There are few issues that provoke such a strong response among the Lebanese as the question of the Palestinian refugees’ future in Lebanon. Interestingly enough, unlike most other controversial issues, there is a remarkable degree of consensus about this one. I have met very few Lebanese who do not strongly believe that the Palestinians must never, under any circumstances, be settled permanently in Lebanon as citizens.
The reasons advanced for this view are many, and I will consider the most prominent of them below, in the hopes of generating a good discussion. But first, a few background remarks.
There are over 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The actual number is unknown, and estimates vary between 250,000 to upwards of half a million. The living conditions of these refugees — most of whom were born in Lebanon — is dismal. They have few civil rights; they are banned from working in over seventy trades; they are dependent almost entirely on the welfare of UNRWA for basic social services like education, water, food, etc. Of all the Palestinian communities in the diaspora, the Lebanese one is surely the worst off.
It seems to me that while most Lebanese are solidly against the naturalization of the Palestinians, most also believe that their conditions should be improved. The question is: how can this be achieved without risking the integration of the communities into Lebanese society, which — as people will tell you — is the thin end of the wedge.
Now, I’ve had the so-called “tawteen” (naturalization) conversation so many times that I can practically rehearse in my sleep the arguments that are commonly advanced. They break down into the following four genres:
I. The Sectarian Argument
“Lebanon’s political system, which is based upon a delicate sectarian balance, cannot handle the influx of several hundred thousand new citizens, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this argument. It’s usually the opening gambit, particularly when listening to either a Shiite or Christian politician, whose communities will (allegedly) be politically disenfranchised by the swelling of Sunni ranks.
There are several problems with this argument, as I see it.
- First of all, it implies that the current system of political confessionalism is actually functional and worth preserving.
- Second of all, it assumes that the current system is an accurate and just reflection of demographic realities, when it is not. Given the fact that the quotas accorded to each sect in Parliament are already out of sync with the actual sectarian balance in the country (and yet, nobody is making a big deal out of this), and given the fact that (for example) there are nine thousand voters per MP in Bsharre and twenty thousand voters per MP in Sur, isn’t it intellectually dishonest to pretend that the sectarian system mirrors the sectarian reality?
- Thirdly, if Lebanon moves to abolish its system of political confessionalism, as called for in the Ta’if Accord, then why is the influx of additional Sunnis an insurmountable problem? Often enough, even the most fervent Lebanese proponents of secularism will continue to argue against naturalization on sectarian grounds. “Yes, of course I am for abolishing sectarianism. But this will take generations, and this is why we cannot naturalize the Palestinians,” is a common refrain. I find this deeply unconvincing.
II. The Socio-Economic Argument
“Lebanon is barely big enough for its own people. We don’t have room for anyone else. “
The Maronite Patriarch made a comment along these lines last week. I find this to be a very strange objection. Don’t these politicians realize that the refugees are already in Lebanon? They’re not arriving by the shipful, Moldovan-bouncer-style. They already live here. Obviously, they’re disconnected from the services of the state (such as they are), but is integration really going to cause mass shortages of kibbe nayyeh for everyone else?
This argument sounds especially disingenuous when it is advanced by people who simultaneously argue that the Palestinians’ conditions must be improved. Where do they think the improvements are going to come from? UNRWA? Obviously, they want the Lebanese state to step in and play a stronger role, but when it comes to integrating the Palestinians into that state as full legal citizens, the charity ends.
III. The Moral Argument
“We did not create the refugee problem — Israel did. Therefore, Israel should be responsible for solving it either through the right of return, or through compensation. Naturalizing the Palestinians deprives them of their right to restitution.”
This is usually the argument that people whip out to browbeat you when the previous two run aground on the shoals of common sense. In its basic outline — the idea of a right of return or compensation — it is not that problematic. But let’s say we accept its premise. What happens then?
In other words, what if we imagine a hypothetical scenario where Israel signs a peace deal with Lebanon and Syria, accepting a certain number of returning refugees and compensating the rest? Should those compensated refugees be entitled to naturalization in Lebanon?
“No!” insist the anti-tawteen crusaders, reverting back to either the sectarian or socio-economic argument. “We can’t accept them! Lebanon is too fragile! Lebanon is too small! Why can’t another Arab country take them?!”
Which brings us to the final argument, one of my favorites…
IV. The “Why-Can’t-Someone-Else-Take-Them?” Argument
“Why can’t they go to Saudi Arabia or Jordan? In a larger country, four hundred thousand new citizens would be nothing. It’s the size of a small city in Syria!”
So let me get this straight. When politicians in a certain country to the south start advocating the mass transfer of Palestinians to other Middle Eastern nations, we refer to this with terms like “the destruction of a nation,” “the persecution of a people,” etc.
But it’s ok for us to insist that these same people be uprooted again and transplanted in a foreign country, despite the fact that they’ve been living in Lebanon for three generations? Why is it acceptable for us to deport a few hundred thousand Palestinians to a specially-constructed Refugeeville, built for them in the middle of the Saudi desert, but it’s not ok for Israel to do it? (Note that I’m NOT arguing that Israel should be able to do it either.)
This post might anger and frustrate some readers. Please be assured that my objective is not to diminish or make light of the bitter experiences of the Lebanese Civil War; I understand where the distrust between many Lebanese and Palestinians comes from. However, I also feel that there is a poverty of rational thinking around this issue, and I’d like to see that change.
Finally, please note that this entire discussion is predicated on the idea that a peace deal is reached which provides a solution to the refugee crisis that does not involve a massive return of Palestinians to their homeland. If Israel agrees to take them back, then this discussion is moot. Furthermore, I am not advocating that the refugees be naturalized prior to a peace deal, only that their living conditions be dramatically improved.