Al-Ahram WeeklySpecial pages commemorating
50 years of Arab dispossession
since the creation of the
State of Israel
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

50 Years


A right to return

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continue to suffer twice: for their expulsion from their homeland, and from the inhuman conditions in which they live. In this anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Rosemary Sayigh* argues, we must challenge Israel's absolute refusal to repatriate the Palestinian diaspora -- the condition on which it was admitted to the UN 50 years ago
One of the gravest consequences of the Oslo Accords was that the refugee issue, hitherto a central element of the Palestinian struggle, was swept under the carpet. Oslo not only de-prioritised the ref-gees, it gave space to the Israelis to consolidate their policy of total negation of refugee return. By making refugee settlement outside Palestine the most likely eventuality, Oslo put pressure on the Lebanese state to pre-empt such an outcome through policies aimed to reduce its Palestinian ref-gee population. Two key factors buttress this pol-cy: first, it does not arouse Syrian opposition; sec-nd, it enjoys considerable internal support. 

Towteen is the Arabic term used with equal hostil-ty by Palestinians and Lebanese to refer to the per-anent settlement of the refugees in Lebanon. The current situation threatens Palestinians everywhere, but for those in Lebanon it has a malign specificity unique to this diaspora region. While Israel cat-gorically refuses their repatriation, the Lebanese state and major political forces refuse not only tow-een but also any amelioration of their conditions, the primordial demand being civic rights. Their fu-ure is thus clouded by threats of transfer, while their present is deformed by an unyielding politics of marginalisation. 

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are the second largest community in the Arab diaspora after those in Jordan, numbering today around 350,000, or 5.7 per cent of the total Palestinian population. Most of them come from the villages of Galilee, with a smaller number from the coastal cities -- areas that have been, and remain, the object of intensive Israe-i 'Judaisation' policies. The origins of this com-unity, its size and proximity to Palestine/Israel, its history as one of the backbones of the post-1948 re-istance movement, ensure that Israel will oppose even a 'symbolic' return of the kind some Palestinians have proposed as a compromise solution. Though at the popular level, Lebanese anti-Palestinianism -- always the product of sectarian mobilisation -- has somewhat abated since the 1980s, support for the refugee community is limited to individual politicians, Arab nationalists, pro-ressives and segments of the intellectual and stu-ent strata. 

Though I focus in this article on the harsh conditions of the Palestinians in Lebanon, I want to em-hasise at the outset that to blame Lebanon alone would be to ignore history, and the international and regional imbalance of forces that created the Palestinian diaspora, and keeps it in place. The Leb-nese resent international pressures on them to ac-ommodate the refugees, given that Lebanon did not create the refugee problem, and that the international community has repeatedly failed to support Lebanon against Israeli attack. Lebanon's argument that it should not be forced to pay the price of Palestinian expulsion from Israel is as valid as the Pal-stinians' insistence that they should not be forced to pay the price of European persecution of the Jews. 

nakba "Beirut had been the capital of a magnificent revolution that had resembled a firework display, a blaze that leapt from bank to bank, from opera house to opera house, from the prisons to the courthouses. [...] [Those who died in the massacres of 1982] died with their eyes wide open, knowing the terror of having seen every created thing, men, chairs, stars, suns, phalangists, shake, seize up, go to pieces. [...] The dying saw, felt, knew that their death was the death of the world" 
Jean Genet
LEBANON AS ENVIROMENT: One fundamental point that is often ignored in discussions of the Pal-stinians in Lebanon is the absence of reliable and accurate information about the refugee community. There are not even any accurate figures for its total size. This lack of even the most basic data has se-ious consequences. For instance, no one knows the number of Palestinians registered in Lebanon who live elsewhere, nor where they are, or what is their status in their countries of refuge or labour. It is not known for sure how many Palestinian emigrants have been removed from the list of those with res-dency rights in Lebanon, nor the number of those stranded abroad, without papers enabling them to return to Lebanon, and without citizenship in the country where they currently reside. 

One negative political consequence of the lack of exact statistics is that it allows some Lebanese to exaggerate the burden of the Palestinian presence. Further, no accurate figures can be given for any of the social problems that beset a marginal com-unity, whether in the field of employment, health, education, housing or deviance. 

Formal exclusion and threats of transfer: One basic element of the Ta'if Accords of 1989 was the exclusion of the Palestinians from Lebanese political life, including a formal veto on towteen.. A crucial point here is that Lebanon's refusal of towteen includes measures that could be construed as leading towards it. From a Lebanese statist perspective, granting the Palestinians civic rights would be an encouragement to them to remain. A mesh of pol-cies designed to pressure Palestinians to emigrate follows logically from Lebanese expectations of a regional settlement imposing towteen regardless of host and refugee wishes. 

Lack of collective representation : The PLO's office in Beirut was closed by the Lebanese Army in September 1982 and has remained closed ever since. After Ta'if, in the context of 'pacification', a committee of Lebanese/Palestinian dialogue was formed, but after a single meeting it was suspended on the pretext that the Madrid Conference would soon produce a regional settlement, and has never resumed. The Palestinian National Authority does not represent the refugees even though, as head of the PLO, President Arafat continues to control the PLO apparatus, including the Directorate of Refugee Affairs. The resistance groups that still exist in Lebanon are tolerated, but the government does not recognise them as representing the community. In this vacuum, informal national groupings have evolved, but such plurality does nothing to meet the need of ordinary Palestinians for a marja' (official representation). 

Lack of civic rights: The civic rights of Pal-stinians in Lebanon should be guaranteed by the international law covering refugees and by Arab League resolutions, for example the Casablanca Protocol of 1965. But in the early 1960s Lebanese laws were introduced designating Palestinian refugees as a particular category of 'foreigner', and tightening regulations governing their employment. Palestinians were thus excluded from practising all professions that require membership in a syndicate (e.g. medicine, law, engineering, pharmacy). They are also barred from all public sector employment, as well as important sectors of the formal economy such as transport, banking, tourism and major for-ign institutions. (UNRWA is the only institution permitted to employ a majority of Palestinians.) Further, every new minister of labour has the right to add to the number of job categories forbidden to non-Lebanese, so that the list has twice been length-ned since 1982. As foreigners, Palestinians must apply for work permits for any kind of job except daily paid manual labour. Work permits are not is-ued automatically, and have often been used as a means of political pressure. 

The absence of a code governing Palestinian rights and obligations allows particular govern-ents and ministers to issue decrees changing regu-ations, thus creating an atmosphere of instability that exacerbates basic rightlessness. Numerous in-tances of such arbitrary changes could be cited in addition to the extension of the number of excluded jobs mentioned above -- for instance, the changes in travel and visa regulations in 1995, in the wake of Gaddafi's threats to expel Palestinians from Lib-a. 

Like other foreigners, Palestinians are denied the right to form unions or associations or publish newspapers. Non-profit institutions such as NGOs may apply for licences, but they should have a ma-ority of Lebanese at every level -- governing board, executive committee and general assembly. 

Insecurity of residence rights: All Palestinians registered with UNRWA are recognised as having residence rights in Lebanon but, as the threat of towteen has been brought closer by Madrid and Oslo, the authorities have moved to make refugee residency rights less secure. Palestinians who live abroad have been impeded from returning; others known to have acquired a second passport have had their residence rights cancelled. But the main means by which residence rights have been 'insecuritised' has been the squeeze on camp living space. 

While unemployment and insecurity force a high proportion of Palestinians to live in camps, and while there are still an estimated 4,000 war-displaced Palestinian families, the authorities have enforced limits on camp-space, building and amen-ties. The reconstruction of camps destroyed by war has been vetoed as well as the establishment of new camps. Building inside existing camps -- whether by UNRWA or individuals -- has been blocked. In addition, several camps are threatened with com-lete or partial demolition. Overcrowding and poor infrastructure -- polluted drinking water, lack of public electricity, sewage-seepage -- are all a form of pressure towards emigration. 

Restriction on movement: Legal constraints on employment have always forced Palestinians in Lebanon to seek work abroad. Travel documents are normally issued to them by the General Security department of the Ministry of Interior, but applica-ions have never been processed automatically, and since 1982 delays and costs have tended to in-rease. Often Palestinians abroad have been refused renewal of their travel documents by Lebanese em-assies, but if they try to return to Lebanon with out-of-date documents they are refused entry. Cur-ently an estimated 100,000 Palestinians are stuck abroad as a result of the latest visa requirements, in-tituted in 1995. According to the new regulations, Palestinians desiring to travel have to obtain an exit and re-entry visa, which must be renewed every six months, and costs from LL50,000 to LL100,000 (LE114 to 228) depending on duration. 

Systematic impoverishment: As a consequence of these stringent labour laws, Palestinian un-mployment has always been higher in Lebanon than in other host countries. Estimates vary, but a recent study estimates that 95 per cent of the Pal-stinian workforce is either unemployed or under-mployed. All but a small minority who work in UNRWA or with local NGOs are excluded from professional and skilled technical employment. Most available work is in the informal sector: petty commerce in camps, street vending, self-employment in building trades, or occasional, daily-paid, manual labour in agriculture or construction. Such conditions have lowered the overall income of the community and increased the number of 'hard-hip cases' -- households that depend wholly or partly on aid. 

The decline in all sources of external aid must also be factored into this picture. These sources include: 

a) UNRWA, against the decline in whose services the refugees have demonstrated repeatedly; 

b) the PLO, once the largest employer as well as source of services, subsidies and indemnities: by mid-1994, even pensions to martyrs' families had ceased; 

c) other UN agencies, national and international NGOs which, since the Oslo Accords, have tended to prioritise Gaza and the West Bank at the expense of the refugees 'outside'; 

d) migrant remittances: always critical to refugee survival, these have been reduced by the expulsions from Kuwait, Libya, etc., and by the closure of most countries which previously allowed Pal-stinian immigration. 

Social problems: Most people say that of all the social problems generated by poverty, the most se-ious is ill health combined with deficiency of health care. Though UNRWA and some other NGOs provide clinic-based health care, refugees who need hospital treatment are face with the high cost of private Lebanese hospitals, the decline in UNRWA's subsidies for hospitalisation, exclusion from government hospitals and reduced levels of Palestinian Red Crescent hospital efficiency. Health is also affected by stress, poor housing and poverty. Doctors who work in Palestinian communities say that signs of malnutrition are appearing among Pal-stinian children. A recent study of Palestinian health problems found the three perceived as being the most important were the reduction in UNRWA health services, the lack of a health insurance sys-em for Palestinians and the lack of specialised and qualified medical staff. 

Ordinary people talk about the health crisis, but for community activists the education crisis has more serious long-term implications. This matter is interpreted both as a clear signal of decline and as a threat to the future. Among the main symptoms of this crisis are the following: 

i) A decreasing percentage of children of school age are in school, especially at post-primary levels. The exact dimensions of the shortfall are unknown, because of uncertainty as to the exact size of the school-age population, but UNRWA's educational statistics show that twice as many Palestinian chil-ren attend school in Syria, though Syria has a smaller refugee population than Lebanon. 

ii) Decline in student ability: Whereas the success rate of UNRWA school children in public examinations used to be higher than that in Lebanese public schools, today it is lower. Some of the reasons given are overcrowded classes, the double shift in UNRWA schools, and a lower level of teacher training. Parents blame teachers, teachers blame parents. 

iii) Restricted provision of secondary and tertiary level education, and even more of technical training: UNRWA has one professional training institution in Lebanon, but each year it can admit only about one in three of those who apply. Government institutions are closed to Palestinians, and private sector institutions are financially out of reach. 

iv) Another symptom of educational decline is that whereas before 1982 the illiteracy rate was in sharp decline, today illiteracy has reappeared in the young adult population. 

Undoubtedly the most serious cause of the educational crisis is unemployment levels that negate the value of all skills except the least developed. Education no longer leads to salaried work. Put differently, the education offered to Palestinians in Lebanon has not been adapted to an employment situation totally unlike that of earlier decades. 

Such conditions naturally generate many kinds of social and psychological problem, including breakdown of family relations, domestic violence, aggressivity, drugs, suicide and theft. Indeed, many Palestinians believe that the authorities' intention in creating this ensemble of conditions is to criminalise the refugee population. This would erode what is left of Lebanese support, as well as the self-respect that has sustained the Palestinian community through the ordeals of its history. 

VITAL SIGN: 'Palestinian' NGOs are evidence of the continuing vitality and social concern of the Pal-stinian community in Lebanon. There were only five such organisations in the days when the PLO provided an embryonic 'welfare state' (1970-1982). Today, there are more than 17, clear evidence of the need for them. To be legal, 'Palestinian' NGOs have to register under Lebanese law and conform to its regulations, which include Lebanese majorities on governing boards and executive committees. In 1994 a 'Coordinating Forum' composed of the ma-or 'Palestinian' NGOs was formed, with special-sed joint subcommittees, which meets regularly and coordinates with Lebanese and Arab NGOs. Their main action areas are: pre-school education; technical and commercial training; health; re-abilitation of the handicapped; social aid and care of orphans; and 'cultural heritage'. Children have always been the prime inspiration of local NGO work, and in the last decade this work has di-ersified and taken on new dimensions. 

Formidable obstacles face the 'Palestinian' NGOs in Lebanon, primarily the strength of the political/legal framework that creates community poverty, but also their own insecurity. This was underlined in July 1996 when one of them was closed by cab-net decree just after receiving a European Community grant to set up technical training workshops. Local NGOs also suffer from budget insecurity and dependence on donor agencies whose policies are not fully understood, and which exert a disproportionate influence because of the scarcity of alternative sources. Given this framework, it is difficult for them to create an overall development strategy, expand their programmes, re-target their services or democratise their structures. Yet compared with the NGOs of the West Bank and Gaza, they seem closer to the communities they serve. Historically they have formed a vehicle for camp Palestinians to professionalise themselves while doing 'national work' -- as kindergarten teachers, lit-racy instructors, social workers, administrators, technical instructors, and most recently researchers. 
WHY NOT RETURN? The international community cannot continue blaming the Lebanese for Palestinian refugee misery, and trying to coerce the weak into yielding to the 'solutions' of the strong. Israel's absolute refusal to repatriate the refugees, now taken as the starting point for all 'realistic' discussion, needs to be questioned and challenged. Israel has justified this refusal through the following arguments: i) Historic persecution of the Jewish people, their need for a refuge; ii) Palestinian and Arab responsibility for the flight of Palestinians in 1948; iii) Unfeasibility, lack of living space; and iv) National security. These arguments are either demonstrably false (ii, iii); or they are cases of special pleading that need to be weighed in the balance against the possibility of real peace in the Middle East. 

Underlying Israel's refusal to repatriate the ref-gees lies the rock of US support. In the short run, Israel's position is immovable because of US power -- in the UN, in the Middle East and in the world. We know that Israel will continue to use the security argument to block Palestinian return, and we know equally that the security argument will be supported by those who want an Israel able to control and out-gun the Arab world. It was ironic to hear Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently calling for the return of the Bosnian refugees to Bosnia. Why should the Bosnians return and not the Palestinians? Palestinian claims are supported by UN resolutions, international law on refugees and by laws on indigenous peoples' rights to land from which they have been displaced by force. Democratic principle supports the refugees' right to choose where to live. Ordinary property law -- which Americans claim to hold sacred -- also supports Palestinian rights to return. 

Many people concede the justice of Palestinian refugee claims, but describe them as 'unrealistic'. Those who refuse to consider repatriation as a solution should take note of a recent report in the Israeli press that over 27 per cent of Russian immigrants are not Jewish, making the continued exclusion of Palestinians even more indefensible. The argument that Palestinian return is unfeasible because the space they occupied is no longer available, or has been changed beyond recognition, also needs to be reconsidered in the light of continuing links of refugees with their original homes, and also of the relative distributions of Jews and Palestinians in Israel. A recent study shows that, up to now, most Jews (78 per cent) are concentrated in 15 per cent of Israeli territory, in predominantly urban areas, while 75 per cent of the land -- including those areas from which the refugees originated -- has remained sparsely populated, with relatively few Jewish residents. "Surprising as it may be, Palestinian land is still largely empty. It is currently controlled by 154,000 rural Jews". In Gaza, population density is 4,400 persons per square mile compared with 82 per square mile in 85 per cent of Israel. If refugees from Lebanon and Gaza returned to their land, the pop-lation to land ratio in Israel would be minimally raised. 

Now that the Oslo illusion of an imminent re-ional settlement has gone up in smoke, we are both forced and have the time to imagine another future, other actions. One way this time can be used is to re-tore the international Palestine solidarity movement to the level it had reached before Oslo. What better starting point than to attack the exclusivist nature of Israel's immigration laws? And to raise again Palestinian refugee rights, and the dependence of real peace in the Middle East on justice. In the long run, Israel has to choose between being a state only for Jews and being a democracy. 

We need to remember, and to remind America, that Israel's admission to the UN was made condi-ional on accepting the return of the refugees. In this year of celebration of the Declaration of Human Rights, we need to remember, and remind America, that the foremost violator of human rights in the world today is Israel. And we need to take courage from the internal opposition that increasingly chal-enges the American government's policy in the Middle East. 

Photo gallery courtesy of
United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

* Rosemary Sayigh is the author of Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries, 1979; and Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon, 1994. This article is a shortened version of a lecture given in Denmark this summer. 

Search for words and exact phrases (as quotes strings),
Use boolean operators (AND, OR, NEAR, AND NOT) for advanced queries
Letter from the Editor
Editorial Board
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time
Al-Ahram Organisation