Beirut, Lebanon – At first glance, she could be easily mistaken for any other conventional politician running for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon.
In the poster that launched her campaign, Manal Kortam followed the playbook of political imagery to a T; dressed in a sharp dark blazer and flashing a wide, confident smile, Kortam stands, arms crossed, with a Lebanese flag in the background. The text reads: “Manal Kortam. Palestinian seat. Third district.”
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The problem is, however, there is no Palestinian seat in Lebanon’s parliament, a point Kortam hopes her mock campaign will highlight.
A country of roughly six million people, Lebanon has hosted a sizeable population of Palestinians for decades, who now number an estimated 175,000, according to a recent government poll. Legally categorisedas refugees, Palestinians, even those who were born in Lebanon, are neither eligible to vote nor to hold public office.
Wading into the frenzy of Lebanese political campaigning, Kortam, a Palestinian-Lebanese activist, decided to launch a mock campaign for a non-existent Palestinian seat in the parliamentary elections in May.
Grounded in social media and employing the slogan “Mawjoudin” or “We Exist,” Kortam hopes her campaign will highlight the plight of three generations of Palestinian families residing in Lebanon, most of whom live under difficult conditions.
A 2016 study by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the American University of Beirut (AUB) found that almost two-thirds of the Palestinian population lives in poverty. More than 63 percent of Palestinians live in camps with “decaying infrastructure, a dearth of recreational spaces, insufficient access to roads, deteriorated water and sewage treatment systems, contaminated water, and jerry-rigged electrical wires,” according to the study.
“It is time for the Palestinian society [in Lebanon] to have some visibility, to say: ‘We exist, we have a voice, we are like you, we are with you’,” Kortam told Al Jazeera.
‘Palestinians want their rights’
The story of Palestinians in Lebanon is a troubled one: Most Palestinians arrived as refugees in the wake of the 1948 war, which led to the creation of the state of Israel, a date commemorated annually as the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) as Palestinians around the world hold on to the hope of returning to their homes one day.
As the 70th anniversary of the Nakba approaches this May, Palestinians in Lebanon are finding that the welcome they were given is wearing thin. What was meant to be temporary assistance – in the minds of many Lebanese – has gradually led to systemic neglect and societal prejudice against them.
Palestinians – who are registered as refugees – are barred from owning or inheriting real property and excluded from over 30 white-collar professions as well as public education and healthcare. They are also prevented from organising, due to the belief among some Lebanese factions that Palestinian political movements were a catalyst in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
Only in 2005 was an official mechanism established to address conditions for Palestinians, via the government-run Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC).
Palestinians’ dilemma in Lebanon is compounded by legislation some see as sexist, which bars Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese citizens from passing their nationality to their children, creating a social stigma against marrying Palestinian men. Kortam’s inclusion of this issue ties her campaign into the wider discourse of Lebanon’s thriving women’s rights advocacy groups.
“Palestinians want their rights. They want to be seen. They want to live in dignity. They want to be able to marry a Lebanese girl without having to hear from her parents ‘oh, he’s Palestinian, he doesn’t have anything.’ This is what they want. They want to feel human,” said Kortam.
But the campaign is not lobbying for political rights for Palestinians in Lebanon. It is asking for civil rights, said Kortam, stressing the distinction.
The term “political rights” is avoided due to the question of permanent settlement or naturalisation, or “tawtin”. Lebanese and Palestinian officials alike have consistently maintained a strict stance against permanent settlement. For many Lebanese, the settlement of Palestinians would tip an already contentious and fragile sectarian balance that upholds the country’s multi-confessional political system. For Palestinians, permanent settlement undermines their central demand for the right of return – something Israel has denied since 1948.
“To say I want the permanent settlement of Palestinians, I would be hijacking their choice. It is a personal choice that I respect,” said Kortam, adding that she is against any form of forced settlement.
Instead, she argues that Palestinians should be given permanent residencies similar to those granted by European and American immigration policies.
The satire of Kortam’s campaign and its ultimate aim of raising awareness was lost on many onlookers, exposing the underbelly of Lebanese attitudes towards Palestinians.
“Why don’t you go to Palestine and run [for elections] there and rid us of your filth?” wrote one social media user in response to the Facebook post announcing her satirical candidacy.
“Tomorrow we will hear of a Syrian seat and an Ethiopian seat [in parliament],” wrote another social media user, referring to the influx of Syrian refugees since 2011 and the large number of foreigners who reside and work in the country.
But Kortam expected the backlash before starting the campaign, “I was mentally prepared for it. But it saddens me to see that some people are still not able to leave their past behind,” she said.
The simple fact that so many people responded harshly online, although the launching post clearly mentioned the term “mocking” is troubling in itself, said Kortam.
“It showed the ignorance of the Lebanese about their political system. It means they are not politically aware, which is not okay,” she said.
“It is why I want to focus on a reconciliation between the Lebanese and Palestinians. We need to revise the war, question the war. We can’t just turn the page. There is a lot of anger, and hatred that we need to tackle,” she said.
Still, none of those who criticised her turned up to what she called the “official launch” of the campaign on Friday. Instead, Palestinian and Lebanese civil society actors filled the room as she made an emotional plea to address the needs of this community, which resonated with many.
“This is a call for shared responsibility. They are human beings at the end, and it is their right to have good conditions of living, so no issue needs to be forgotten,” said Zeena Mohanna, a Lebanese civil society activist.
Mariam Saifeddine, a supporter of Kortam’s campaign, said, “There should be a legal framework that protects [Palestinian’s] rights. It doesn’t have to be naturalisation, to protect the right to return, but to live in this country with rights.”
When asked if she would “really run,” Kortam replied that the campaign was not about her gaining a seat in parliament. In her words, the campaign is merely an “innovative attempt” to highlight “the absurdity of the system” and reinvigorate the discourse.
“I saw the poster, and I felt it was brilliant…It did put [Palestinians] on the agenda again,” said Lea Boukhater, another supporter. The “genius of the campaign” is that it triggers debate, Boukhater said. “The objective should be awareness for now.”