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Imad K. Harb

Lebanon must not use Trump's 'deal' to continue mistreating Palestinians

Burj al-Barajneh is a Palestinian refugee camp south of Beirut [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 February, 2020

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Comment: Lebanon must put solidarity with Palestinians, and their right of return at the heart of efforts to support refugees and resist Trump's deal, writes Imad K. Harb.
President Donald Trump's scheme for Palestinian-Israeli peace rejects the right of return of millions of Palestinians expelled from Palestine since 1948 and their descendants. In fact, Palestinian acceptance of the so-called "Deal of the Century" would be tantamount to forfeiting this coveted right.

In a broader sense, the plan is nothing other than a detailed project for liquidating the question of Palestine as the seminal issue for the Arab world and wider Middle East.

According to the plan, no Palestinian refugee will be allowed to return or be absorbed in Israel. Refugees can return to the purported future Palestinian state, be integrated in host countries, or be accepted by states from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

As major host countries, Lebanon and Jordan will be helped to settle Palestinians with economic assistance packages. Lebanon's share would be $6.3 billion for developing its regional trade and commerce, infrastructure, and investment schemes.

In return, Lebanon would be expected to settle and absorb over 470,000 registered Palestinian refugees, according to figures from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), living in 12 refugees camps and outside of them.

Such a scenario is obviously unfathomable for the many Palestinians who rightly insist on their right of return. To be sure, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the plan, and the PLO's Negotiations Affairs Department called it the "con of the century."

Likewise, the plan should be as unimaginable for Lebanon, not because of some perceived threat to the country's precarious sectarian balance, but because it betrays Palestinians' rights and aspirations.

Lebanon would be expected to settle and absorb over 470,000 registered Palestinian refugees

The 'sectarian balance' argument is a red herring

With political power built around a Christian-Muslim duality, the traditional wisdom has been that Lebanon cannot accept the naturalisation of resident Palestinians, most of whom are Muslim.

The argument goes that increasing the number of Muslims will logically add to the pressure to readjust the basis of that duality. Such an adjustment is seen by those who fear it as eventually resulting in Christians losing the institutional privileges on which they have relied since Lebanon's independence in 1943.

Custom has it that Maronite Christians hold the presidency of the Lebanese republic, while Sunni Muslims have the post of prime minister and Shia Muslims hold the speakership of the Chamber of Deputies, or parliament.

According to the 1989 Taif Accords that charted the end of Lebanon's civil war of 1975-1990, Christians and Muslims have equal shares of political posts and power.

Parliamentary seats, government ministries, and leading positions in independent agencies, the security services, and the civil service are allocated on an equal basis between Christians and Muslims and proportionately within the respective denominations.

Short of amending the constitution and changing the provisions of the Taif Accords - very tall orders in Lebanon's difficult politics - no change in institutional allocations can be expected if the number of Muslims increases.

As things stand today, Christians constitute only about one-third of the country's population. Their number has steadily dwindled vis-à-vis that of Muslims since the 1960s because of emigration and other societal changes.

Still, Christians have held onto their prominent institution of the presidency, half of the 128 seats of parliament, half of government ministries, and the many powerful security and bureaucratic posts.

In other words, however numerous Muslims have been in the country, or will become, there should be no Christian fear of a loss of institutional power or privilege.

DNA and xenophobia

Over the years, fear of the Palestinians has developed into a a xenophobic streak among segments of the Lebanese population. That streak has also festered in Lebanese society against Syrian refugees, expelled from their country by oppression and years of civil conflict.

No-one better represents this virulent strain of xenophobia and narrow mindedness than former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, leader of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc, the Free Patriotic Movement.

Last June, Bassil resorted to tweeting about a supposedly exceptional genetic classification that separates the Lebanese from others. His partisans at the time were leading a campaign against Syrian refugees in the country and calling on them to leave.

Fear of the Palestinians has developed into a a xenophobic streak

In July, he joined with the Lebanese Forces, another Christian-majority party with 15 members in parliament, in supporting a law that would implement further restrictions on Palestinian labourers in the country.   

Palestinians already suffer from serious restrictions on their ability to work. They are barred from working in scores of professions ranging from medicine to fishing. In fact, their only option is manual and unskilled labour the Lebanese are reluctant to do themselves.

An alternative perspective

Instead of emphasising an unjustified claim against settling Palestinians in Lebanon, the alternative should be confirming the real national sentiment among wide segments of Lebanese society that the Palestinians' home is Palestine. No other non-sectarian solution to the Palestinian diaspora in Lebanon and elsewhere is as sustainable.

Lebanese officials are on record decrying the idea of settling Palestinians outside of their rightful future and independent state. In June 2019, when President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner unveiled the economic portion of the peace plan in Manama, Bahrain, Lebanese politicians voiced their clear rejection of whatever was proposed for Lebanon.

It's this united front that will be the most effective force in rejecting Trump's plan

Then-prime minister Saad Hariri emphasised the right of return at the time of the Manama meeting. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri and his Shia ally Hezbollah rejected the scheme, with the latter deeming it a "historic crime."

When President Trump unveiled his "Peace to Prosperity" peace plan on 28 January, religious and political leaders in Lebanon were uniform in rejecting its provisions and expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rahi considered it "a slap in the face of the Palestinian cause and international resolutions since 1948."

Importantly, Lebanon's street demonstrators have also been uniform in expressing their sentiment in support of Palestinians and Syrians in the country. On 2 February, they organised a demonstration in front of the American embassy near Beirut to decry Trump's plan.

It is this united front between Lebanon's political and religious figures and protesters for change that will be the most effective force in rejecting Trump's plan to settle Palestinians in Lebanon. Only a non-sectarian and nationalist response will thwart what the Trump administration may consider a fait accompli for ending the Palestinian dilemma.


Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.


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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.

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