The two faces of Lebanon

Palestinian rights are being sacrificed for the sake of sectarianism, says Lamis Andoni.

    While the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon has similarities with that of migrants elsewhere, there are also unique political dimensions to the debate over Palestinian rights [EPA]

    Thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian activists are marching in Beirut today in support of social and economic rights for the more than 400,000 Palestinians living in the country's 12 refugee camps.

    A debate in the Lebanese parliament over granting civil rights - apart from the right to vote and naturalisation - to Palestinian refugees has threatened to polarise the country along roughly - but not exclusively - religious lines.

    Maronite Christian parties have temporarily come together to oppose the move, citing their fear that the "integration of Palestinian refugees" into Lebanese society would tip the demographic balance in favour of Muslims, as well as straining Lebanese resources and the country's job market.

    Predominantly, but not exclusively, Muslim, liberal, nationalist and pan-Arab parties have joined hands with Hezbollah in pushing to allow Palestinians the right to own property and work in the country that has hosted them since the 1948 establishment of Israel.

    Some opponents of the draft law fear that the process could lead to the naturalisation of Palestinians and their permanent settlement in Lebanon - thus undermining the Palestinian refugees' right of return to their homeland, while proponents argue that social and economic rights are a fulfillment of basic human rights and do not forfeit the Palestinian refugees' right of return.

    While Palestinian refugees in Lebanon carry Lebanese travel documents and have access to education, they are prohibited from working in more than 70 professions.

    Reviving old resentments

    IN depth

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    Sunday's rally is expected to intensify the debate amid concerns that it could revive the polarisation of the civil war years when sectarian, ideological and political rivalries were further aggravated by differences over the Palestinian presence in the country.

    Opposition to the law is partly steeped in a history of resentment by the mainly right-wing Lebanese Christian parties of the visible Palestinian presence and engagement in Lebanon.

    The Kataeb party, and later the Lebanese Forces, have resisted Lebanon's entanglement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, arguing that the country should not be dragged into regional hostilities.

    This isolationist trend reached its peek in the 1970s and 1980s when some of the movement's leaders openly collaborated with Israel against "the common Palestinian threat".

    In 1982, Kataeb Christian militias - with Israeli support - killed hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

    Several Maronite political leaders have since moderated their positions, expressing support for Palestinian rights and the Palestinian struggle and declaring that Lebanon is part of a pan-Arab polity.

    Fragile confessional balance

    Some Christians fear tipping the country's sectarian balance in favour of Muslims [EPA]

    But the reassertion of historical resentments towards the Palestinian presence has been triggered by a revival of Maronite fears that the integration of Palestinians could be used to offset the country's confessional power-sharing system.

    Such concerns are to some extent understandable as most of those parties that support granting Palestinians social and economic rights are equally interested in bolstering their sectarian gains. Most Lebanese parties are based on sectarianism and others would be equally as opposed to legislation that threatened to undermine their status.

    But the current debate should focus on easing rather than cementing the fears of different Lebanese parties.

    Many Lebanese Christians may fear that the integration of the largely Muslim Palestinian community will change the open nature of Lebanese society.

    There is no doubt that the presence of a sizable Christian - Greek Orthodox as well as Maronite - community has attributed to the political openness and rich cultural diversity of Lebanese society - something that even Islamist leaders acknowledge. But protecting this diversity has become confused with maintaining sectarian parties - something all the major groups are guilty of.

    But Palestinian human rights should no longer be sacrificed for the sake of maintaining a sectarian political system.

    A broader issue

    While the current debate emanates in part from Lebanon's specific demographic and sectarian sensitivities, it also reflects the fears of many modern societies towards those deemed strangers or "immigrants".

    Maronite political leaders, for example, argue that the law would increase unemployment rates among Lebanese as Palestinians enter and compete in the job market.

    But it is often conveniently forgotten that Palestinians are not ordinary immigrants who came to Lebanon in search of work. They were dispossessed and cannot simply choose to go home.

    The resentment towards migrant workers, particularly in times of economic hardship, that so often leads to right-wing bigotry is a common phenomenon - and Lebanon and the Arab world is no different to the West in this regard.

    In fact, Lebanon, and the Arab world more broadly, has a poor track record when it comes to the treatment of migrants. Just a few days ago, Sudanese took to the streets of Khartoum to protest against Lebanese police mistreatment of Sudanese migrants.

    Lebanon, like most Arab countries, is not a signatory to the international convention on refugees and immigrants and the country consequently has insufficient laws protecting migrant workers.

    From the Gulf to Morocco, there is really little to be proud of in the Arab world's treatment of refugees and migrants, although there are some signs of improvement.

    So, while the status of Palestinian refugees presents a unique political dimension that poses a challenge to all host countries, the debate in Lebanon must also be seen as part of the broader issue of the inadequate respect shown for the rights of refugees and migrants across the region.


    The issue of armed factions within the camps must also be addressed [EPA]

    Added to this is the very real concern about the presence of armed factions in the Palestinian refugee camps and how this could potentially impact Lebanese politics - particularly considering the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) armed alliance with leftist and nationalist Lebanese parties during the country's civil war.

    But these are concerns shared by all Lebanese parties and the solution must be found through dialogue that also seeks to guarantee the safety and security of the camps.

    Maintaining the status quo of practically besieged Palestinian refugees is no longer sustainable or acceptable.

    And it is no longer feasible to portray a modern, open and liberal face of Lebanon while maintaining an effectively racist and discriminatory set of laws that isolate the country's Palestinian residents and deprive them of basic human rights.

    Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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