Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees

Why failing to address the refugee issue risks yet further instability in Lebanon.

Palestinian refugee in Lebanon
Palestinian refugees do not have access to state education and healthcare in Lebanon [ITN]

In 1948 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from or forced to flee their homeland in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel.

While some were forced out by armed Israeli militias – perhaps the most notorious being the Irgun and Stern gangs – others fled in the belief Arab armies would defeat those Jewish forces fighting for independence and that they would then be able to return home.

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There are thousands of Palestinian refugees across the globe, many of whom settled in neighbouring Arab countries including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Not to mention those Palestinians classed as refugees within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

However, of all the Palestinian refugees in the Arab world, it is those who have taken shelter in Lebanon who have suffered the most.

According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) the international body set up to ensure the welfare of Palestinian refugees, the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees who are living in abject poverty reside in Lebanon.

There are about 400,000 officially registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, or approximately 10 per cent of the population. Just under half of the refugees continue to live in camps.

The issue of “naturalisation” of Palestinian refugees has often been used as a political card in Lebanon, a small country built on a delicate confessional balance. 

Due to the sensitivity of the issue, there has been no official census in Lebanon since 1932 that could determine the number of Christians and Muslims of various sects.

Mostly Sunni Muslims, the Palestinian refugees are seen as a potential boon to Lebanese Muslim political aspirations, especially Sunni ones. 

Civil war

And indeed, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was based in Lebanon between 1972 and 1982, it threw its lot behind the Muslim-dominated leftist forces that were engaged in civil war against the Christian-led right. 

However, the PLO, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, resolutely rejected the idea of Lebanon becoming a state for the dispossessed Palestinians.

Palestinian refugee camps have been repeatedly attacked by various forces [ITN]

While those Palestinians resident in Syria and Jordan, for example, do not enjoy the benefits of full citizenship, they do have access to education, healthcare and employment.

Conversely, Lebanon stands accused of not being the gracious host to the Palestinians that Arab tradition dictates.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Palestinian refugee camps were under stringent Lebanese security control. For instance, travel from one camp to another was restricted and even reading newspapers in public was banned.

Today, Palestinians in Lebanon continue to suffer from draconian measures which the Lebanese state claims are there to prevent them from becoming permanent guests. 

As recently as 2005, Palestinian refugees were banned from taking up employment in 70 professions. Today, the number of restricted professions stands at 20 and includes senior medical, legal and engineering careers.


While these restrictions were recently eased, applicants must have a valid work permit and membership of the appropriate professional representative body. Both are beyond the financial means of most Palestinian refugees.

A major bone of contention for Lebanese nationals has been the fact that armed Palestinian groups continue to thrive in the refugee camps.

Many Lebanese believe the presence of armed Palestinians on Lebanese soil is a potential flashpoint and point to the clashes at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Northern Lebanon as a case in point. 

“According to journalist Robert Fisk, the Camps War was worse than the Sabra and Shatila massacre”

Between May and September of 2007, Nahr al-Bared was the scene of a brutal conflict between the radical Fatah al-Islam group and the Lebanese army.
However, Nahr al-Bared was an exception to the rule, with the major refugee camps such as Ain al-Helweh falling under a shared sphere of influence among Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian groups with strong grassroots support.

Indeed, the Palestinians themselves point out that their own security fears and a history of violence – including wholesale massacres – perpetrated in the camps is a major reason why Palestinians continue to bear arms.

In 1976, Lebanese Christian militiamen overran the Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut and massacred or expelled all of its residents.

Six years later, Israeli forces facilitated the entry of Lebanese Christian militiamen into the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in West Beirut. That massacre claimed the lives of about 800 residents of the camps.

Camps War

Between 1985 and 1989, Lebanon was the scene of what became known as the Camps War, when Pro-Syrian militiamen from Amal, a Lebanese Shia movement, and anti-Arafat factions laid siege to Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and the South. 

Palestinian refugees suffered grim atrocities, and according to journalist Robert Fisk, the Camps War was worse than the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
Today, on the eve of parliamentary elections, Palestinians in Lebanon are conveniently forgotten. 

The battle lines have been drawn and they are along strictly Lebanese lines, with each political faction hurling accusations at each other and bringing into play the regional and international influences of Washington, Tel Aviv, Tehran and Damascus.

About 800 refugee camp residents were killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacre [Reuters]

But many analysts point out that Lebanon ignores the plight of the Palestinians on its territory at its own peril.

Walk into Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Helweh, at midday and you are struck by the number of school age children in the streets, many going to and from their UNRWA schools as they cannot attend state schools. 

Palestinians in Lebanon are also banned from seeking state healthcare, owning property and even bringing in building materials into the refugee camps.

However, the future of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will be among the first items on the agenda of Lebanon’s new parliament. 

The Sabra Shatila Foundation, after consultation with human rights organisations including International Lawyers Sans Frontieres and members of Lebanon’s legislature, will table a draft law in parliament which promises, in the words of the foundation, to: “erase, in one vote, decades of illegal and immoral treatment of more than 10 per cent of Lebanon’s population”.

The draft text reads: “Be it enacted by the Chamber of Deputies … that all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon shall immediately acquire, receive and enjoy the full faith and credit of all civil rights possessed by Lebanese citizens except citizenship or naturalisation.”

The alternative can only mean that Lebanon’s refugee camps will be a hotbed for further frustration and disappointment for their residents, and could well prove to be a fertile breeding ground for future extremism.

Source: Al Jazeera