After successive security tensions in more than one refugee camp (RC) in Lebanon, high level US-Israeli cooperation that led to the declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and ending US aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Palestinian presence in Lebanon was again under political and security threat. Fears for the future of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon emerged, for the security conditions in the RCs may worsen, leading to their destruction and the displacement of refugees, while naturalization-related solutions may be imposed.
The consequence of any security deterioration scenario will have a negative impact on the future of refugees and on the Lebanese state. Therefore, the best solution lies in an urgent political approach, establishing a Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue, adhering to the right of return and rejecting naturalization, removing security measures around the RCs, and holding the international community accountable.
In 2018, Palestinian RCs in Lebanon witnessed security decline and armed clashes causing huge human and material losses, opening the door for approaching perils, threatening the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. Many questions were asked whether these events were linked to the international, regional and local developments, which may be directly connected to the future of the Palestine issue and its concerns, such as the refugees and their right of return, and what is the role of many political parties in the practical participation in ending these issues.
During the past few months, in the summer and fall of 2018, armed clashes erupted in Mieh Mieh RC, east of Saida city in southern Lebanon, between the Palestinian Authority (PA) affiliated Palestinian National Security and Ansarullah group headed by Jamal Suleiman. Many houses and properties were destroyed in the clashes, a member of the Palestinian National Security was killed, while most of the RC residents were displaced.
After more than two weeks of clashes, the fighting ended in a ceasefire, and Suleiman, along with other fighters, left the RC. However, these clashes reminded of other displacement events and the destruction of other RCs. They renewed the Palestinian and Lebanese fears of repeating the violent events that occurred 30 years ago.
Before the Mieh Mieh RC clashes, other armed clashes erupted in al-Tireh neighborhood in Ein El Hilweh RC, situated near Saida city in southern Lebanon. The fighting was between the Fatah movement and the group of Bilal Bader, who is accused of killing several cadres of the Fatah movement. The neighborhood was destroyed and its residents were displaced.
The Rashidieh RC witnessed clashes over drug trafficking, but these were also linked to everything that targets the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.
There are political reasons that reinforced the threats that target the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, the most important of which are:
1. The US-Israeli deep cooperation between the Trump administration and Netanyahu’s government, which led the former to take decisions contrary to international agreements related to the Palestine issue. For the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and then ended its aid to UNRWA.
2. The US cut off its UNRWA funding, targeting the Palestinian refugees and their existence, leading to the abolition of RCs, dropping the right of return and the termination of UNRWA’s services.
3. It appears that there is a joint US-Israeli approach to end the Palestine issue, prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and accelerate the normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab countries.
4. The difficult political, economic and security situations in some Arab countries, which are trying to escape their various crises by more rapprochement with the Israeli government, and by agreeing to end the Palestine issue. The shy Arab reaction to the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, is an example of this rapprochement.
There are domestic factors that reinforce the risks to the future of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, the most important of which:
1. An officially-backed Palestinian faction brought large quantities of weapons and ammunition to the RCs, which were used in the Mieh Mieh battles.
2. During one year, some US generals made three tours of Ein El Hilweh and Mieh Mieh RCs, amid talk of US efforts to remove these camps, as a prelude to removing the rest.
3. Waves of mass-emigration of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, through organized channels.
4. The results of the census of Palestinian refugees, carried out by the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, that there are 174 thousand refugees living in Lebanon. These numbers are much different than those of UNRWA (530 thousand), and those of some Lebanese and Palestinian parties (300 thousand).
5. The sharp reduction of UNRWA services, including education, health and relief and social services.
6. PA President Mahmud ‘Abbas announced more than once PA’s willingness to hand over the weapons of the RCs, and to cooperate with the Lebanese government by handing it the management of the camps.
7. The strict security measures taken by the Lebanese authorities towards the RCs, such as building a separation wall around Ein El Hilweh, installing electric gates, and building another wall around Rashidieh RC.
8. Information reached more than one Palestinian side, that the Lebanese government desires, in the next few months, to deploy units of the Lebanese army in all the RCs’ neighborhoods, located outside the recognized geographic area.
First Scenario: Clashes Inside the RCs
Deliberately starting clashes in more than one RC that would lead in the end to destroying neighborhoods inside the camps and forcing people to emigrate. The camps that are most likely to witness such clashes are: Ein El Hilweh, Mieh Mieh, Rashidieh and Beddawi RCs. Clashes would be started between PA’s national security and other current groups or groups being established to fulfill this objective under the titles of “countering terrorism” or “extremism.” Regardless of PA’s declared slogans or wishes, various forms of tension and escalation could be destructive to the RCs and the Palestinian future in Lebanon.
Second Scenario: Organized Emigration
Organized emigration is considered a great threat facing the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, through organized deportations or facilitating emigration from Lebanon, free of charge or at material costs, which would result in decreasing the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Actually, in one year, around two thousand Palestinian refugees emigrated or had their emigration facilitated.
Third Scenario: Naturalization of Refugees
This scenario is based on the idea that in the end, and after the majority of Palestinians have emigrated, and under international and regional pressure, the Lebanese authorities would issue laws to naturalize the rest of the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, under social and humanitarian pretenses. This method was used with some sectors after the Madrid Conference of 1991. It is said that the economic hardship in Lebanon along with international pressure could facilitate such a scenario.
The first scenario is the most probable, for PA-affiliated parties are still pushing conditions toward reaching a crisis. However, the second scenario is a continuous one, albeit with a different rhythm, which increased noticeably during the past few months. As for the naturalization scenario, it is still unlikely in the present circumstances, for the main Lebanese parties are still strongly against it, and the Palestinians themselves are concerned with their civil and humanitarian legal rights and not with naturalization.
The year 2019 is expected to be an important year for the future of the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, considered one of the most difficult issues facing those who want to liquidate it. For Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are free to be politically active, they suffer difficult humanitarian conditions, and the RCs’ existence all over Lebanon.
The threats facing the Palestinian presence in Lebanon are real and difficult, and any security deterioration in the RCs is dangerous and rejected by most Palestinian factions, and it will cause considerable damage to the Lebanese society.
The issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is political par excellence, and it’s better to deal with it as such, especially that the clash method was bad for all who used it, bringing losses to all. Palestinian forces in Lebanon must collectively prevent fighting between Palestinians, or between the Palestinians and the Lebanese. The Lebanese officials and parties must work to avoid such security tensions as well.
1. Unifying the Palestinian stance to protect the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, provide security and stability, protect the right of return, and reject naturalization and displacement.
2. Conducting an urgent Palestinian-Lebanese dialogue to agree politically on the mutual relationship and prevent any form of violence.
3. Agreeing with the Lebanese government on the refugees’ right of return and rejecting naturalization and displacement.
4. Forging a Lebanese-Palestinian understanding on the human and social rights of refugees.
5. Pressuring the UNRWA and the international community to fulfill their duty to the refugees.
6. Removing security measures around the RCs and dealing with the social problems.
7. Forming a joint Palestinian security force to maintain security inside the RCs.
Conducting an urgent and comprehensive Palestinian-Lebanese dialogue will pave the way to avoid security tensions, distance the danger of foreign intervention, and protect Palestinian presence in Lebanon. It does not preclude state authority and places social responsibility at the international level.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Ra’fat Murrah for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.