11 Mar 2009

Permanent Settlement of the Palestinians in Lebanon: What's so scary about it?

The resettlement of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is an old preoccupation that keeps surfacing up. In the past few years, the Christian parties in the "8th of March" coalition have insisted on keeping this particular subject in circulation, warning that there is an international conspiracy to 'resettle' the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. In the past month alone, there are more than 20 references to 'resettlement' on the Free Patriotic Movement website, These come from statements by the leader of the FPM Michel Aoun, MPs and leaders in the movement, as well as other political leaders allied with the FPM, including the speaker of the parliament Nabih Berri. Why is this particularly old theme being kept in public discussion?
A bit of clarification. resettlement in English does not exactly convey what is intended by the Arabic term 'tawteen'. The Arabic term refers more to the permanent settlement of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and granting them the Lebanese nationality. The UNRWA figures show that there are 416,000 refugees registered with the agency in Lebanon, of which 220,000 live in refugee camps. The majority of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon came after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Six decades later, more than half of them still live in refugee camps with severe restrictions imposed by the Lebanese authorities on their rights to education, employment, property ownership and political rights.
The old argument often rehashed in defence of this arrangement is that a permanent settlement of those refugees in Lebanon would mean an effective recognition of Israel and giving up their historic right to the land of Palestine. Presumably, the more uncomfortable they are made, the more zealous they would be in trying to reclaim their land. For the Christians in particular, the threat of being 'overwhelmed' by Muslims demographically was an important factor, as the majority of Palestinian refugees are Muslims. And in a country like Lebanon which is based on strict quotas for religious groups, this causes concern.
Yet, it is hard to understand why the subject of resettlement is being constantly pushed into the limelight, when there is no indication that there are any such projects being proposed, not by the Palestinian Authority, nor by the international community, and certainly not by any of the members of the 14th of March 'pro-Western' coalition. The illusion that Aoun and his allies try to give is that the 14th of March leaders are in secret contact with Israel to allow the permanent resettlement of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, stirring up old apprehensions to shore up Aoun's support among the Christians. The elections will perhaps tell if this is a successful tactic, but this important issue needs a more mature discussion that the 'politic of fear' tabloid-style discussion we're getting now.
The more enlightened voices in Lebanon, a minority by any measure, have argued for better living conditions and more rights for the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, and this is certainly a good starting point. The situation did improve slightly since 2005, but there are still huge restrictions on Palestinian refugees. Even if all the current restrictions were to be lifted, the Palestinian refugees would still not have any political rights, and consequently no say in the running of a country that the majority of them has been born in and lived all their lives there. Insisting that granting them the Lebanese nationality would in effect mean giving up 'the right of return' to Palestine is meaningless.
There are precedents in Lebanon for large groups of refugees being granted Lebanese nationality, the largest of which was the Armenian refugees that fled Turkish persecution in the aftermath of World War I, and the smaller Christian groups that came to Lebanon around the same time such the Assyrians and the Syriacs. The Armenians form about 5% of the Lebanese population and have integrated well in Lebanese society, albeit by following the 'Lebanese model' of confessional politics. The overtly racist claim in Lebanon is that this is because they are insular, in fact it is a sign of how well they have integrated in Lebanon.
The fear of the prospect of the Palestinians being naturalised in Lebanon that all parties stoke is irrational. Nor will it mean giving up the right of return. After the Oslo Accord, many Palestinians who had immigrated to the West came back to the West Bank and Gaza and invested in local industries and businesses. To claim that all that keeps that hope alive is the misery in the diaspora is a miserable view of the Palestinians and their cause. But regardless of that, the naturalisation of the Palestinians in Lebanon is an essential part of the modernisation of the country and a way to build politics that break away from sectarian determinism.
The aftermath of the 'cedar revolution' has taught us that the sectarian system always reinvents itself to meet the demands of the moment. It is capable of restructuring itself and its alliances, but maintains its effective grasp on politics all the time. The most effective tool it has is fear and the claim of protecting 'cultural identity'. This pre-modern idea of politics needs to be challenged, not by removing reference to our sect from our identity cards, but by building a new sense of politics that rejects irrational fears and deterministic ideas about culture.
Thus, if we are to behave as a civilised nation, it is imperative that the subject of the permanent resettlement of Palestinians be removed from this poisonous context, by naturalising the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon and granting them full civil rights. Those who claim that Lebanon is a fragile country that cannot handle such shocks are only expressing how little faith and belief they have in their country and how little they trust its citizens. If you believed that Lebanon is so fragile, why do you want to live in it?

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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