From neglect to participation

The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are held hostage in a variety of cruel ways. Above all this is because of the reason they are there in the first place: several generations of Palestinian refugees living in recognized and unrecognized refugee camps since 1948, not too far from their original homes across the border, where they have been prevented by force from returning. Everything else follows from this. Next are the conditions in which they are now living, reminiscent of a besieged medieval city. For this, the blame lies with the policies of the Lebanese government, which exclude refugees from the basic tenets of international human rights conventions and international labor laws. There is simply no justification for these policies.

Added to these two primary systems of imprisonment is the manner in which the refugees are dealt with by the international community–the policy experts of what is optimistically known as the Middle East peace process. Quite simply, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are treated like objects. They are quarantined inside a reified exclusion zone where they are assessed, categorized, surveyed and classified, objects in a rational-theory game played by "experts"–sociologists, diplomats, political scientists, charities, NGOs and international agencies. Refugees are asked in some surveys if they have a washing machine or a mobile phone, as if this could identify their level of poverty; by others if they want to stay in the hell they live in, go to some mythical new place, move to Canada perhaps, "return" to a Palestinian state (although this is actually resettlement, as the vast majority of them are from inside the green line), or return to their original homes, even as none of! these prospects are, in reality, anywhere in sight. These "scenarios" are cruelly played out on them with no prospect of their civil, social, political, and economic rights actually being addressed, nor any political will used in their favor by those who are in a position to do so.

This has created many problems, and has also led to a terrible mischaracterization, whereby Palestinian refugees are subjects not citizens, "problems" to be solved rather than the victims of a terrible injustice that they are. Most of all, it has stopped people listening to them, afraid of what they will say, fearful they will not fit in with the plans.

This avoidance has led to a profound miscalculation. The people in the refugee camps, old and young, are full of creative and practical suggestions about possible ways forward. A series of public and syndicate meetings that have been running in the refugee camps and exile communities in the Middle East, Europe, and North America this past year were organized by Palestinian grass roots organizations using the same means they always have: engaging with the people on the ground, relying upon their participation as the very energy to generate positive change and creative suggestions for that change. Based on the premise that the only experts on the refugees are the refugees themselves, and that they are best placed to articulate both their needs and their rights, these meetings follow principles already existing within Palestinian refugee and exile life–relying on the people themselves to define their own path.

What has emerged from this work in refugee communities across the world is that when people set their own agenda about what the issues are and how to solve them, the results are enormously positive. From the twenty-plus public meetings and syndicate workshops that were held right across the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon (with gatherings of between 40 and 400 people in open debate), the first thing one becomes aware of is that the refugees want the right to speak for themselves. They desire to shape their own future, and to actually be the ones making the decisions that concern them. The refugees are highly articulate, and are naturally well aware of their rights and their needs and of the discussions that are being held about them in both national and international arenas. They all state that their sole legitimate representative is the PLO, and that they are working toward enhancing its institutions and rebuilding them.

Palestinian refugees don’t like being represented in surveys as objects, and they certainly don’t like economic needs-assessments that look only at their social or economic conditions in the absence of the all important political context, or ignore the question of their civic and political rights. Refugees say that many of these studies and opinion polls are a way to try to force them to choose between economic rights and other rights, such as the right of return–a right that is the very essence of their dignity. It is much more than a legal right or a property right or an individual and collective right (although it is also all these things). It remains the touchstone of shared Palestinian historical identity. It has shaped us completely. It is why we have stayed refugees for so long. Indeed, the ways in which legal, political, social, and economic issues were discussed illustrate that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon understand their social and economic realities as being intertwined with civil and political ones, and accordingly that these must be addressed together.