The profound significance of this week’s decision by the Lebanese government to allow Palestinian refugees to work legally in a number of previously off-limits professions lies in their fate until now. Of all the Palestinians who fled or were chased from their homes in what is now Israel upon the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, those who ended up in Lebanon had more reason than most to rue their fate. For more than six decades, the Lebanese government, fearful that integrating Palestinian refugees and their descendants — most of whom are Sunni Muslim — would upset the country’s delicate sectarian balance, has withheld many basic human rights, including citizenship. Unable to legally own property in Lebanon and barred by Israel from returning to their original homes, about half of the 400,000 Palestinians there still live in U.N.-administered refugee camps wracked by poverty, dependence and frustration.
The small steps announced in Beirut on Tuesday mark the first time there has been any progress in one of the Middle East’s most intractable problems. But it’s not likely to be the beginning of normalization of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, as some Israeli politicians have called for. That’s in part because some of the reasons prompting the change aren’t exactly grounds for optimism.
The tentative steps taken by the Lebanese parliament are certainly a recognition that Palestinians have stopped their destructive meddling in Lebanese politics. In the 1970s, when the Palestine Liberation Organization regrouped in Lebanon after a failed coup attempt against King Hussein of Jordan, they essentially took over the Lebanese state, helping to spark the country’s 15-year civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982. But since the end of the civil war in 1990, Palestinians have not only stayed out of Lebanese politics, they’ve largely refrained from using Lebanese territory to stage armed attacks against Israel. And they’ve even kept the Palestinian civil war between Hamas and Fatah out of the Lebanese camps. In a notable contrast with the situation in the 1970s, in 2008, when Lebanon seemed poised at a new civil war as Shi’ite and Sunni militias clashed on the streets of Beirut, the Palestinian camps stayed quiet.
But the Lebanese government’s moves also mark a recognition that there may be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the foreseeable future. Lebanon’s politicians have long held off dealing with the status of the Palestinians there, hoping that eventually it would become part of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. In some ways, this has been a cynical strategy. The Lebanese have been wary of giving up a major negotiating point before they have even reached the bargaining table, and they are likely to want something big — like relief from the country’s massive public debt — from Israel or the U.S. in return for any major concession toward integrating the Palestinians into the country’s economic life. At one point during the 1990s, when postwar Lebanon was rebuilding and the peace process was steaming ahead, a solution had seemed within reach. But in the 10 years since the Oslo process collapsed in 2000, hopes for a solution have reached their lowest ebb. Rather than peace, the region seems poised on the brink of a major new war.
Still, inside Lebanon, it has become clear that the status quo is unsustainable. The very term camps is a misnomer for the squalid, densely packed urban ghettos that have become pockets of lawlessness in an already volatile region. In 2007, an al-Qaeda-inspired militant group operating in the Palestinian camp at Nahr al-Bared staged a violent uprising that lasted several months, causing hundreds of deaths, and ended only after the Lebanese army bombarded the facility, once home to some 40,000 people, into rubble. While most of those militants were not Palestinians, groups more radical than mainstream parties such as Hamas and Fatah have become increasingly popular in the camps. The danger of radicalization is exacerbated by the U.N. agency charged with supporting Palestinian refugees facing a financial crisis and donor fatigue.
So, besides allowing Palestinians to work, the Lebanese government will probably also begin to take over some of the social-welfare responsibility for Palestinians from the U.N. A social-security agency for Palestinians — separate from the one that services Lebanese — is rumored to be in the works. But integrating the Palestinian population, which now comprises some 10% of the entire population of Lebanon, is a challenge Lebanon can’t face alone.
Never mind the fact that Lebanon’s Christian politicians remain adamant that Palestinians should never be permanently settled in Lebanon, after 60 years of trauma, dependency and isolation, Palestinians in Lebanon suffer from all kinds of social and psychological problems that would be a challenge for even the most advanced welfare states of the industrialized world, let alone a debt-ridden, war-torn sectarian state.
When the Lebanese parliament announced the new measure Tuesday, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a member of the far-right Israel Is Our Home party, crowed that this was the beginning of the normalization of Palestinians in Lebanon. In recent weeks, Ayalon has also pointed out the hypocrisy of Lebanese activists organizing an aid flotilla to Palestinians under Israeli blockade in Gaza when there are plenty of Palestinians in Lebanon in need of care. But while Lebanon is indeed in no position to lecture on the treatment of Palestinians, neither is Israel. Sixty years of ignoring the Palestinian refugee problem hasn’t made it go away; it’s just made it worse for Lebanon, and could yet do so for Israel as well.
— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut