In a week where Palestinian refugees from Syria’s civil war were banned from entering Lebanon, Gamal Nkrumah examines the basis — if pure prejudice — of Lebanon’s anti-Palestinian sentiment
Palestinians celebrate defeat like other oppressed peoples mark victories. With its legacy of humiliation — in particular the massacres of Sabra and Chatila in 1982; Qana in 1996; Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007; as well as countless other gruesome indignities bordering on genocide — the grim Palestinian past is central to the narrative of Palestinians in Lebanon.
Contemporary Palestinian trauma in Lebanon has been compounded recently by the tragedy of the Syrian civil war. Oppression is woven into the national Palestinian collective psyche and social fabric. The Palestinians, as always, are pawns in a game they have little control over.
The Lebanese authorities are clamping down hard on Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria.
Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria this week have been banned from entering Lebanon. Mind you, the Lebanese border with Syria is notoriously porous.
Caught in the crossfire between pro-Bashar Al-Assad forces and Lebanese forces led by the pro-West Lebanese 14 March coalition — which is virulently anti-Al-Assad — Palestinians in Lebanon have been trying to keep a low profile.
Lebanese politicians and pundits have exacerbated their anti-Palestinian tirades in recent weeks, building up to the banning of Palestinians refugees from Syria. The xenophobic rhetoric echoes that of Nayla Tueni, a member of Lebanon’s parliament, who wrote in her family’s newspaper, the daily An-Nahar, that the influx of Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon “will lead us to find ourselves facing a new reality, and new settlers, and a new burden, returning to our memories the Palestinian nightmare in Lebanon [in the 1970s]” — using the same Arabic word used to describe colonialist settlers in occupied Palestine while implicitly linking the Palestinians with a possible re-run of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that erupted in 1975.
The massacres of Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, perpetrated by Lebanese militias under the watch of the Israeli army, left an indelible mark on the national psyche of Palestinian refugees resident in Lebanon. In 1985, heavy, bitter fighting erupted in Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut as the Syrian-backed Shia Muslim Amal Party and Palestinian camp militias vied for control, ending in disaster for the Palestinians.
Ethnic sectarian Lebanese leaders endeavoured to depoliticise diverse narratives on Palestinian nationalism in Lebanon. These days Palestinians in Lebanon stay away from local politics. Yet Lebanese politicians across the political spectrum, of all ideological strands, deeply distrust the Palestinians.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have always been looked at with a suspicious eye and treated as a security threat by Lebanon’s sectarian godfathers who wield tremendous political power, believing that the Palestinians do not fit into the existing framework of Lebanese political sectarianism.
The Palestinians do not participate in the Lebanese religious nationalism either — or are not permitted to do so, as the vast majority of Lebanon’s Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, and yet they are despised by their Lebanese co-religionists who tend to be pro-West. Eager to deflect from their own failings, the Lebanese political elite blames the problems of Lebanon on the Palestinian bogeyman.
The Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon, currently lacking any legal protection, has been vulnerable to the turbulent political disturbances witnessed in Lebanon.
The worst debacle recently was near the northern city of Tripoli where the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared was utterly destroyed and its inhabitants rendered homeless. Nahr Al-Bared camp endured three months of fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah Al-Islam, a militant Islamic group.
The predominantly secularist Palestinians were blamed for the religious conflict in Tripoli, even though the militant Islamist Fatah Al-Islam is not a Palestinian organisation. Palestinian refugees were falsely accused of harbouring Fatah Al-Islam “terrorists” by the Lebanese security forces, politic bigwigs and the virulent anti-Palestinian Lebanese media.
Pressure is mounting on the Palestinians in Lebanon to do battle with Lebanon’s Shia political factions, and in particular Hizbullah. In June, the Salafi Lebanese cleric Sheikh Ahmed Al-Assir called on all Sunni Muslims in Lebanon — including Palestinian refugees — to do battle with the Lebanese military and the Shia militant Islamist movement Hizbullah.
The Palestinians in Lebanon are not only ostracised socially and politically, but are also socially stigmatised. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon lack basic civil rights and are banned from practicing more than 70 professions. They are also not permitted to own property in Lebanon. So it comes as no surprise that Palestinian refugees from Syria’s civil war are banned entry into the country.
The Lebanese tabloid Al-Balad, associated with the US-supported 14 March coalition, joined the chorus of anti-Palestinian propaganda.
“It is not enough that Lebanon is home to the Palestinians and their cause and bears burdens that exceed its capacity,” an Al-Balad pundit pontificated. “Lebanon is also forced to live with the presence of armed Palestinians in closed security islands that have become a haven for all types of extremism, terrorism and criminality.”
In this moral discourse, opposition to Palestinians is created, while every attempt to break the anti-Palestinian discourse is frustrated by the Lebanese political establishment.