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Palestinians of Lebanon: Generations of refugees denied integration and basic rights

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In her latest article, our local correspondent in Beirut, Sawssan Abou-Zahr looks at what life is like for Palestinians living in Lebanon.

Sawssan Abou-Zahr

A young Palestinian woman enrolled in a cooking project to financially empower female refugees in Lebanon. After I bought some of the food she was selling, I heard her whisper: "The day is almost over and I have made a little money… The Syrians have NGOs financing them and I cannot compete with the prices they are offering".

I wasn't sure she was addressing me or talking to herself, but what she said rang a bell. A former international official in Beirut told me off the record a few years ago that Palestinians and Syrians were increasingly competing over the scarce resources of the informal Lebanese labor market, and agencies working with refugees were underestimating the issue. The young woman I spoke to is called Safiya after the female protagonist of a famous novel by the iconic Palestinian author and politician Ghassan Kanafani assassinated by Israeli agents in Beirut in 1972 . She seemed friendly despite her fatigue, so I decided to chat with her. I asked her if she felt like she was competing with fellow refugees. Are some refugees more fortunate than others?

She sighed and said: "With the Syrian exodus, the world forgot we exist. We are second class refugees, refugees no one wants to acknowledge… The Syrians still have their land at the end of the day. On the other hand, American and European policy makers only care about Israel's interests. What about our historic rights? Can we ever get back to Palestine? Do you think we are happy here, dealing with daily insecurities and mistrust, being punished for what Palestinian militias committed during your civil war? They don't represent us. I share the aspirations of young Lebanese. I seek democracy like you. I was on the streets on the first days of your revolution".

It rang another bell. I recalled meeting Palestinian and Syrian activists at the revolutionary squares. I have edited interesting articles by young Palestinian feminists expressing how the October 17th 2019 Revolution provided them with an open space to proudly express their identity in a wider context and explore a rare opportunity of taking part, as refugees, in a major Lebanese event. They had varied experiences, but almost all of them agreed that the euphoric moment was short-lived. Safiya shared their disappointment. She told me: "I thought that by joining the Lebanese struggle for democracy and fighting corruption I would do the same one day in Palestine. I wasn't intruding on your internal affairs. I had the right to protest. I live under much worse circumstances than yours. Some Lebanese were friendly but others resented our presence. They think we seek the Lebanese nationality. Well we don't. I am a third generation refugee and I only want to be in Palestine, the land of my dreams".

Many Palestinians and Lebanese never overcame their reciprocal negative attitudes. The former feel unwelcomed and mistreated, the latter consider Palestinians as a social and security threat. Even some Lebanese people working for reconciliation and the memory of peace are willing to accept former repentant Lebanese fighters, but not Palestinian ones who have denounced violence just like them. A University Professor confessed this to me after observing it in several workshops.

In the post-Lebanese civil war era, a major three-month armed conflict erupted in 2007 at the grounds of a Palestinian camp in Northern Lebanon. The Nahr El Bared camp was destroyed in a fierce battle between the Lebanese army and a fundamentalist group. Refugees were caught in the middle. Reconstruction remains very slow, adding an additional layer to the collective frustration felt by Palestinians.

Refugees versus Internally Displaced People

Ironically, Palestinians are considered by Lebanese authorities as "refugees", whereas Syrians are unjustly labeled as "internally displaced" to deny them any rights by the international humanitarian law. This is absolutely absurd and has no legal grounds. Some argue that the Palestinians, smaller in numbers, possess a "special" status, falling under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). They have their own international agency in opposition to Syrians registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) whose work in Lebanon also covers the Iraqi and Sudanese communities. Many Palestinians living in Syria had their second exodus and came to Lebanon where they mostly settled in several of the 12 Palestinian camps here. That was an additional challenge for the UNRWA suffering from shortage in funding.

The head of a Palestinian civil society organization working in one of the four Palestinian camps in Beirut told me anonymously, "We struggled in 2013 to accommodate Palestinians fleeing Syria. Poor refugees hosted equally poor and traumatized refugees in a volatile situation. We strived to avoid conflicts with the new comers".

Also in his words, "UNRWA is a historic proof of the injustices we have been enduring, generation after another, in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan". When I pointed out the tens of resolutions issued by the Security Council and General Assembly, he repeated his statement adding that UNRWA provided medical and educational services for Palestinians under occupation and abroad and remains a constant reminder to the international community that "the struggle is not about borders but mere existence, and most importantly about the right of refugees and their descendents to return to motherland".

Those descendants are so attached to their roots. They still have keys to the houses their ancestors were compelled to abandon. The recent Israeli aggressions and forced evictions at Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan in Jerusalem are the modern day incarnation of what their ancestors endured. Their sympathy was very effective on social media platforms in making the Western narrative of the conflict less one sided. Many still have relatives in Palestine. A fifteen year old girl told me: "My aunt's family survived horrible nights of bombing on Gaza. I am not helpless, although I am trapped in Lebanon. I have my smart phone and my fluency in English and I am using them".

Meanwhile, some populist Lebanese politicians are increasingly arguing that a refugee status is not inherited, implying that Palestinians born in Lebanon should not be considered as refugees but children and grandchildren of refugees. If so, how will they be officially perceived, "internally displaced" like the Syrians or would some racist term be invented for them?

Palestinian lives in Lebanon

Palestinian camps in Lebanon are ghetto-like settlements, sometimes surrounded by segregation walls, barbed wire and military surveillance. They are overcrowded and unorganized concrete blocks with decadent infrastructure. The narrow alleys named after towns in Palestine are covered with a labyrinth of makeshift electric wires that hide sunlight and are very close to water supplies and sewage pipes. What a deadly combination!

Social distancing is a luxury in these densely populated spots. The Mortality rate of Palestinian refugees from COVID-19 was three times that registered among Lebanese. In addition, violent clashes between different armed groups and drug dealers are not uncommon, as the vast majority of Palestinians live in poverty and high unemployment in Lebanon. No wonder there is growing despair, especially among the youth; they leave the camps illegally and migrate in death boats. Sometimes this escape happens via legal routes.

Prohibited from working in tens of professions, including medicine, law and engineering, they only have access to the informal economy where they face exploitation and minimal pay.

Amid the lacking numbers of Lebanese nurses, the Order of Nurses in Lebanon is open to qualified Palestinian nurses. With the growing migration of Lebanese healthcare workers, this sector should hire doctors and nurses from among Palestinian and Syrian refugees. It is a waste of skills to exclude Palestinians from the field, especially those with years of experience working at the UNRWA medical facilities as well as the Palestinian Civil Defense who were among the first responders to the Beirut blast of August 4th 2020. Although the Lebanese authorities did not welcome their help at first claiming they lacked proper registration, these brave volunteers refused to give up and executed a complicated rescue mission.

In addition, it is believed that two Palestinians passed away in the devastating explosions and 40 more were injured. Like the Syrian victims, being "foreigners", a Member of Parliament from the Lebanese president's party suggested they were not entitled for compensation! Moreover, Palestinians are legally prohibited from possessing or inheriting property even if they have Lebanese mothers and/or wives! They literally have nothing in Lebanon.

It is time to end this history of discrimination and systematic segregation. Qualified Palestinians should be allowed to practice their professions, especially in fields where they are most needed.

I dare to say it is time to grant Palestinians some kind of representation at municipalities at the very least. Very few Lebanese would share my view. Some might accuse me of treason; a larger number would refuse considering this suggestion, either out of racism or fear that improving the living conditions of refugees is the equivalent of permanently settling them in the country

A country that respects the rights of refugees would be one that respects the rights of its own citizens. As native Lebanese, we are also struggling for our rights too, whether economic, or rights to accountability and justice. Granting basic rights for refugees will diffuse tension between them and the host community, a vital component of peacebuilding.

I believe that a Lebanon that acknowledges refugees' rights would be an even better country for its own citizens. A Lebanon that is "the land of my dreams", to use Safiya's words.