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Tired of Being a Refugee

Fiorella Larissa Erni

3. A History of Palestinians in Lebanon

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One man’s imagined community is another man’s political prison.

- Appadurai, 1996: 32

  • 1  The mandate of Britain was formalized by the League of Nations in 1923.

1Palestine was a province of the Ottoman Empire for over four decades before it became a mandate of Britain in 1920 (Sayigh R., [1979] 2007).1 The state of Israel was proclaimed on May 15th 1948 in the same region. Israel was implemented with a Zionist vision of a very specific ethno-religious makeup: it should be a Jewish state, and Jewishness was believed to be rooted not only in religious belief but also in genealogy (Sand, Lotan, 2010). Jews, therefore, were considered to be an ethnic as well as a religious group. The imperative of creating a state with a Jewish identity did not leave space for those who were called “the non-Jewish communities in Palestine” in the Balfour Declaration (Khalidi, [1997] 2010), in reference to the indigenous Arab population that was predominantly Muslim, but also Christian and Druze. While the Arab Jews were incorporated into the nascent state, most of the non-Jewish communities were dispossessed and forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Others were internally displaced and settled in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. The refugee flow counted about 726,000 to 800,000 people (Suleiman, 2006). The day of the proclamation of Israel is now painfully remembered among Palestinians as Yaum al-Nakbah, the Day of the Catastrophe, for it marked not only the violent experience of war, dispossession and forced migration, but the beginning of an era of rightlessness, dependence, humiliation and a new essentialist identity – Palestinian refugee. This happenedin an era and area where the formation of nation states had just given birth to new nationalist identities, and where nation states were struggling with state-building and independence. For the 100,000 or so Palestinians who fled to Lebanon (predominantly from Northern Palestine and Galilee), the experience of ‘refugeehood’ was particularly painful, since Lebanon is the only state refusing the Palestinian refugees not only a nationality but also civil rights (Chatty, 2009). These Palestinians, and the Palestinians of Gaza, belong to the most unfortunate refugees because they are not entitled to passports, only to travel documents, and therefore they are listed as stateless Palestinians (Khalidi, [1997] 2010). The indigenous Arab population of Palestine became victims not only of Jewish but also of Arab nationalism, and an “objectived, undifferentiated mass that is meaningful primarily as an aberration of categories and an object of ‘therapeutic interventions’” (Malkki, 1997: 65 quoting Foucault 1979 who makes reference to refugees in general and not to Palestinians in particular). As Arendt (1973) observes:

Mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nations, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether … [T]he abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger. (Quoted in Malkki: 1997: 64)

  • 2  Nowadays, many other fears (predominantly economic fears) are linked to tawtiin. Many young Lebane (...)

2For six decades now, the Palestinian refugees have found themselves in a state of transition and temporality – a status that makes the Lebanese government particularly nervous because they fear that the Palestinians will eventually be resettled in Lebanon. Resettlement is referred to as tawtiin, and due to the sectarian makeup of the country, the resettlement of a large Sunni population is seen as a threat to the sectarian balance so essential to maintaining peace.2 Therefore, Lebanon did, and indeed does, its best to make the Palestinians’ stay in Lebanon as uncomfortable as possible. However, the story of the Palestinians in Lebanon is a nuanced and complex one. Any discourse entirely dependent upon a binary opposition between passive and victimised Palestinians and an evil Lebanese society is quite inappropriate.

  • 3  UNRWA, consolidated Registration Instructions, effective January 1993 quoted in Bowker, 2003: 65.

3Like all other host states, Lebanon was struggling under the socio-economic burden that came with the influx of Palestinian refugees in large numbers. Shortly after the Nakbah, the United Nations created the UNRWA, with the mandate to provide relief and development aid to the refugees. UNRWA defines a Palestinian Refugee in the following terms: “Palestinian Refugee: shall mean any person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home, and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict”.3

4Due to the fact that the Palestinians are under the mandate of UNRWA, they are excluded from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and consequently they are excluded from the international legal security provided to refugees under the mandate of UNHCR (Knudsen, 2009; Peteet, 2005; Said, 2003). The number of Palestinian refugees is quite significant; UNHCR estimates about 14 million refugees worldwide (Chatty and Hundt, 2005). To date about 5 million Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA, 455,000 of whom are registered in Lebanon.4 However, due to outmigration, it is not clear how many Palestinians actually reside in Lebanon (Suleiman, 2006). 51% of Lebanon’s refugee population live in the twelve refugee camps set up by UNRWA. This is the highest number of camp-dwelling refugees of all host countries (Knudsen and Hanafi, 2010). When the Palestinians first arrived in Lebanon they were often met with compassion by the Lebanese, a sentiment that changed soon enough (Sayigh R. ([1979] 2007). In the years after the Nakbah, the Palestinians were regulated and closely observed by Lebanon’s intelligence services, namely the Second Bureau (maktab ath-thanii) (Latif, 2008). They were made passive recipients of aid from UNRWA rations and relief, and they were kept as apolitical as possible. This entailed the prohibition of political organisations or gatherings, and of Palestinian nationalism being taught in UNRWA schools (Bowker, 2003). In fact it was official UNRWA policy in Lebanon and in Jordan to wipe out the Palestinians’ sense of identity and their relation to Palestine (Sayigh R. ([1979] 2007). Unlike in other host countries, where tents in the camps were replaced by brick and zinc just a few years after their arrival, the Palestinians in Lebanon were forced to reside in tents for over a decade in order to mark their temporality (Doraï, 2006). These years of passivity and indignity were followed by the years that are still referred to as the “Golden Age of the Palestinians in Lebanon”. In the aftermath of the Arab Israeli war in 1967, where the Arab armies were humiliatingly defeated by Israel, new streams of refugees were pouring into the refugee camps. After this embarrassment, the Arab governments at first welcomed the Palestinian Resistance Movement’s guerrilla operations – conducted by the feda’yyin (the Palestinian militias) – against Israel because they diverted public opinion away from the defeat and gave new hope to the people. The Cairo Accords were signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Lebanese government in 1969 (Sayigh R. ([1979] 2007). With the Cairo accords, the refugees in Lebanon “received social rights, recognition of their authority inside the camps, and the right to armed resistance to Israel ‘in coordination with the Lebanese army’” (Rougier, 2007: 6). This was in addition to “the right to freedom of movement in the Arqub district in the south, and the establishment of autonomous institutions in the refugee camps” (Brynen, 1990: 50). From 1968-1982, it was the Palestinian Resistance Movement that controlled the camps and provided security, health and social services (Peteet, 2005). After the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan in September 1970 (also referred to as Black September) the PLO set up its headquarters in Beirut, and the Palestinians in Lebanon experienced a newfound sense of independence, and considerable socio-economic improvement. Moreover, the Palestinians gained control over substantial parts of Southern Lebanon. This led to accusations that the Palestinians constituted a “state within a state in Lebanon” (Khalidi, [1997] 2009; Peteet, 2005); a virtual Palestinian “para-state” as Brynen (1990) calls it. These were very much akin to the accusations faced by Palestinians in Jordan before Black September. The PLO became not only the biggest absorbent of Palestinian labour, it also set up social security and welfare institutions, as well as infrastructure and vocational training centres that allowed the Palestinians to emigrate to Gulf countries as skilled labourers (Brynen, 1990). The relative autonomy of the Palestinians was watched with suspicious and worried eyes by the Lebanese who feared the loss of sovereignty over their land, disequilibrium in the sectarian balance, and retaliation by the Israeli army. And it was indeed the sectarian imbalance and the battles of the region’s great powers working out their differences in Lebanon which did eventually lead to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1975, lasting for fifteen long years. Even though it would be wrong to blame the Palestinians for the occurrence of the war, one cannot deny that Palestinian presence was one of the factors leading to its outbreak (Brynen, 1990). The Palestinian militias, the feda’yyin, actively took part in the fighting, aligning with the predominantly Sunni Lebanese National Movement (Peteet, 2005; Rougier, 2007). By the end of the 1970s, the behaviour of the Palestinian army in Southern Lebanon became a heavy burden for the Lebanese population who had suffered the flouting of Lebanese laws, restriction of movement, and sometimes even detention by Palestinian soldiers (Brynen, 1990). Since the 1970s, Israel had been taking part in air attacks on the Palestinian camps (Peteet, 2005). In 1976, Syrian troops entered Lebanon, and the refugee camp Tal al-Za’tar was razed to the ground by Christian forces with the assistance of Syria. These events marked the beginning of the end of the Palestinians’ Golden Age in Lebanon. After the evacuation of the PLO ­– when Israel invaded Southern Lebanon and besieged Beirut in 1982 – the Palestinians were without protection, and the Israeli-backed massacres of Sabra and Shatila by the Christian forces in 1982 occurred as a direct result (Brynen, 1989). In the meantime, Iran was supporting the Shi’a, who were able to fill the political vacuum after the PLO had left in the South (Rougier, 2007). This was followed by a war on the camps (1985-1988) made by the Amal Shi’a militias (with the backing of Syria), which led to the weakening, and a decrease in number, of Palestinians in Lebanon (Brynen, 1989; Peteet, 2005; Rougier, 2007). The peace treaties of Ta’if were signed in 1989, and the end of the Civil War under Syrian hegemony in the country was proclaimed in 1990 (Rougier, 2008). With the end of the Civil War, the Lebanese factions were determined to never let the Palestinians return to pre-1982 conditions, thus imposing heavy restrictions on them concerning civil rights (cultural, social, economic and ownership rights), the right to reconstruct the camps and the right to enjoy freedom of movement (Peteet, 2005). The refugees were subjected to widespread discrimination, assault and harassment. The camps once again became a symbol of the maintenance of “boundaries and control” (Peteet, 2005). The Madrid Conference in 1991, and the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, further weakened the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The fact that Yasser Arafat agreed not to include United Nations (UN) Resolution 194 (which guarantees the refugees’ right to return) in the Oslo accords was a fatal setback for the Palestinian refugees. What is more, after Oslo, development aid was redirected from the refugee communities in various Arab host states toward supporting the Palestinian communities in the Occupied Territories for state building reasons (Bowker, 2003). Israel withdrew from Lebanon in the year 2000 and Syria pulled out in 2005 (Rougier, 2007).


1  The mandate of Britain was formalized by the League of Nations in 1923.

2  Nowadays, many other fears (predominantly economic fears) are linked to tawtiin. Many young Lebanese fear the competition for jobs that might arise if the Palestinians were fully included in Lebanon’s labour force.

3  UNRWA, consolidated Registration Instructions, effective January 1993 quoted in Bowker, 2003: 65.

4  UNRWA, (last access 20th November 2012).


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