Lebanon's Palestinian refugees caught between Gaza solidarity and discrimination
The 11-day Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip, which killed at least 254 Palestinians, united Arab public opinion in condemnation.
The escalation in violence, which began with protests in Jerusalem against the forced displacement of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, saw an outpouring of support across the Middle East, including border marches in Jordan and Lebanon, echoing international solidarity rallies.
In Beirut, hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians marched together to protest the Israeli bombardments, while social media was aflame in support of the Palestinian cause.
But for many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, this outburst of solidarity sharply contrasts with the restrictions and discrimination they continue to face in the country.
"Genuine solidarity with Palestine means ending the suffering and discrimination against Palestinians living in camps and ghettos"
“What we saw on social media was a great act of solidarity, but we need to do it for Palestinians who are physically closer to us and are with us, Palestinians who are living in our country,” Nasser Yassin, the Director of Research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, told The New Arab.
Despite hosting a large population of Palestinians since the 1948 Nakba, and having endured an Israeli occupation itself, Lebanon's efforts toward justice for Palestinians have been minimal, both at the state and grassroots levels.
“I rarely saw any Lebanese outlets commenting on the violence in Gaza, and while I spotted some local outlets posting and supporting, the comments took a different turn,” Manal Makkieh, a Palestinian social worker, journalist, and activist in Lebanon, told The New Arab.
“Most people were not supporting the cause, claiming that the Lebanese themselves too are going through a crisis”.
When Palestinians were forcibly displaced during the establishment of the Israeli state they settled in Lebanon in makeshift shelters. Today, the community of 207,000 lives in 12 UN refugee camps across the country, often in dire conditions.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are legally barred from as many as 39 professions, including law, medicine, and engineering, where membership of professional syndicates is required.
They cannot own property and are also denied access to state medical facilities, with their survival almost entirely dependent on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides housing, healthcare, and education.
“Genuine solidarity with Palestine means ending the suffering and discrimination against Palestinians living in camps and ghettos, surrounded by security checkpoints, denied the right of movement, ownership, social security, ability to work, and other fundamental rights,” Mohamad Chiblak, a Palestinian activist in Lebanon, told The New Arab.
The most vulnerable, including Palestinian refugees who fled from Syria’s war, also get financial assistance to buy food and other necessities.
"Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are legally barred from as many as 39 professions, including law, medicine, and engineering"
Given the current economic crisis in Lebanon, most Palestinian refugees have found themselves slipping further into poverty.
“Even before the crisis began, 65% of Palestinians were below the poverty line, so you can imagine by now almost all of them are rendered into poverty,” Yassin told The New Arab.
The pandemic has also had an outsized impact on Palestinian refugees. According to the latest UN figures, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are three times more likely to die with Covid-19 than the population as a whole.
Yet, because of construction constraints in the camps and restrictions on owning property, Palestinian continue to live in overcrowded housing which is slowly decaying.
Last month, 200 protesters marched from Beirut's Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp to the nearby Shatila camp in support of Sheikh Jarrah, shouting slogans such as "Not east, not west, all of Quds is Arab.”
During the same week, Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians marched to the Israeli border, proudly waving Palestinian flags while others waved political party flags.
Many Palestinians, however, were barred from attending the protests on the southern border by Lebanese authorities, with the ones that made it had to get official permission and go through security screenings.
"Some of these Lebanese political parties have been in parliament and the cabinet over the past two decades. They have done nothing to enhance the lives of Palestinian refugees living for over 70 years in Lebanon"
“I went to the demonstrations at the Lebanese borders with occupied Palestine. It was shocking for me to see the significant number of Lebanese political party flags that people carried,” Chiblak told The New Arab.
“Some of these Lebanese political parties have been in parliament and the cabinet over the past two decades. They have done nothing to enhance the lives of Palestinian refugees living for over 70 years in Lebanon.”
After rockets were fired from southern Lebanon towards Israel during the conflict in Gaza, anger erupted among some parts of the Lebanese political class, with historic animosity towards Palestinians resurfacing.
Former parliamentarian with the Kataeb Party, Nadim Gemayel, warned that “Lebanon is neither a military base nor a missile platform for Palestinian factions or Iranian militias,” and demanded that the state and security services strike “with an iron fist, for Lebanon today cannot afford to repeat the experience of the 60s.”
Such comments echo the anti-Palestinian and anti-refugee rhetoric of Lebanon’s senior politicians, including the president of the right-wing Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, who has also regularly denigrated the presence of refugees, including Palestinians, in the country.
Last year, Bassil said that Palestinian refugees hinder Lebanon’s ability to preserve “neutrality” on regional disputes, adding that this principle could be achieved by “removing unpredictable foreign elements at home,” a reference to both Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
Tala Ramadan is a journalist and activist who focuses on scientific, social, humanitarian, and educational issues.
Follow her on Twitter: @TalaRamadan