heavy death toll from amongst their ranks (seventy-three have been killed at the time of writing).

Whatever happens, it is clear that the Lebanese state must act in order to improve life in the camps, and in order to grant Palestinians the right to live normal lives, for both humanitarian purposes and out of self-interest. Some have argued that the solution should be to allow Lebanese law-enforcement officials the right to police the camps, but that would merely serve to replace one problem with another and would ignore the Palestinian's main grievance. Palestinians should be allowed to work, and to reside where they wish. Although a military solution to the Nahr el-Bared crisis is possible, unless it is accompanied with wide-ranging reforms which grant Palestinians the same rights as other non-Lebanese residents in the country, then it is not only inevitable that other crises of this type will emerge in the future, but also that, on each occasion, the Lebanese state will be rendered increasingly vulnerable to collapse.

The way in which the Lebanese treat the Palestinians is unjust, counterproductive and dangerous. The Lebanese have for some time, and with justification, complained of how their country was destroyed, and continues to be interfered with, by foreign powers. Perhaps the powers above will only relieve them of their plight after they start treating the poor and already dispossessed refugee population living in their midst with some respect and dignity.

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