August 19, 2010 No.

Controversy Between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon Over Granting of Rights to Palestinian Refugees

By: C. Jacob*

On June 15, 2010, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's party in the Lebanese parliament submitted a bill aimed at enabling the Palestinians in Lebanon to receive social security benefits and to purchase real estate. The bill was supported by Muslim MPs, both Sunnis and Shi'ites, from the Amal and Hizbullah parties, and also by the Muslims in Al-Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal faction. On the other hand, the bill was opposed by Christians MPs from the parties of Michel 'Aoun, Samir Geagea, and Amin Al-Gemayel, as well as by the Christians in Al-Mustaqbal. Thus, for the first time in years, the Lebanese parliament witnessed a split between Muslims and Christians, rather than between political rivals, i.e. the March 14 Forces versus the Hizbullah-led March 8 Forces. The Christians' opposition to the bill stems from their concern that granting these rights to the Palestinians would be an initial step towards resettling them permanently in Lebanon, which would shift the country's demographics in favor of the Muslims.

At a March 2010 meeting of the March 14 Forces devoted to formulating an agreed-upon draft of the bill, MP 'Imad Al-Khouri from Al-Mustaqbal clarified that "the debate focuses on humanitarian and social rights, and not rights of citizenship."[1]

The London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi listed the Palestinians' chief demands: freedom to work in all professions and trades, the right to own real estate, improved refugee camps and UNRWA services, organized security in refugee camps, the re-registry of refugees whose names have been stricken from the population registration, and a solution to the issue of refugees whose papers have been lost.[2]

On August 17, 2010, the Lebanese parliament amended a clause in the Social Security Law, granting the refugees certain employment and Social Security rights equal to those of Lebanese citizens. In addition, it granted the refugees the right to work in all professions open to foreigners.[3]

Yes to Rights for Palestinians – But Not in Lebanon

During the debate on the Palestinians' rights, former Lebanese president and chairman of the Kataeb (Phalangist) party Amin Al-Gemayel said: "There is an international plan to settle the Palestinians in Lebanon... We feel complete solidarity with the Palestinian cause, but we must remain neutral vis-à-vis the regional and international elements [handling this issue]."[4] Michel 'Aoun, head of the Change and Reform party, denied charges that his opposition to the bill was motivated by "racism," and argued that those who must solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees are the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Britain.[5]

Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri clarified that "Lebanon's obligations toward the Palestinians do not in any way include the resettlement of the refugees [in this country], or any other step that is at odds with the right of return or with their [independent] identity... The issue of [the Palestinians'] rights is not open to debate, [but] Lebanon will not [shirk] its national and humanitarian obligations regarding the Palestinians' right to return [to their homeland] and establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital, [or their right] to self-determination."[6]

Rights for Palestinians in Lebanon Do Not Invalidate the Right of Return

In response to reports of oppression suffered by Palestinians at the hands of the Lebanese security apparatuses, especially in the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp, Walid Jumblatt wondered, "How is it possible that in theory Lebanon is committed to the Palestinian cause, while in reality its [attitude] toward the Palestinian refugees is racist? What is keeping [Lebanon] from granting the Palestinians minimal civil rights?"[7]

Palestinian journalist Ashraf 'Abd Al-Rahman sarcastically contrasted the situation of the Palestinians with the situation of animals in the West, stating that the latter have more rights: "One of the amazing things you see in the West is that all the animals receive their rights and benefits. There are special associations that care for them, handle their affairs and see to their needs, including housing, nutrition, and clothing... [The animals] live in fancy abodes in safety, stability, and quiet... [Nobody] imposes arbitrary laws upon them that force them to migrate or leave their homes. They are free to live as they wish, and Allah provides for them in His goodness. They share their food, because they live in brotherhood and do not suffer from the nightmares of poverty, discrimination, or humiliation...

"In contrast, the disregard of the humanitarian [rights] of the Palestinian [who wishes] to return [to his homeland], and who, against his will, is called a refugee, moves [even] the animals of the world [to compassion], and his plight arouses their anger... If they could talk, they would express their anger and disgust with the racially discriminatory laws and measures [against the Palestinians].

"The Palestinians have been besieged in Lebanon for 62 years... and deprived of [the right to] a dignified life. They do not have the right to work and are barred from 70 occupations. They may not purchase [real estate], register [real estate] under their own names, or bequeath it to their children, even if it is a measly two-room apartment. They do not receive social security benefits or health care at hospitals... They are under siege in the refugee camps, which are becoming increasingly crowded...

"Some Lebanese take advantage of this sensitive humanitarian issue, exploiting this oppressed people in [as part of] their own internal conflicts... by presenting a silly and ludicrous argument, namely that the resettlement of the refugees [in Lebanon must] be opposed and the Palestinians' right to return to their homes [in Palestine] upheld. Praise Allah, these bloodthirsty murderers have become guardians more merciful than a mother [protecting] her babes."

"If a Palestinian Is Allowed to Own a Humble Home, Will This Cause Him to Forget his Homeland of Palestine?"

"We ask them: If a Palestinian is allowed to own a humble home, will this cause him to forget his homeland of Palestine, or kill his dreams of returning to the home of his fathers? Did the heroes of the recent days not hear the Palestinian diaspora throughout the world declare that the return [to Palestine] is certain, even if it is to be long delayed? Have [these Lebanese] become deaf to the truth, and blind to the reality of the Palestinian children who carry the key to their homes [in Palestine], dreaming night and day of returning to their homeland, and who do not want any alternative – even should someone promise them all the treasures of the world, including [the right] to remain in their lovely second homeland Lebanon? Why do some [Lebanese] insist on haggling, extorting [people], trading [in the Palestinian cause], and exploiting it with depravity, whenever those faithful [to the Palestinian cause] propose improving the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon and treating them like human beings until they return to their land, their property and their livelihood [in Palestine]? How can we believe [their] declarations of solidarity [and calls] to break the Zionist siege on Gaza, when they continue to tighten the chokehold and the siege on the Palestinians in Lebanon? Enough of this hatred, arrogance and racism..."[8]

Al-Hayat columnist Daoud Al-Shiryan wrote that the issue of resettlement had given rise to a web of lies, and that in the past the Palestinian refugees had been resettled in Lebanon on a sectarian basis. According to Shiryan, before the civil war, when Lebanon was dominated by the Maronite Christians, all the Christian Palestinians as well as the wealthy Palestinians were resettled there. Following the civil war, with the rise of political Shi'ism, Shi'ite Palestinians from seven villages were granted citizenship and resettled in Lebanon, "and today both sides [i.e. both Maronites and Shi'ites] are opposed to the resettlement of the refugees." Al-Shiryan explained that, more than they wished to encourage the Palestinians to cling to the right of return, those opposed to resettlement desired to rid Lebanon of the refugees and to exile them to the distant diaspora: "...Anyone familiar with Lebanon's history knows that the Shi'ites and Maronites collaborate on this issue, even if they dispute it in parliament."[9]

In the Al-Akhbar daily, which is close to Hizbullah, Arab journalist Salama Qila wrote: "The demographic threat [faced by] the Christians is no longer a consideration in regard to the refugees' rights... The Muslims have long constituted a majority [in Lebanon], even without the Palestinians being granted citizenship... It would appear that the Christians [simply] do not want the Palestinians in Lebanon... Leaving the refugees in their [current] state – unable to work, to build, to study, or to purchase real estate – will inevitably cause [them] to seek another land. Therefore, the [Christians'] position, more than it is a rejection of resettlement, is a message that the [refugees] must leave... The entire resettlement scare is intended, more than anything else, to perpetuate this tragic situation."[10]

'Abdallah 'Abdallah, the Palestinian Authority's representative in Lebanon, explained that it was to Lebanon's advantage to grant the refugees citizenship: "It is our duty as Palestinians to be equal partners in bearing the responsibility [of citizenship], and we demand these rights, provided that they do not harm Lebanon's security, stability, and sovereignty."[11] In an interview in Al-Quds Al-Arabi, he said: "Neither we nor any of the Palestinians aspire to resettlement in Lebanon or to involvement in its political life, nor [do we wish] to join any alliances in the Lebanese arena. We honor Lebanon's hospitality, and throughout our history here we have never interfered in its [internal] affairs. We are aware of the danger resettlement poses to Lebanese [demographics]. We are the greatest opponents of the resettlement of the Palestinian refugees outside of their homeland..."[12]

"Why Would It Hurt Lebanon To Grant the Palestinians Citizen's Rights?"

'Adel 'Abd Al-Rahman, columnist for the PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, wrote: "There are those, especially among the various Christian factions, who try to bend reality and use various baseless excuses in order to deny the Palestinians citizen rights. The most absurd excuse evoked by [some] parliament members is [the issue of] resettlement. [They evoke it] even though the Palestinian leaders, and especially the legitimate leaders, have declared time and again that they are against the resettlement option, and have stressed – in Lebanon, Ramallah and wherever they were asked this question – that they are against resettlement and will do everything to ensure the refugees' return to their land.

"Despite this, [Lebanese] Patriarch [Nasrallah Boutros] Sfeir said that 'the Lebanese homeland can contain only its own sons; there is no room for others.' On another occasion, [Michel] 'Aoun confirmed the patriarch's statement, emphasizing his opposition to resettlement, and so did [Samir] Geagea and the other members of the Christian choir... The Palestinians have declared that they have no part in [the controversy] and that they support independent Lebanon and respect the Lebanese law.

"[Nevertheless,] the first question is, why would it hurt Lebanon to grant the Palestinians citizen rights? Where [do you see] a land problem, honorable Patriarch [Sfeir]? Haven't the Palestinians lived in your land for over 60 years? So why is there a problem of land or of room? Why assume the worst-case scenario and put the cart before the horse? The rights of employment, inheritance, and [real estate] ownership have nothing to do with Lebanon's demographics, and do not affect the voting [patterns] of the various sectors.

"If the U.S. and the [other] superpowers decide to impose [the option of] resettling [the refugees] in Lebanon, in other Arab countries, and in [non-Arab] countries, will any of the opponents [of this option] be able to voice his opinion? Will the honorable Patriarch [Sfeir] dare to say what he is saying now? Will Gen. [Samir] Geagea, or [the head of the Free Patriotic Movement] Dori Chamoun, or [the head of the Al-Marda movement Suleiman] Faranjia, or anyone else in the choir [dare to] utter a sound [and speak out] against the U.S.'s decision?

"None of you will dare make a sound... Uncle Sam will not let you voice [your opinions] mislead the Lebanese public with your lies. The U.S. (and its protégé, Israel) will take no interest in your small and narrow sectarian considerations, though they are [no doubt] pleased by your stubborn rigidity, your [endless] harping, and your Taliban-like emirate in a Christian disguise. They do not want the Arabs... to form a unified nation, but [prefer them to be] divided in their affiliations and loyalties."[13]

Khalil Al-Mis, mufti of the Beqa' region, compared the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon to that of the Armenians there, saying that no distinction should be made between the two minority groups: "The Armenians came to Lebanon as refugees, just like the Palestinians. They have their own homeland, which is an [internationally] recognized state, and their own nationality, but they nevertheless became established in Lebanon, received [the status of] resident and citizen, and are even [members of] the administration. They have representatives in the Lebanese parliament and government, and they are present and active in the political arena. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are shut up in their refugee camps, just like the Gazans [living] under the Israeli siege. The Palestinians in Lebanon do not have the right to purchase, inherit or bequeath real estate. Can this be true?..."[14]

*C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), July 9, 2010.

[2] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 22, 2010.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 18, 2010.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), June 20, 2010.

[5] Al-Hayat (London), June 23, 2010.

[6] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 30, 2010.

[7] Al-Anbaa (Lebanon), June 15, 2010.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 28, 2010.

[9] Al-Hayat (London), June 23, 2010.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), July 29, 2010.

[11] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 30, 2010.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (Lebanon), February 10, 2010.

[13] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), July 23, 2010.

[14], July 31, 2010.