Palestinian Refugees and Lebanon’s Election: Part II

Franklin Lamb continues with Part II of his series on Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon and the upcoming election next month. Read Part I.

Part II:  Lebanon’s Path from Perdition to Redemption

When I graduated from Medical School here in Beirut more than 20 years ago there were 80 students in my class. The top dozen or so were Palestinians.  But they all had to emigrate in order to practice medicine.  Why?  Lebanon’s shame.  We Lebanese have in our culture a saying that in order to get the best quality olive oil you must press the olives very hard. That is what we have done to Palestinians in Lebanon.
— Dr. Nizar Rifai, Lebanese Physician, in his Hamra Office, 11 May 2009

Interviews with representatives of Lebanon’s political parties, as they make final preparations to get out the vote, reveal general agreement that for Palestinians here, decades of living in exile has been severely aggravated by the systematic discrimination they suffer under Lebanese law.

Most agree that for Palestinians waiting to return to their homes in Palestine, life is now a daily struggle for survival and fundamental Parliamentary redress is long overdue. A common response to inquiries of the Parties is:  “We ourselves want to help the Palestinians but we have partners in government and we need to be sensitive to their wishes”. This may be about to change and it is acknowledged by its Palestinians that Lebanon has paid a big price for hosting them and deserves the deepest gratitude and respect for its sacrifices.

The conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon are well known to foreigners who visit or live in Lebanon’s 12 Camps (of the original 16) and Gatherings which house a majority of the 409,714 Palestinians who are registered with UNRWA.  Approximately 20 percent left Lebanon over the years to seek work abroad but many are having to return for economic reasons (the Gulf) and security and political reasons (Iraq, Kuwait and the Gulf). Apart from the joy of seeing their loved one, there is not much to come back to and their families lose much needed foreign remittances.

Lebanon’s Non-ID Palestinians: the lowest of the lows

Space does not allow for more than a cursory glimpse at conditions for Lebanon’s Palestinians, but the most wretched are the Non-ID Palestinians.

The number of non-ID Palestinians in Lebanon is subject to various estimates which range from fewer than 5000 (Danish Refugee Council) to 10,000 (International Federation for Human Rights) or more than 16,000 (US Committee for Refugees-World Refugee Survey, 2000).

Non-ID men, women and children are subjected daily to egregious treatment and deprivations of the most fundamental human rights enshrined in international humanitarian law.

Most non-IDs arrived in extremis from the West Bank via Jordan and Black September in 1970 or as a result of Israeli expulsions over a period of two decades.   Many could have avoided their fate had they registered with PLO assistance before the organization suddenly departed in late summer of 1982, leaving behind much ‘unfinished business’. Consequently the non-IDs have had to fend for themselves.

Egypt and Israel say its not their problem because the non-IDs could theoretically have renewed their IDs in Gaza or the West Bank.  Their excuses are disingenuous since there was no way for these Refugees to return to Gaza or the West Bank to do so.

The life of Lebanon’s Non-ID Palestinians

Palestinians without UNRWA or Lebanese ID have essentially no rights at all in Lebanon and every day must avoid the increasing number of Lebanese army checkpoints and various police agencies.  It they are caught they are typically imprisoned as follows for being ‘illegal’, although the whole new generation was born in Lebanon:

First offense: one month. Second offense:  three months.  Third offense:  Six months.

Some NGOs have reported hearing of non-ID Palestinians staying in their Camp for as long as 16 years fearing that if they leave the camp ‘sanctuary’ they will be arrested and imprisoned by Lebanon’s Securite Generale (SG).

The highly politicized SG is not answerable to Parliament or the Prime Minister’s office but only to the President.  Traditionally Maronite, and much influenced by the wishes of the US Embassy and known to carry out tasks on its behalf from time to time including arranging for the theft of American citizen Passports (litigation is pending  in the US and Lebanon on one such current case) has not been friendly to Palestinians. Recently SG has been headed by a Shi’a, Jimil Sayeed, until he was arrested in August of 2005 as a suspect in the Hariri assassination. (Released this month, he claims his nearly four years incarceration was purely political and Sayeed plans to return to high office following next month’s election.

Over the past quarter-century, there were so many repeat non-ID cases that it became a problem for the government and SG.  Jailers got to know the recidivists and it got embarrassing for Lebanon to be increasingly under international pressure from human rights organizations and the UN.  The SG decided to release some of the non-ID Palestinians from prison and bus them into a 5 kilometer wide “no man’s land” along the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley.  The non-IDs would be dropped off and told to “walk East and don’t come back”. Some would try to sneak into Syria without documents.  If caught, they got locked up in Syria but at least were no longer in Lebanon.  Some found jobs with a range of employers in the Bekaa from drug cartels (as hired guns), or in agriculture, on with Palestinian groups in the Bekaa such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Salafists or others.  On average many earn about $200 per month (and all the  ‘red bud’ hashish or coke you want from certain employers around Knessneh) but they can’t easily leave the Bekaa.

Since 2005, international pressure created pressure for another solution. The mainly lugubrious Lebanese Palestinian Dialog Committee decided to support the idea of giving the Non-IDs an Identification Card.

This, it was claimed, would solve dozens of problems from being able to register marriages, give children some kind of ID, reduce police harassment and unfair incarcerations and a long list of problems this observer has heard about, including cases of  young Palestinian girls who were engaged to be married only to have their fiancé’s family cancel the engagement when they learned she was a non-ID and suspected that she may just want to gets ‘rights’ from the marriage; to the recent case  of a reputedly exemplary Palestinian student and member of society who was stopped late at night returning to his Camp by hostile police demanding to check his ID.  He panicked, not wanting to get locked up and ran toward the safety of his camp.  The police shot him dead.

The project to issue IDs has yet to fulfill its promise.  This observer was very impressed last fall when the “ID for the Non-ID” project getting under way and he happened to have an appointment at the Palestinian Embassy and noticed the front garden, entrance and waiting room were packed with former PLO fighters and others with their families seeking ID. They were optimistic and grateful to a person.

Collapse of the Non-ID project?

So far only 100-150 actually got an ID and Securite Generale has decided to stop the program.  SG wants an “investigation of problems with forged documents and irregularities”. Some NGOs here question this explanation for stopping the ID project because the applicants admit they have no ID and the PLO is helping verify how and when the IDs arrived in Lebanon.  Some claim that after announcing the project, the Lebanese government lacks the political will to solve this problem. Consequently, the non-IDs are unlikely to get help unless the Parliament approves mandatory legislation.

When government officials or political parties here are asked about the apparent collapse of the Non-ID Project and the lack of progress in aiding Palestinian refugees these past 6 decades, the response is usually nearly always the same:  “We ourselves want to help the Palestinians but we have partners in government and we need to be sensitive to their wishes”.

Discriminatory practices against Palestinians continue to breach Lebanon’s obligations under international law

Among international legal obligations that the government of Lebanon is flouting are the following laws that if enforced would directly and significantly ease the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

  • CEDAW Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
  • CERD Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  • CESCR Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • ICCPR International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • CRC Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • FIDH Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de I’Homme
  • ICERD International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  • ICESCR International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • Lebanon is bound to implement the last three Conventions as a State party. Lebanon is bound to implement the others under principles of international customary law.  To date, Lebanon has not honored any of them.

    Fulfillment of Lebanon’s duty by adopting the Syrian Model?

    There are probably not a lot of people in Lebanon who would debate the proposition that Syria’s efforts to play the “Palestinian Card” since the Nakba has caused untold misery for refugees in Lebanon’s Camps.

    On the other hand, to its eternal credit, the Syrian Arab Republic gives its 440,000 Palestinians in ten official UNRWA camps and four unofficial ones, all the rights and opportunities that Syrians receive, except Citizenship.  According to Lex Takkenberg, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Syria, the Palestinians in Syria are accepted and helped very substantially by the government. “Most Palestinians are well integrated in Syria and many even hold important positions within the government. If you have to be a Palestinian Refugee outside Palestine, I might recommend Syria”.

    There are similarities between Lebanese and Syrian Palestinian Refugees. Both countries received approximately 100,000 who were ethnically cleansed during the Nakba. Most trekked from northern Palestine areas including Safad, Haifa, Acre, Tiberias, Nazareth, and from all across the Galilee. Some who first arrived in Lebanon’s Hula Valley and other areas in Lebanon moved on to Syria to join family members in deserted military barracks in Sweida, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama. Both countries received several thousand more refugees, forced to flee during Israel’s 1967 aggression, and today both countries have roughly 420,000 Palestinians, approximately 15% of UNRWA registered Palestinian Refugees.

    The similarities end about here.

    While Palestinians in Syria are by no means living in good circumstances, Syria’s treatment of them is far better than Lebanon’s (but not Jordan’s which grants Palestinians citizenship and voting rights).  The effects of Syrian law make clear why Lebanon’s Refugees are lagging behind in all the social indexes from health, income, education, stability, and general well-being and highlights and the urgency of Lebanon’s next government taking action.  Roughly 25% of Syria’s Palestinians live below the poverty line.  In Lebanon, the number is estimated to be as high as 60%. Nearly 60,000 or about 15% of Lebanon’s Palestinians are considered to be ‘special hardship cases’ (SHC), meaning they live in abject poverty without income, more than twice the number in Syria or pre-January 2009 Gaza. Indeed, UNRWA, which provides services and aid to nearly 5 million Palestinian refugees living in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, stated in 2008 that Lebanon, in comparison with UNRWA’s other areas of operation, has “the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees who are living in abject poverty.”

    Rights of Palestinian Refugees in Syria

    In Syria, Palestinians aren’t required to obtain work permits, are not precluded from any professions, can own businesses and can own their own homes. They have the right to join labor unions and to receive government social services the same as their host Syrian citizens, whereas in Lebanon it is illegal to even apply.

    Additional land has been made available by the Syrian government for its expanding Palestinian population, and while still crowded, it is a vast improvement over the situation in Lebanon. For the past 61 years, the amount of land Palestinians in Lebanon were allowed to use in 1948 has not measurably increased, while the UNRWA registered Palestinian population has increased 400% according to the UN.

    Encouraging self-improvement

    Due to being granted substantial rights by the Syrian government, close to 75% of its Palestinian refugees have been able to become “self-settled” out of the refugee camps, whereas in Lebanon the figure is close to 34%.  Palestinian children attend government High Schools like all Syrians, but in Lebanon they are forbidden by law from government schools so UNRWA was forced to create another school system only for Lebanon. Unlike Lebanon, the Syrian Government grants scholarships to many Palestinian university students to study at Syrian universities or abroad.

    Both Syria and Lebanon are signatories to the 1965 Casablanca Protocol, which requires that Arab countries should guarantee Palestinian refugees rights to employment, residency, and freedom of movement, but Lebanon ignores its obligations.

    In fairness to Lebanon, there are a few instances where, human nature being as it is, Palestinians can sometimes catch a break.  For example, Palestinian friends have reported that at the state-run Lebanese University, the annual tuition fees amount to 180,000 LL or about $120 for Lebanese students.  Bending the rules a bit, Palestinians can now pay this amount which they can usually come up with, as opposed to other foreigners who must pay 950,000 LL (around $630).  Yet, by Lebanese law only 10% of student places can be filled by non-Lebanese, including Palestinians. This law can bend if a Palestinian has a professor who is willing to help.  Still, certain faculties are restricted to them including engineering and medicine. This, some say, hurts Lebanon because nearly half of Lebanese Medical graduates leave to practice in the US or Europe whereas a travel-restricted Palestinian would likely practice medicine in this society, if allowed by law.

    The Sabra-Shatila Foundation, in consultation with Members of Lebanon’s Parliament and human rights organizations proposes the following Draft Law for consideration by the next Lebanese Parliament:

    Lebanon’s Path from Perdition to Redemption: a simple solution for achieving human rights for Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugees.

    There have been no shortage of proposals by human rights organizations and NGOs to the Government of Lebanon on how to fulfill its obligations to those who were forced into its jurisdiction six decades ago.

    Among the most commonly recommended legislative solutions have focused on proposals such as:

  • “Regularizing the status of unregistered refugees”
  • Constructing a legal system that “will ensure that all children within Lebanese territory, including the children of non-ID Palestinian refugees are registered and have access to education on an equal basis with Lebanese nationals
  • Legislating equal access to human rights as Lebanese in accordance with its obligations under international human rights”
  • “Ensure that all Palestinian refugees are able to register their marriages in Lebanon”
  • “Ensure that all Palestinian refugees are accorded effective protection of their rights to enjoy just and favorable conditions of work, to adequate housing, and to an adequate standard of living”
  • “Abolish all bureaucratic requirements impeding the effective enjoyment by Palestinian refugees of their rights to a name, education and marriage, among others
  • “Ensure that all Palestinian refugees are accorded effective protection of their rights to enjoy just and favorable conditions of work, to adequate housing, and to an adequate standard of living”.
  • None of these recommendations has ever been voted on by Lebanon’s Parliament and critics inside the government explain that given the complex subject matter more time is required for study.

    After studying the problem, and in consultation with human rights organizations and Members of Lebanon’s Parliament, the Sabra Shatila Foundation offers the following Draft Law to Parliament for its consideration. It is an uncomplicated Law, which, if fully implemented, will erase in one vote decades of illegal and immoral treatment of more than ten percent of Lebanon’s population:

    Be it enacted by the Chamber of Deputies etc. that all Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon shall immediately acquire receive and enjoy the full faith and credit of all civil rights possessed by Lebanese citizens except citizenship or naturalization.”

    A version of this Draft Legislation will be introduced in Lebanon’s Parliament in the first working session following next month’s election.


    Franklin Lamb works with the Sabra-Shatila Foundation in Beirut.  He is reachable at

    One thought on “Palestinian Refugees and Lebanon’s Election: Part II”

    1. very interesting post. i’m happy you’re getting the word out. have you ever checked out that site seems to be posting a lot of information lately about the lebanese elections and articles about the palestinians. based on your post, i think you would like the site.
      all the best, toby

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