Lebanon’s refugees are a tinder box

6 01 2010

by Patrick Vibert

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in December 1949  to aid the people who had been displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. UNRWA was supposed to be a temporary fix to deal with the newly minted “Palestinian Refugees”, a term which the world was to become quite familiar with in the following sixty years.

Camps were set up in Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to deal with the humanitarian crisis. Decades later, the same people who thought they were going to be able to return home once the situation had settled down are still in the camps, still waiting to go home.

It is obvious that the so-called “peace process” has failed. Some of this blame can be laid at the feet of the  inept Palestinian leadership, while the rest can be blamed on the keen Israeli strategy of simultaneous foot-dragging and territorial expansion. As long as things stay the way they are today, it’s safe to say that the Palestinian cause is a lost one.

However, at least the Palestinians of Gaza and West Bank have hope, for they are still in the discussion.  And those in Syria and Jordan have access to jobs, education, and a way to improve their lives. But what nobody seems to talk about when they discuss a possible way for the Israelis and the Palestinians to live together, side-by-side, are the refugees of Lebanon. Where would they fit into a possible agreement? What would it mean  for them?

If a “solution” were reached today between the Israelis and the fractured Palestinian leadership, it would likely just be an agreement to basically keep the current borders, not a return to pre-1967. This would barely be enough for the people of Gaza and West Bank, as those territories have so little access to water. After this hypothetical agreement is reached, what then becomes of the other refugees, from Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon? People don’t often talk about this.

Current estimates place the population of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon between 250,000 and 400,000. For them, their lives are lived in a hopeless limbo, aching to return to a place that no longer exists, while trapped in a land that doesn’t accept them.

The refugees of Lebanon cannot vote, own land, or become citizens. They are among the poorest people in the country and they live under the worst conditions, in the camps.

They are stranded by the toxic combination of a dire lack of resources and the bitter political reality of the situation. Israel is not going to welcome them back to their homelands, and Lebanon will not let them integrate into society.

It is doubtful that Lebanon could handle their full naturalization. In a country of 4 million people, and increase of 250,000 citizens could be incredibly destabilizing. Most of the refugees are Sunni, and naturalization would greatly upset the fragile sectarian balance in Lebanon, which hasn’t had a proper census since 1932 because the issue is so sensitive.

Hizballah has picked up the torch that was dropped by the PLO as leader of the “Palestinian cause”, but this responsibility is self serving for the group. One, it gives them a reason to continue hostilities against Israel, and two, it allows them to avoid politically going against the refugees’ naturalization. We will return you to your homes once we have vanquished the Zionist entity!

Of course, Hizballah also does not want to see a quarter of a million additional Sunni citizens in Lebanon, where the Party has slowly begun to talk up the dropping of institionalized sectarianism when they know the Shia have the majority.

Once again the Palestinians are pawns, and sixty years on,Lebanon’s refugees exist in a waiting room that they may  never leave, waiting for a doctor that may never come. And Lebanon has implicitly accepted this. The question then becomes can this situation as it currently stands exist in perpetuity?

Thinking about it another way, is it smart to have thousands of unemployed and angry young men living without hope in squalid ghettos? Something has to give at some point.

In 2007, the Nahr el-Bared camp in northern Lebanon was the scene of intense violence between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Fatah al-Islam, which claimed over 400 lives. Of that total, 168 were of the LAF, which for a country the size of Lebanon is staggering. In the end, the LAF leveled the Nahr el-Bared camp, further displacing another 30,000 refugees who had fled to other camps.

Was this an anomaly, just a one-time blowing off of steam by a people who feel hopeless and angry? Or was it a symptom of a growing problem, which next time might happen multiple camps at the same time? These camps are already stretched to the brink in terms of how many people they can support. How long will it be before trouble erupts stemming from the 30,000 displace from Narh el-Bared?

It is obvious that something has to change, because for Lebanon the camps are a tinder box. If one accepts the reality that Israel is not going to welcome the refugees back, it becomes clear that changes need to be made in Lebanon, and the Lebanon needs the help of the international community in doing so.

In 2009, Lebanon showed what the country was capable of when it operated under stable conditions. A government was elected, business was booming,  new construction was everywhere, and tourism soared.  Today the country is beginning to flourish, but if the Lebanese want to continue to ride this wave of good fortune, they must acknowledge  one of the biggest threats to their stability.

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