Middle East

The Silent Palestinian Refugee Crisis

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By Taylor Long, Alistair Harris | 17 July 2010


In 2007, the jihadi group Fatah al-Islam infiltrated the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon, engaging the Lebanese army in a protracted three-month battle. The violence resulted in the deaths of more than 450 people, the complete destruction of the camp, and the displacement of its nearly 30,000 residents. The conflict also garnered the attention of al Qaeda, which tried to turn the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon into a new front for global jihad. “[T]he brothers in Fatah al-Islam are heroes of Islam,” declared al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2008. Lebanon, Zawahiri stated, “is a Muslim fort on the front line. It will play a pivotal role, God willing, in future battles with the crusaders and the Jews.”

The structural marginalization and legal discrimination suffered by the nearly 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continues to be a catalyst for conflict and violent extremism, meaning that Palestinian rights and Lebanese security are inextricably linked. In the words of a February 2009 International Crisis Group report, the situation in the camps is nothing less than a “time bomb.” But until recently, it seemed that Lebanese lawmakers might never take action to remedy the problem.

Then, on June 15, in a remarkable development, the Lebanese Parliament considered a series of draft amendments that would provide the country’s Palestinian refugees with an increased measure of basic rights. The proposed legislation, introduced by the notoriously unpredictable Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, would expand Palestinians’ employment opportunities and give them the right to prosecute violations of their employment rights before the Labor Arbitration Board, to own property, and to collect social security.

Critics of the legislation say it has all happened far too fast. To give lawmakers more time to consider, Speaker Nabih Berri announced that parliament would convene a month after the amendments were introduced to vote on the issue. This vote was first scheduled to take place on July 13, then again on July 15, but it has now been postponed until mid-August in favor of achieving consensus between the various Lebanese political parties — unless, of course, the further delay gives nervous politicians time to retrench and dilute the draft legislation. Already, fierce debate in the Justice and Administration Committee of parliament has resulted in concessions. To the dismay of onlookers, the right to own property, which was proffered a month ago, has by all indications been one casualty of negotiations.


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