I moved to Beirut from New York nine months ago and began looking for an apartment. After 10 continuous years in America, I wanted to return to the Arab world – and returning to my family’s roots in Palestine wasn’t an option.
I knew that in Beirut, I likely wasn’t going to be renting from a faceless, impersonal property company; real people mostly own the real estate here – and often, they are interested in knowing their tenants personally. That’s how I learned, to my dismay, that being a Palestinian in Beirut is mostly a liability; anti-Palestinian racism is a fact of life here.
During my second month in Lebanon, I responded to an ad for an apartment in East Beirut, which is now predominantly a Christian district. The building owner called me and we arranged a viewing. The apartment seemed fine, and on my way out, the owner invited me into his apartment on the first floor of the building for a coffee.
The coffee turned out to be an interview – or rather, an interrogation. It began with a series of inquisitive but reasonable questions. Why did my family leave Palestine? What was my business in Lebanon? Why didn’t I go back to Palestine? Why didn’t I go back to America?
But from there, it became aggressively adversarial. The man suggested my father had behaved in a cowardly fashion by leaving Palestine – or that he left for love of money. I was shocked, and only said that it was clear that the man resented Palestinians. Needless to say, he didn’t want to rent the apartment to me and I didn’t want to rent it from him.
But my experience here in Lebanon has been a privileged one. I have the luxury of looking for an apartment in East Beirut – and I can afford the rent. Furthermore, I’m an American citizen, which makes life immeasurably easier. The vast majority of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees (10% of the population in Lebanon) who were born and raised in Lebanon do not have anything approaching the privilege I do. Today, Lebanon is the most hostile country to Palestinian refugees after Israel. They are second-class citizens here, but they are not the only ones.
Foreign guest workers also have a notoriously hard time in Lebanese society. Racism is so widespread (see Nesrine Malik’s recent Cif article) that African and Asian guest workers are openly barred from attending the beaches where Lebanese people frolic. And that’s saying nothing of the often inhumane working conditions they are subjected to on a daily basis.
There is an anti-Syrian current, as well. I remember encountering a barking dog while hiking somewhere in the northern part of the country. The owner rushed up and quieted the animal, remarking to me: “See how quickly he calmed down when I told him you’re not Syrian.”
The difference, of course, is that the Syrians, Ethiopians, Filipinos and others have consular support and countries to return to (although that is a serious problem for many guest workers, who are functionallyindentured servants). The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have no such recourse.
Lebanese hostility to the Palestinian refugees is far from uniform. But it’s explosive and dangerous where it exists. For instance, the Lebanese Forces militia massacred up to 2,500 Palestinian refugees and others in the Sabra and Shatila camps in 1982 in coordination with the Israeli army. In the 1980s, the Amal militia besieged the camps, killing hundredsand starving thousands. More recently, the Lebanese army bombardedthe Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in the north of the country in an attempt to root out terrorists unaffiliated to the camp.
The Arab world is rife with hypocrisy when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Arab leaders frequently and rightly cite the chronic human rights violations in which Israel engages, but fail to address the marginalisation of Palestinians within their own societies. Historically, Lebanese citizens have declared that naturalising Palestinians will act as a disincentive to their eventual repatriation and the exercise of their inviolable right of return. But this is a specious and cynical misrepresentation of the issue.
First, many diaspora Palestinians who have been naturalised in foreign countries, including myself, still seek to return to Palestine. Second, an individual ought to have the right to lead a complete and fulfilling life in his/her country of birth, irrespective of national or racial identity; it is not up to the Arab leaders to safeguard the Palestinian right of return against the prospect of a meaningful life lived outside Palestine.
More plausibly, Lebanon’s miserable record regarding the human rights of Palestinian refugees (and others) is a result of the country’s sectarian structure. Lebanon has never been a cohesive political entity and remains divided by sectarian allegiances. Most Lebanese citizens are members of one of three communities: the Sunni community, the Shia community and the Christian community (each of which is further subdivided into competing forces). The country is less divided today than it was in 1991, in the aftermath of the 15-year-long civil war, but it remains fractured.
In this context, it matters that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are mostly Sunni Muslims. There is a fear that if Palestinians are integrated, they will upset the delicate confessional balance that prevails here. It is therefore difficult to see how Lebanon will undertake to improve the lives of the refugees before the Lebanese solve their own sectarian problems.
There has been some official movement on the issue, however. The current prime minister, Saad Hariri, recently remarked that “we included the ministerial statement with an article related to the Palestinians that guarantees their human and public rights”.
Major parliamentary leaders, like Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri, favour extending civil rights to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, but their efforts are being stalled by others like National Liberal party leader, Dori Chamoun. At the end of parliamentary proceedings on the issue last week, Chamoun said: “We hold on to Lebanon first and foremost and not onto the Palestinian cause at the expense of the Lebanese cause, and the Christians speak one language in this regard.”
But the issue is far from deadlocked. Elias Muhanna, a prominent blogger, writes that “several analysts are very optimistic that the law will be passed when it comes up again, thereby rolling back several decades’ worth of institutionalised discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon.”