On 29/3/2008, al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations organized a panel discussion on the reflections of the Lebanese strife on the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, a topic that raises many questions in Palestinian and Lebanese circles at the moment, and, hence, requires careful study and analysis by experts.
The panel featured a number of researchers and experts from different backgrounds and specialties, among them: former PLO representative in Lebanon, Shafeeq Al-Houot; assistant representative of the PLO in Lebanon, Kamal Naji; Hamas spokesman in Lebanon, Ra’afat Murrah; Dr. Hussein Abu al-Naml; Dr. Talal Atreesy; Maj. Gen. Waleed Sukariyya; Jaber Sulaiman; Suhail al-Natoor; Salah Salah; Waleed Muhammad Ali; Mahmoud Hanafi and others.
The discussion was divided into two sessions. The first was devoted to describing the current situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon under the current crisis, while the second examined the future scenarios for this crisis and what reflections it may yield for the Palestinians, with participants attempting to come up with recommendations or proposals for dealing with these likely scenarios. In his introduction to the discussion, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, the General Director of al-Zaytouna Centre, spoke about a state of anxiety concerning the situation in Lebanon. This critical state has been on the rise for three years now, since the assassination of PM Rafiq Hariri, the earlier extension of President Emil Lahud’s term, and the 1559 UN resolution, to arrive eventually at the current situation of absence of an elected president, all of which have influenced the Palestinians’ condition in Lebanon. The most apparent effect, however, was the events that devastated Nahr el-Bared Refugee camp, and ended in the camp’s demolition.
Dr. Saleh explained that there are other factors which also affect the conditions for Palestinians in Lebanon, among them, the dilemma of Palestinian arms, the political and sectarian boundaries in Lebanon, in addition to a number of regional and international factors; not to mention the internal Palestinian condition itself. All of this, as Saleh points out, created a number of challenges and fears of employing the Palestinian situation in the current crisis, making it even more complicated.
During the first session, the participants discussed the Palestinian situation in Lebanon with its various dimensions related to the current crisis. The point of agreement was that Palestinians should not be barged into, or dragged into the crisis. At the same time, some participants warned against the desire by some sides – inside Lebanon or outside it – to employ the Palestinians in Lebanon as a tool to achieve their personal interests without any consideration of the Palestinians’ rights or interests. Some entities, as argued, are arming considerable numbers of Palestinians with weapons, which practically increases the risk of the Palestinians’ slipping into the internal strife. Some participants also pointed out the existence of some attempts at employing the situation in a sectarian color, as a Sunni camp, or at employing it as a case of “Islamic resistance” movement, thus placing it in the other arrangement, i.e. along the Shi’ite Hezbollah Resistance camp.
Participants paused to examine the Nahr el-Bared events, insisting that the issue shouldn’t be passed without a real examination, with others even referring to existing indications that the experience is likely to reoccur in Ain el-Helwehrefugee camp.
It was inevitable to tap into the tough living conditions of refugees, which some saw as a main reason for immigrations abroad, and as a deliberate strategy to eliminate the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, through imposing harsh living conditions on them. The whole picture, they said, threatens with the escape of large numbers of refugees, especially the elite, citing estimates which stated that the actual number of refugees in Lebanon is no more than 290,000 whereas the official UNRWA records estimate a number of 411, 000 refugees.
In the second session, several future scenarios for the crisis were predicted. The first is for the status quo to continue without any practical improvements in the conditions of Palestinians, consequently leading to a continued migration either due to the tough conditions or according to a well-knit plan. The second likely scenario revolved around a solution based on Lebanese reconciliation followed by Lebanese-Palestinian reconciliation. The third scenario, and the bleakest, foresaw driving certain sides inside the armed groups of refugees into one of two directions: feeding internal disagreements, blasting conflict between camp residents and the Lebanese surroundings, especially within the state of friction ignited by the Nahr el-Bared crisis, on both the Lebanese and Palestinian levels; or dragging Palestinians to support one side of the Lebanese crisis in case the security situation explodes.
The proposed solution focused on the necessity of uniting the political representation of Palestinians in Lebanon away from the internal Palestinian disagreements, or at least unifying the Palestinian vision concerning the rising issues before discussing them with the Lebanese government. Unified security bodies can also be formed in the camps to control the situation and prevent its explosion. Another proposed solution was a unified Palestinian stand against involvement in the internal Lebanese crisis and abiding by a neutral position. One particular solution, that seemed applicable at the moment, called for progress in the re-establishment of Nahr el-Bared, taking it as an entrance to initiate dialogue with the Lebanese government about the rest of the issues related generally to Palestinians in Lebanon. Also among the proposals was to issue an Arab resolution that rejects granting permanent citizenship or settlement to the Palestinians and protecting their right of return, which would form the basis of discourse on the civil and human rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and guarantees their security.