Tired of being used as pawns by Palestinian political and militant groups, the Lebanese government, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA) and others, since 2011, tens of thousands of Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon have apparently been influenced by the exodus of Syrian refugees in their midst to Europe and made the decision to also start new lives there or elsewhere.
Meanwhile, when asked, many of those remaining behind no longer view the so-called Palestinian “right of return” as a realistic possibility and, if given the option, say they would actually prefer to resettle, at least for the foreseeable future.
In December 2018, The Media Line reported:
The “right of return,” one of the core disputes in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is a Palestinian demand for millions of refugees, many descendants of those who fled the fighting in 1948, to return to their ancestral homes in what is today Israel. “But with the conflict more intractable than ever, a solution to the Palestinian refugee question is not in the cards in the near future,” UNRWA spokesman Sami Mshasha conveyed to The Media Line.
The result is that many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon feel they have no choice but to seek better lives in Europe.
“[UNRWA] is aware of refugees from different nationalities seeking to emigrate from Lebanon by air and by sea to Europe and elsewhere, sometimes risking their lives when they attempt to cross the sea towards Cyprus,” Mshasha said. “Palestine refugees, especially the youth, often tell us that they wish to emigrate given the lack of prospects of any meaningful political solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the dire socio-economic conditions in which they live in Lebanon.”
Europe is the first choice for displaced Palestinians since the chances of being granted asylum are higher there than in other parts of the world.
From 2011-2016, almost 85,000 Palestinian refugees worldwide sought resettlement on the continent. According to the joint Lebanese-Palestinian census, overall the “main destinations for Palestinian refugees’ international migrants were Germany (27.3%) followed by United Arab Emirates (16.7%) and then Denmark (8.4%) and Sweden by (7.5%).”
Also in December 2018, Al Jazeera reported about how thousands of Lebanese Palestinians paid people smugglers to fly them to Spain via South America, the European country supposedly more lenient about accepting Palestinian requests for asylum.
In April 2019, Palestinian journalist and Gatestone Institute fellow Khaled Abu Toameh reported both on this exodus and a Palestinian campaign called “Hakki” or “My Right” to try and draw more attention to their demands for more rights in Lebanon, an issue they feel has been largely ignored in the international media.
There is little doubt the wants and desires of today’s Lebanese Palestinians – in comparison to what they may have been in previous generations – are underreported.
On June 14, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot published a feature by Italian journalist Francesca Borri, who interviewed Palestinians from Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp – which continues to be considered a Palestinian refugee camp although she writes only an estimated 9,000 of its 23,000 current residents are Palestinian.
In her article – which was published only in Hebrew but has been translated by AIJAC – Borri interviewed Kassem Aina, the General Director of the Palestinian NGO National Institution of Social Care and Vocational Training (NISCVT). Aina lashes out at those who claim to support Palestinian rights but cynically perpetuate Palestinian suffering to make sure the Palestinian issue never goes away.
“I’m not even talking about violating our most basic rights. Because we have no rights at all, there is nothing to violate,” says Aina. “Seven years, 70 years, nothing has changed. We are not yet allowed to work in many professions in Lebanon. And other professions such as medicine, engineering, etc., are open only to those who succeed in getting accepted into the trade union.
“In Lebanon, we do not have the right to work, we do not have the right to own property, and we are not entitled to study. UNRWA provides only basic, elementary education. Those who go to university enter the quota of foreigners, with very few places available. So in the end why should we study law if we are not allowed to be lawyers? A third of the young people here stop after elementary school. If you are 20 years old, you can only idle all day long. To sniff glue, fuel fumes, anything. Or join the jihadists…
“They [the Arabs] say that if we had a home, a job, an ordinary life, we would not want to go back to Palestine and maybe we would accept Israel,” he explains. “But instead, in order not to forget the Nakba, the Arabs end up perpetuating it. A little like Gaza, is not it? Like the siege on Gaza. Everyone talks about Israel’s responsibility. But sorry, what about Egypt? Egypt also has a border with Gaza.”
In Shatila, Borri also interviews Mahmoud al-Ali, the director of “Ayadun, the Organization for the [Palestinian] Return”, who talks about the need to form a new strategy for diaspora Palestinians to give them something to hold them together besides a shared experience generations ago.
“Our goal now is integration among the Palestinians in the world,” he explains. “Something must be done, if not, we will simply disappear, we have a shared memory, yes. But almost no common identity. Because the truth is that after four generations, we do not know each other anymore. We keep saying, ‘The Palestinians.’ But being a Palestinian here is very different from being a Palestinian in Ramallah or Gaza or in Sweden. And even in Beirut. Because the PLO [effectively] no longer exists [in the Palestinian diaspora as a unifying force], there is no more joint decision-making, joint discussions, nothing.”
Borri is introduced to a successful young Palestinian, and she discovers that his allegiance to the idea of a Palestinian “return” is irrelevant. If given the choice, he would prefer to live outside the Middle East altogether.
You understand exactly what Shatila is when you meet those who are presented to you as “the brightest guys here.” Those who, despite everything, reached the top. You prepare yourself to meet an astrophysicist, or perhaps an artist, a soccer player. But then a guy named Bilal Afifi, a 22-year-old who studies nursing and bangs on drums at parties and weddings, knocks on your door. And he’s unusual because of that. The success here is that you have a life outside Shatila.
When asked, “Where are you from?” He answers simply “Shatila”. In the past when you asked young people here, they would answer “Acre, Haifa.”
And when you ask him where he wants to live? If you ask him if he would like to return to Palestine, as everyone asks, the answer is “yes.” But this is a detached answer like the question.
Because when you ask where he wants to live, the answer is: Europe. Or even Japan. This is the answer of 20-year-old Farah Bahar, who sells sweets to pay for biology, even if he can never be a biologist here. Why Japan? “Because I love her more than the Middle East,” he replies. “The way you love the Middle East than Italy.”
Incidentally, Borri also reports that Palestinian allegiance, in Beirut at least, has shifted to Hezbollah, which makes for strange bedfellows with communist Palestinian terror groups. And yet, they have their logic, she writes:
In Shatila, you no longer see the fluttering of Fatah’s flags on poles. Now it’s Hezbollah flags. It has the support of almost all Palestinians who remain here, even among the communists, those for whom religion was supposed to be the opium of the masses. For example, Marwan Abdalal, Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Lebanon. His anger is directed first and foremost at the Arabs, at all the Arabs.
“The fact that there is no strategy is really a strategy. They use us, take advantage of us and that’s that. They talk about Israel so as not to talk about other things. And so so, for example, in the Oslo Accords, the right of return is a subject that has been shifted to the margins of the agreement and deferred to future and undefined negotiations.
“The truth is that it does not matter if it’s an Islamic organization,” he explains the rationale of supporting Hezbollah now. “It’s about Shi’ite Islam, revolutionary Islam, the poor. Not the Islam of the wealthy Saudis. Those from Hezbollah are the only ones who are still talking about social justice. And anyway, they at least never attacked us. The truth is that everyone talks about the Palestinian issue, but no one talks about the Palestinians themselves.”
Palestinians interviewed in Borri’s story and others, like this story from November 2018 in the UK’s Independent written sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative, mentioned cuts to UNRWA services as a contributing factor to their decision to leave Lebanon.
However, there is no disputing that Palestinian emigration from Lebanon began years before UNRWA’s budget crisis began in earnest.
If anything, the Independent story reinforces the fact that UNRWA is part of an institutionalised system designed to keep Lebanese Palestinians in squalid refugee camps whether they want to live there or not.
The plight facing Lebanese Palestinians has gone on long enough. It’s time to stop holding the rights of individual Palestinians – to resettle with rights accorded to all others in Lebanon or elsewhere – hostage to conflict with Israel against their personal wishes.
As Jihad al-Qassim told the Independent:
“We were born here. We live here. We know Lebanon more than Palestine,” he says. “We don’t know Palestine… It’s much better to leave to get a future,” Al-Qassim says.
He talks constantly of Europe and Canada. “I’d take another nationality,” he says. “But in my heart, I’d always be Palestinian.”
Borri’s report ends on a similar sentiment:
“Do you want to go back to Palestine?” I ask the taxi driver taking me back to Shatila. His mother was born in Hebron. “But my father is Lebanese,” he says. “I have nothing to do with it. I’m from here and that’s it. “