Lebanese apartheid

On February 9, 2013, in Articles, by admin

Lebanese Apartheid

by Belén Fernández


At the start of the May 2008 crisis in Lebanon, a Palestinian-Lebanese friend and I drove from Beirut to Tyre and were stopped at a burning tire roadblock on the outskirts of the capital. A contingent of men descended upon the vehicle demanding to know if it contained any Shi’a.

My friend produced his Lebanese travel document for Palestinian refugees and was promptly categorized as Sunni in accordance with the ever-democratic stipulations of the domestic sectarian system. Once the men had waved us on, he wryly remarked that he had finally discovered an advantage to being Palestinian in Lebanon.

Indeed, the Lebanese state has long appeared determined to compete with Israel in the field of mistreatment of Palestinian populations. As journalist Matthew Cassel wrote in a 2010 essay for The Electronic Intifada on the absence of Palestinian civil rights in the former locale:

“They are not allowed to work in more than 20 white collar professions, including medicine, law and engineering. Meanwhile, blue collar jobs require that Palestinians obtain work permits that must be renewed annually or if a worker changes employers. They are unable to own property and they are excluded from most social services offered by the state, even though they must pay social security fees to the Lebanese government in order to obtain a work permit”.

Despite the passage that same year of a law ostensibly designed to ease the obstacles to Palestinian existence on Lebanese territory, the UNRWA website continues to characterize the situation of the more than 400,000 refugees in the country as one devoid of “several basic human rights”.

The sectarian argument for withholding rights is, of course, that an inflated quantity of Sunnis would result from an acknowledgement of Palestinian humanity and the attendant extension of such liberties as the option to solidify one’s presence in Lebanon rather than exist in a state of perpetual transience. Ironically, this antipathetic stance is often euphemized into concern for none other than Palestinian rights—specifically the right of return to occupied Palestine.

These two versions of Palestinian rights are not, however, mutually exclusive. As Mezna Qato, an Oxford-based historian on refugees, commented in a recent email to me, “any politics of return (or the right of return)… cannot abrogate the rights of refugees to citizenship/civil rights” in their land of residence for the past 65 years.

To be sure, it is difficult to argue that the initial injustice of expulsion from Palestine will be rectified via the administration of further injustice. One effect of this sequence of injustices is evident in UNRWA’s observation that Palestinian “refugees are not formally citizens of another state, so they are not able to claim the same rights as other foreigners living and working in Lebanon”.

As for the aesthetic differences between oppressed Palestinian enclaves in Lebanon and those further south, a 2011 Jadaliyya article quotes the assessment of British MP Gerald Kaufman earlier that year:

“When I went to Gaza in 2010 I thought I had seen the worst that could be seen of the appalling predicament of Palestinians living in conditions which no human being should be expected to endure. But what I saw in the [refugee] camps in Lebanon is far worse and far more hopeless… At least in Gaza, frightful though the situation is, the people are free within the confines of their blockaded prison. In the camps of Lebanon they are not free”.

It is debatable, of course, what degree of intra-prison freedom is attainable during periods of Israeli military slaughter and in light of the other curtailments of human rights that would seem to inevitably accompany anything described as a blockaded prison. What is not debatable is that the freedom to be Palestinian and to articulate one’s needs and aspirations as such is under physical as well as figurative assault—not least by Lebanon’s reduction of the Palestinian refugee community to a non-entity.


Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso in 2011. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.  This article originally appeared in Al-Hawiyya, a publication by the Palestinian Cultural Club at the American University of Beirut (PCC AUB), and is reprinted with permission.

See UNRWA’s Lebanon profile for further study.



Leave a Reply