Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Worthwhile Steps before Final Settlement

by Michael Young
Beirut - Amid ongoing discussions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on transforming the current truce into something durable, little attention has been paid to an issue that will one day come back to haunt final-status negotiations: the fate of Palestinian refugees living in Arab countries.

The case of the refugees in Lebanon is of especial importance, because their narrative has been the most volatile in recent decades, and their presence the most contested. While the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) official figures suggest that some 396,000 refugees reside in the country, sources at the organization suggested in the mid-1990s that the real figure was much closer to 180,000. Many Palestinians have left Lebanon, not to return. Those who remain face restrictions, particularly with regard to employment, and often live in sordid conditions. This has made them especially sceptical of any Israeli-Palestinian settlement that might abandon them to their fate. During the Oslo years, the Lebanon refugees challenged the negotiating process on precisely those grounds.

The mood has little changed in recent years. The greatest challenge a Palestinian authority will have down the road is levelling honestly with the refugees on their future. Understandably, the Palestinian leadership has downplayed the fact that, at best, only a small percentage of refugees will benefit from a "right of return" to their former homes inside the Green Line dividing Israel from the Occupied Territories. Not only might this provoke a furore among refugees and divide Palestinian society, it would weaken the Palestinian Authority's negotiating hand on the refugee issue for when final-status negotiations begin with Israel.

This timidity creates a quandary for Palestinian leaders. As negotiations with Israel progress, if they do indeed progress, the refugees may increasingly anticipate a return. Expectations will rise so that there is a possibility that Palestinian negotiators will soon find themselves trapped between minimal Israeli and maximalist refugee demands. Having to negotiate with one's own people even as one is doing so with an adversary is never an agreeable proposition for a leadership, so that more openness beforehand seems inevitable.

In Lebanon, for example, much can be done to improve the lot of refugees. It is time for the Palestinian and Lebanese governments to recast their relations. If a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon is completed in the coming two months, this could open the door to a lowering of political manipulation in the Palestinian refugee camps. In parallel, tighter political control over the camps by the Palestinian Authority, which would no longer have to contend with Syrian influence, could undercut efforts by Hezbollah to use Palestinian militants, particularly from Islamist groups, to encourage a return to the armed Intifada.

An independent government in Lebanon and a Palestinian Authority committed to peaceful negotiations with Israel could discuss a host of mutually beneficial issues. The Lebanese authorities must define a new status for refugees, one that better integrates them into Lebanese life without, however, offering them citizenship--which might affect Lebanon's sectarian balance and provoke a backlash from those opposed to permanent settlement. A promising proposal is to give refugees a status as foreign workers, with a concomitant understanding that they are citizens of a Palestinian state. As foreign workers, they would be offered rights denied them today, resolving a growing social problem for the Lebanese government. They would also have a temporary status which the Lebanese authorities could freely change once circumstances permit this.

This measure must be accompanied by the disarmament of the Palestinian refugee camps, as part of a process of bringing them under full Lebanese government authority. In that way, Palestinian factions could no longer serve as pawns in regional rivalries, and the civilian population would profit from the opening up of what until today are security islands closed to the outside, a situation that only enhances Palestinian misery and underdevelopment.

The Palestinian Authority would also benefit. Foreign-worker status and the disarmament of the camps, which must necessarily be agreed between Palestinian and Lebanese officials, would show the advantages of cooperation in the context of ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This would, especially, allow refugees to be part of a process from which, during the Oslo years, they felt marginalized. It would also confirm to them that there is no hidden agenda to settle refugees in Lebanon. Disarmed, the Palestinian camps would look more readily toward Ramallah, not toward indigenous militias, to defend their interests.

The Palestinian leadership, benefiting from greater credibility among refugees, would then be better able to explain the reality of the right of return, and the likelihood, or absence thereof, of a massive return of refugees to their ancestral homes. This, in turn, might encourage Israel to offer concessions of its own on repatriation, for example agreeing to reunite families or being more flexible on the numbers of Palestinians allowed back inside the Green Line.

The refugees may already be ahead of the curve on that. A poll conducted in 2003 by Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that only 10 percent of Palestinian refugees would insist on returning to Israel and becoming citizens there after a settlement. While the poll provoked controversy, it may suggest that there is more subtlety, and realism, in the refugee population's reading of its future than the Palestinian leadership is willing to admit.

Resolving the status of the refugees in Lebanon is but a step in a much larger process of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Moreover, the overall refugee question is a topic for final-status talks that the present Israeli government has not yet agreed to engage in. However, agreement on defining a new refugee status can start between a Lebanese government and the Palestinian Authority just as soon as a government forms in Beirut after elections and a Syrian withdrawal.

This would build confidence between the Palestinians and the Lebanese, but also show that in the interim period before a final settlement, worthwhile steps can be taken not only by the parties directly engaged in the talks, but also by neighbouring Arab states as well, to facilitate the success of those talks.

* Michael Young is opinion page editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.

Source: Common Ground News Service, April 5, 2005.

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A Simple Plan
Urgent Steps Needed To Sustain The Fragile Window Of Opportunity
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