When Israel’s detractors want to blame Israel for the Palestinian problem, they often cite the plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as the most graphic example. The charge flies in the face of historical fact. Only after 1967, when the PLO, led by Palestinians from outside Lebanon, began taking root in the country, did any significant percentage of Palestinians in Lebanon identify with the national cause or other radical objectives. Such collective behavior contrasted significantly with that of Palestinians in Jordan and Gaza who were at the forefront of opposition against the states in which they resided as early as the 1950s, principally over these respective states’ lack of concern for the Palestinian problem. Obviously, by their public behavior, Palestinian refugees did not mind living in the most prosperous Arab state at the time.
Matters took a turn for the worse only after the PLO became a political actor in Lebanon and threatened the fragile communal equilibrium there, setting off Christian, particularly Maronite reaction, to their presence as Sunnis. The PLO, then, is equally if not more to blame for the creation of the Palestinian problem in Lebanon than is Israel.
As the salience of PLO involvement in Lebanon grew, so did the Palestinian plight: following the signing of the Cairo Agreement in 1969, Lebanon became a base for guerrilla attacks against Israel; the civil war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1989 led to Israel’s invasion and occupation; a hardening of enmity between Maronites and Palestinians led to massacres in two refugee camps located in Beirut, Sabra and Shatila. Soon afterwards Shi’ite factions joined the fray, leading to the "war of the camps" that claimed more than 2,000 lives and the temporary destruction of Sabra and Burj Barajneh.
In 1987, the Lebanese government unilaterally abrogated the Cairo Agreement, putting a formal end not only to PLO autonomy, but to refugee privileges such as the right of work, residence and freedom of movement in Lebanon as well.
Nor have the Palestinians gained from the rebuilding of Lebanon. If the 1989 Ta’if Agreement was a ray of hope to most Lebanese, for Palestinians it spelled disaster. The fragile state of Lebanon was tough enough to impose a host of draconian measures against members of the country’s beleaguered Palestinian community, with the aim of coercing them to emigrate. Palestinians are excluded from the state’s health program, public schooling, and employment except in menial jobs.
Not surprisingly, the approximately 350,000 Palestinians live in refugee camps in Lebanon and make for an impoverished population: 60 percent of these refugees have a per capita income of about a dollar per day, and more than 40 percent of children below 16 years of age work under subhuman conditions.
The Palestinians in Lebanon indeed know whom to blame. Survey polls conducted in the refugee camps show that most of those who identify with any political groupings at all support non-Palestinian Islamist organizations rather than the PLO or its factions. Most also express a preference to emigrate to states outside the Middle East, principally to the United States.
Yet any atonement for the misfortune of the Palestinians is much more than a matter for Palestinians or Israelis to handle. It is no coincidence that Fouad Ajami’s brilliant reflections on the failure of Arabic-speaking states and political society begin with Lebanon where the Palestinians figure prominently.
Lebanon’s Palestinians are indeed the tragedy within the tragedy. While millions of refugees have adjusted to their new lives in host states since 1945, Lebanon’s Palestinians were the victims of Arab political leaders aspiring for hegemony, of partial occupation by a state rhetorically dedicated to Arab unity but which played off diverse actors in its Lebanese backyard, of vicious intolerant ideological movements, of a confessional order that hardened rather than becoming more democratic, and of religiously-inspired movements backed by the two theocratic states in the Middle East. In short, many more must atone for the plight of the Palestinians in Lebanon than Israel and the PLO.
In fact, almost no one can be excluded from blame for the simple reason that the plight of Lebanon’s Palestinians is linked to the greatest failure of them all–the failure of democracy to take root in the Middle East, with the notable exception of Israel.
Could anyone imagine such a plight had Lebanon indeed developed into a democracy, as many in the 1950s thought would happen? Did not Turkish guest workers finally achieve citizenship equality in Germany despite tremendous opposition, not to speak of the millions of refugees who fled after World War II to democratic countries, including the Indian and Lebanese communities ousted by newly decolonized states?
There’s hope on the horizon: a democratic Iraq, a democratic Syria, and maybe then a free, democratic Lebanon that would finally accord its small Palestinian population citizenship and equality. After all, they proved their loyalty in the 1950s under much more inauspicious conditions; how much more so would they contribute to the country’s welfare in a democratic Lebanon.-