The massacres of Palestinian women and children in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps nineteen years ago, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, brought the camps into public consciousness. Almost two decades later, over 200,000 Palestinian refugees still live in camps run by the UN, and are discriminated against by the Lebanese state. KHALIL OSMAN discusses their plight.
As if the effects of decades of displacement, dislocation and hostility were not enough, dispossession has lately become another feature of the precarious lives of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. A new law introduced recently by the Lebanese parliament denies Palestinian refugees the right to own property in Lebanon. It also prevents Palestinians who already own property from passing it on to their children, heirs or next of kin upon their death.
The law, supported mainly by Christian but also some Muslim legislators, and opposed by Hizbullah and prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s bloc, effectively dispossesses an estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. Its passing leaves those who already own property in the country between the devil and the deep sea. Their best alternatives are to transfer ownership to Lebanese citizens or Palestinians who possess foreign citizenships, or to sell it to them at low prices. Those who own property but have yet to register it now find themselves in limbo.
The advocates of the legislation claim that the law is intended to protect the inalienable right of Palestinian refugees to return eventually to their homes from which the Zionists evicted them in 1948. Granting Palestinians rights to ownership, so the argument goes, is the first step toward their resettlement in Lebanon. It is patently na ve to take this “rooting-kindness-in-cruelty” argument at face value. To argue that owning a flat in Lebanon will lead a Palestinian to forget about his homeland or prevent him from going back to his country is puerile and ludicrous.
Of all the so-called “cordon states” (duwal al-tawq), i.e. Arab countries surrounding Israel, Lebanon has the worst record for dealings with Palestinian refugees on its soil. Jordan gives Palestinian refugees full citizenship, and Egypt and Syria give them civil rights on an equal footing with their own citizens. Despite having these rights and benefits, Palestinians living in these countries have not given up their right to return to their homeland. Many Palestinians see the law as a disguised policy of “eviction,” further tightening the screws so that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will leave in search of another country of exile. In fact, the grim conditions in the camps are prompting a growing number of refugees to leave. Estimates put the average number of Palestinian men emigrating to the West at 6,000 a year. This gender-based process of emigration/depopulation has resulted in a women-to-men ratio estimated at 2 to 1 in some refugee-camps.
In many ways, the law smacks of racism. This is the view of Lebanese MP Walid Eido, a strong opponent of the legislation, who was quoted in a press interview as saying: “This is a racist decision. Imagine if the thousands of Lebanese who fled the civil war were forbidden to buy apartments in the countries they went to? What would we have said to that?” One clause in the law forbids “anyone who does not have citizenship in a recognized state” from owning property. This is an exercise in legal verbal gymnastics that effectively creates a two-tier system of ownership: one for Palestinians and another for virtually everybody else. Parliamentarians opposed to the legislation petitioned the country’s Constitutional Council (al-Majlis al-Dusturi) to review the exclusionary clause on the grounds that it is a breach of sections in the Lebanese constitution that ban all forms of discrimination.Their petition failed; the Council has affirmed the clause.
The conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are revolting. Their plight combines elements of both confinement and marginalization. About 55 percent of registered refugees still live in the 12 remaining camps out of 15 camps established in 1949 by the Lebanese government and the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA). The construction of the camps, which were originally built as temporary sites to house the refugees until a solution to their problem could be found, did not take into consideration the refugees’ future needs. The camps are characterized by small areas, very high population density and lack of proper infrastructures. UNRWA provides basic services, such as primary education, health, water supply, refuse disposal, sanitation and the construction and maintenance of roads. But the services are poor and deteriorating further, partly because of chronic negligence and diminishing resources, and partly because of lack of proper municipal infrastructure.
The Lebanese government has at best been indifferent to the deteriorating conditions in the camps and their potential and actual health and humanitarian hazzards. In five decades the government has never permitted an increase in the original areas allocated to the refugee-camps in 1949. In fact the areas of some camps have been reduced, and three camps were demolished during the civil war. Moreover, the post-war reconstruction plans for the country drafted by prime minister Hariri envisage highways that cut through a number of camps, such as the Bourj al-Barajneh camp on the outskirts of Beirut International Airport. Unable to expand outward, the Palestinians have found themselves forced to expand upward, adding storeys to their already dilapidated substandard shacks to accommodate new families. Those who could afford the bought apartments outside the camps.
The refugees lead lives of abject poverty in ramshackle concrete shacks surrounded by foetid garbage, stagnant water and open sewers. It is not unusual to see children playing in narrow alleys that stink because of open sewers and stagnant water. Because there is no adequate storm-water drainage system, large parts of the camps are flooded during the rainy season, with the resultant still water forming an ideal breeding-ground for insects, flies and vermin. This causes a high incidence of waterborne diseases. In the past decade outbreaks of typhoid, diarrhoea and other waterborne diseases have been reported in the camps.
The refugees have no access to the Lebanese healthcare system and other social services. A network of some 25 UNRWA clinics provides primary healthcare services. UNRWA has also contracted a number of Lebanese hospitals to provide secondary care. However, this assistance is not sufficient. Patients are required to pay a substantial portion of the cost of life-saving treatment such as chemotherapy. About 11 percent of the camps’ population is registered in the UNRWA “hardship cases” programme. Families registered in this programme usually lack most basic needs and obtain cash, food and housing assistance from UNRWA. Around 50,000 refugees are not registered with UNRWA and so do not receive any assistance whatsoever.
For more than five decades the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been living as outcasts. Unemployment and underemployment are both endemic. More than 50 percent of the refugees are unemployed. The refugees are treated as foreigners, who under Lebanese labour laws are barred from some 74 categories of work, including all the professions. Doctors, lawyers and engineers are prohibited from working in their fields. Those who manage it usually do so by means of lopsided arrangements with Lebanese partners, and are almost always underpaid. Others end up joining the ever-expanding pool of illegal, unskilled labour, working in casual low-paying jobs in construction and agriculture. Despite numerous appeals by relief officials, refugee advocates and representatives, the Lebanese government has refused to change the antiquated law to allow the Palestinian refugees to work legally until their status is resolved.
There is anxiety in many quarters in Lebanon, where the political system is based on a fragile power-sharing arrangement, that the settlement of the Palestinian refugees would upset the country’s demographic balance and hence its political system. The vast majority of the refugees today are Sunni Muslims. Most Christian Palestinians in Lebanon were naturalized in the 1950s during the presidency of Camille Sham’un, in an effort to boost the Christian minority in the country. Many Lebanese, especially Christians, point to the fact that the Palestinian armed factions took part in the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) to scapegoat the Palestinian refugees, pinning the blame for the war squarely on them. They hold the refugees responsible for the gangster-like conduct of undisciplined fighters in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which managed in effect to create a state within a state between the start of the civil war (1975) and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (1982).
The plight of the refugees has also been exacerbated by a host of other developments. The expulsion of thousands of Palestinian workers from Gulf Arab countries during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis deprived many families of remittances that got them a modicum of financial stability. The economic crisis that descended on Lebanon shortly after the initial euphoria of post-war reconstruction has hit the Palestinians the hardest. Further contributing to their hardships is the marked decline in both PLO and international assistance since the signing of the Oslo accord (1993).
After the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority as an edifice of sleaze and monopoly, the cash-strapped PLO started pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Palestinian areas under its control; PLO funding for relief and development programmes that would benefit Diaspora Palestinians fell sharply. Before Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the PLO was a major employer and provider of social services to the Palestinian refugees. It not only employed several thousand fully-paid fighters and militiamen but also thousands of other cadres in its political, social and economic infrastructure. Moreover, the signing of Oslo caused international donors and relief organizations, such as UNRWA, to shift their focus to the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip. While affecting Palestinian refugees in other countries as well, these trends have been especially devastating for Palestinians in the Lebanon.
In such an atmosphere of deprivation and marginalization further restrictions can only make the future of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon look bleaker than ever, while doing virtually nothing to end their exile. Meanwhile, conditions in the refugee camps continue to be, in the words of Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, “a smear on Lebanon’s forehead.”