A Palestinian family reacts after Israeli bulldozers demolished their home in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, Feb. 5, 2013. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Newly elected Israeli Knesset member Yair Lapid (l), leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to Naftali Bennett, head of the hard-line national religious party the Jewish Home, during a Feb. 5 reception in Jerusalem marking the opening of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES)
Richard Curtiss at work in his Washington Report office. (STAFF PHOTO D. HANLEY)
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney (l) and Likud chairman Benyamin Netanyahu, out of office at the time and serving as the official Israeli opposition leader, at a March 23, 2008 breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III (r) shares candies with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chief Murad Ebrahim during a Feb. 11 visit to the rebels’ stronghold in Sultan Kudarat on the island of Mindanao. (KARLOS MANLUPIG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Emad Burnat views his five broken cameras in his documentary of the same name. (PHOTO COURTESY KINO LORBER)
February/March 1994, Page 18
Letter From Lebanon
Lebanon's Palestinians Advised "Don't Build Big Dreams"
By Manlyn Raschka
Imagine yourself a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon in the post-Arafat-Rabin handshake period. You left Palestine in 1948. Your children and your children's children were born in Lebanon. But you remain stateless. You carry a travel document, not a passport.
You are registered with UNRWA—established in 1950 to handle the health, medical and social problems of refugee-hood. The U.N. agency is doing its best to help you and the other 325,886 registered Palestinians in Lebanon with its 1993 budget of $32 million, less than $100 per refugee. With 52 percent of your fellow Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps scattered around the country, you constitute 10.1 percent of Lebanon's population. Your numbers grow at an annual rate of 2.9 percent. (The first census of Palestinians in Lebanon in 1951 by UNRWA recorded the number at 106,800.)
The 1975-1990 civil conflict in Lebanon sets you, as a Palestinian in Lebanon, apart from fellow Palestinians in other Arab countries. Thousands of Palestinians were killed or kidnapped, and some 6,000 families were left homeless, in Lebanon.
Whether or not members of your family are among Lebanon's unemployed, remittances from many of your Gulf-employed relatives disappeared when Yasser Arafat was perceived as supporting Saddam Hussain in the Gulf war. Although many trusted Palestinians remain in the Gulf, ads placed in the Lebanese press seeking new workers for Gulf jobs now state that only Lebanese passport-holders need apply. (Oman is an exception. It reopened employment opportunities to Palestinians in January.)
As a non-national you are paid far less than Lebanese on the work market here. Ironically, Palestinians pay Lebanese income tax but are barred from benefiting from the social security system.
Now it is four generations later and the world hopes to close the Middle East file. In mid-January, after Syria's President Hafez Al-Assad shook hands with President Bill Clinton, you were forced to ask yourself, "What are my options?"
The one-time PLO position of leadership in the camps has been turned, like a coat of many colors, into 10 factions. Since all are aligned with Damascus, can you count on any of them? When one homeless Palestinian was offered temporary housing in Shatila camp, she turned it down.
"One of those factions will come and throw me out," she said. She feared not only losing the house, but her life as well.
Even with the Syrian presence around the Palestinian camps in Beirut, security is far from 100 percent. The PLO representative in Lebanon, Shafik Al-Hout, in an interview with the Washington Report, underscored the Syrian disinterest in controlling Palestinian factionalism in Lebanon: "Syria could just close its borders to the factions," he said, thereby curtailing their supply of arms.
Palestinian uncertainty about the future is well-founded. Lebanon's official position is that the Palestinians cannot stay. Absorption of thousands of predominantly Sunni Muslim Palestinians into Lebanon's already unsteady sectarian balance would risk setting off more of the fighting that almost destroyed the country in 1958 and from 1975 to 1990. A cross-sectarian argument is that the country's limited resources would be deeply strained by suddenly acquiring another third of a million people with full citizen rights.
Al-Hout said that "even if the Lebanese government says 'yes' to a Palestinian presence, it must fit with Assad's aspirations. A 'no' to Assad is going to be a headache. "
Don't think emigration is an option open to you. The generosity of countries like Denmark has dried up. The cold hard facts, posted on its embassy door in Beirut, explain that Denmark does not accept immigrants. Denmark is full of people and more than 10 percent are unemployed. The Danish law on foreigners' access to Denmark has recently been tightened, making it more difficult to get a visa.
An embassy employee put it in simpler terms: "Don't build big dreams."
But, if you insist, step forward with the hundreds of Palestinians who crowd the embassy gates to get an application form. As a signer of the Geneva Conventions,
Denmark cannot refuse you one. But it will be stamped: Return this application in two months. Embassy sources tell of Palestinians who equate picking up application forms with a visa. After selling virtually everything they own, they learn that virtually no one gets one.
The Lebanese stand on the Palestinian presence is crystal clear, and the Beirut government refuses to enter the multilateral talks that include the refugee issue. Beirut says that until bilateral issues show progress—most importantly a total Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon (U.N. Res. 425) —the Lebanese chair at the multilateral table will remain empty.
While the politicians play their roles and Jericho and Gaza nourish hopes for autonomy, you worry about your next meal and the roof over your head. UNRWA struggles to figure out how to provide housing for those 6,000 homeless families.
Three camps in Christian East Beirut were wiped out in the war. The massacres at Sabra and Shatila added to the number of homeless. The refugees scattered, squatted, occupied, and built illegally on land they didn't own.
The Lebanese state will allow UNRWA to build upward but not outward, beyond the boundaries of the camps. UNRWA sources fear that adding new floors could collapse existing buildings.
Untangling the mess of ownership vs. occupation is going on now. "Georgette," a Christian Palestinian, abandoned her home in Akka in 1955 and came to Lebanon with her ailing mother and younger, handicapped sister. There they joined the family's only son, who had been sent to Lebanon for "safekeeping" in 1948. Only he was officially registered as a Palestinian refugee.
The mother and two daughters rented an apartment in Dbayyeh, a town which had a Christian Palestinian refugee camp just outside its city limits. Because the women were émigrés, not refugees, they could neither live in the camp with Georgette's brother, nor register with UNRWA.
In 1975, the first year of the Lebanese war, the brother fled to Jordan, and the two sisters, whose mother had died, occupied an apartment in Beirut.
The sisters were recently ordered by the Lebanese government to fill out forms for compensation before being ordered out in the coming months. Palestinian refugees will receive more compensation than their Muslim neighbors because, as the government acknowledges, they have no country to go back to. But Georgette is neither Lebanese nor a refugee. Her category doesn't exist, and she is not eligible for compensation. She says she can't sleep at night, and you can see why.
Compensation to Palestinians in other areas of Beirut has averaged between two and four thousand U.S. dollars. Many have turned the money over to UNRWA, asking that it be used to build them housing in the camps. They know the amount wouldn't cover even a year's rent in the worst apartment in the city.
Many Palestinians want to stay in Lebanon. Others dream of returning to Palestine. But Lebanon doesn't want them and Israel says they can't return.
Meanwhile, the PLO's financial crisis is hitting everyone. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society—funded by the PLO—operates hospitals and day-care centers in many camps in Lebanon, but services are being scaled down and salaries paid late.
Now that there's been a second handshake, that advice about not building big dreams should be taken very seriously. It applies to everyone from Yasser Arafat to Lebanese officials to the Georgettes whose dreams so far have all been nightmares.
Marilyn Rashcka is a free-lance writer living in Beirut, where she is an editor of the Americans for Justice in the Middle East newsletter.