The fate of the residents of the Nahr al-Bared refuge camp stands as a stark reminder that despite their Christian co-nationalists being granted Lebanese citizenship decades ago Lebanon’s Sunni Palestinian population continues to suffer from severe and systematic discrimination.
When fighting broke out between the mostly foreign members of the radical Islamist Sunni group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Army in Nahr al-Bared in 2007, the roughly 30,000 residents were quick to flee.
When the fighting was over, the Lebanese army went on what seems to have been a deliberate campaign of looting, arson and vandalism that completed the destruction of the “old camp” – the camps oldest most densely populated section. The possible motives for this include the base antipathy towards Palestinians common amongst those Lebanese who remember violence committed against their communities by Palestinian forces during the civil war.
There is also a more specific anger at the camp and its residents for allowing Fatah al-Islam – who claimed a final total of more than 160 Lebanese scalps – a foothold in their camp.
Competing agendas for the camp
There is also a strong possibility that the camp’s destruction was more calculated; a move to clear the way for the permanent erasure of the camp or dictate the terms of its reconstruction. More than two years after the fighting the camp’s residents, living in terrible conditions and denied the right to rebuild their homes or even access to the wreckage, are still waiting for reconstruction to begin in earnest.
Different forces within Lebanon’s divided political elite pursue competing agendas for the camp. Some hope to reconstruct it to include an army base, a naval base and two police stations and have the living spaces shrunk to allow the creation of roads wide enough for Lebanese army vehicles, thus allowing the security forces to exert their authority in the previously autonomously administered area.
Some other forces, however, such as the Free Patriotic Movement, FMP, headed by General Aoun seem bent on preventing the camp from being rebuilt at all. The FMP recently lost a court battle in which they sought to prevent reconstruction, ostensibly to protect Roman ruins found under the camp during rubble clearing.
The sincerity of concerns for antiquity is spurious when expressed by Aoun, whose troops destroyed the Tel al-Zaatar Palestinian camp and killed thousands of its residents during the Lebanese civil war, and who has since been referred to by supporters as the “hero of Tel al-Zaatar”. Since the court decision there has been some movement on construction at the camp (the laying of some cement foundations), but many, having witnessed false starts before, are still dubious.
Nahr Al-Bared is the fifth Palestinian camp in Lebanon to have been destroyed. None of the other camps have been rebuilt.
According to Mr. Ghassan Abdullah, General Director at the Palestinian Human Rights Organization in Lebanon, PHRO, despite changes to the governments’ rhetoric since 2005, Sunni Palestinians – the vast majority of the 400,000 or so Palestinian in Lebanon – continue to suffer from institutional racism and are denied their basic human rights. They languish in terrible living conditions, have no access to Lebanese government services, face complex legal obstacles regarding work and are forbidden from owning a property.
Lebanese women married to Sunni Palestinian men are prevented from giving their children any property in their inheritance, or even of passing on Lebanese citizenship to them.
Mr Abdullah says this puts Lebanon’s treatment of its Palestinian population far behind that of other Arab countries such as Syria where Palestinians have the same economic rights as Syrians, and Jordan, where Palestinians are issued passports and are involved in government. Indeed according to Mr. Abdullah, even in the occupied West Bank Palestinians have better opportunities and more rights than they do in Lebanon.
The main reason for Lebanon’s poor treatment of the Palestinians is a fear that permanent settlement could upset Lebanon’s system of so called “Confessional Democracy” which assigns seats in parliament and positions in government according to religious affiliation. The president must always be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. The fear is that the addition of 400,000 Sunnis (equivalent to 10% of Lebanon’s population) to the electoral role would put this system under strain.
The ‘Blame Game’
One of the main problems groups like PHRO face is the complex network of alliances and rivalries within Lebanese politics. For example, while the currently ruling March 14 block is lead by the Sunni Future Movement, who have been the source of much of the positive rhetoric since 2005, it has important Christian members – the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange –, and the Future Movement will often tell Palestinian advocacy groups that they cannot move to strongly on the issue without their approval.
Similarly, Shia parties such as Amal and Hezbollah (the former of which also fought fierce battles against Palestinian forces during the civil war) will often say that they have no problem with proposals to improve the Palestinians’ situation but that their alliance with Aoun’s FMP (as part of the March 8 block) holds them back. Mr. Abdullah doubts this claim, saying that they are using Aoun’s vehement opposition as a way of avoiding the issue, and that if Aoun and the FMP were to disappear, they would themselves be likely to take a harder line.
As a result of these positions, PHRO has focused its attempts at dialogue on the Christian parties, a policy which has had garnered little, with parties often changing tack on the issue without notice or failing to take a unified position.
Large gap between rhetoric and reality
This obfuscation has caused Mr. Abdullah and his colleagues at PHRO to call on their donors, EU countries such as Germany, England and the Netherlands, to exert more pressure on these issues when dealing with the Lebanese state, to whom they also donate. On this front there is again a large gap between rhetoric and reality.
The second article of the 2006 EU-Lebanon Association Agreement, without mentioning Palestinians specifically, calls for improvement of the Human rights situation in Lebanon. Nothing has been done, however, to enforce this and EU member countries, in their independent dealings with Lebanon, are even less proactive.
For example, PHRO recently released a paper calling for Palestinians in Lebanon to be granted clear rights to work, own property and be issued with identity papers, and for children of Lebanese women and Palestinian men to be granted citizenship. (The paper deliberately avoided certain issues such as a right to freedom of movement and association, as these could be opposed on security grounds.) While the EU delegation has since stated its support for this paper, individual member countries are yet to do so.