Friday, 25 June 2010

An old enmity


It seems that the Sudanese aren’t the only ones sticking the boot into the Lebanese about their attitudes to foreigners. Blogs, news sites and online newspapers are awash with criticism of Lebanon’s treatment of the Palestinians.


It seems that it’s de rigueur to tar the Lebanese with the racism brush.


Well, ok … but there are a few things that aren’t being said in amongst all this righteous indignation.


Take, for example, this article by a Palestinian American in my favorite bleeding-heart Lefty newspaper, The Guardian:


“The Arab world is rife with hypocrisy when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Arab leaders frequently and rightly cite the chronic human rights violations in which Israel engages, but fail to address the marginalisation of Palestinians within their own societies. Historically, Lebanese citizens have declared that naturalising Palestinians will act as a disincentive to their eventual repatriation and the exercise of their inviolable right of return. But this is a specious and cynical misrepresentation of the issue.


First, many diaspora Palestinians who have been naturalised in foreign countries, including myself, still seek to return to Palestine. Second, an individual ought to have the right to lead a complete and fulfilling life in his/her country of birth, irrespective of national or racial identity; it is not up to the Arab leaders to safeguard the Palestinian right of return against the prospect of a meaningful life lived outside Palestine.


More plausibly, Lebanon's miserable record regarding the human rights of Palestinian refugees (and others) is a result of the country's sectarian structure. Lebanon has never been a cohesive political entity and remains divided by sectarian allegiances. Most Lebanese citizens are members of one of three communities: the Sunni community, the Shia community and the Christian community (each of which is further subdivided into competing forces). The country is less divided today than it was in 1991, in the aftermath of the 15-year-long civil war, but it remains fractured.


In this context, it matters that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are mostly Sunni Muslims. There is a fear that if Palestinians are integrated, they will upset the delicate confessional balance that prevails here. It is therefore difficult to see how Lebanon will undertake to improve the lives of the refugees before the Lebanese solve their own sectarian problems.”


Right, notice that the author doesn’t answer the question he poses in his title, “why”?


Following the 1967 War (The Six Day War) large areas of Lebanon were filled with Palestinian refugees who had fled from Israel-Palestine. In 1970 the PLO was expelled from Jordan at gunpoint during what is known as Black September. They moved en-masse to Lebanon.


What happened next has sparked much of the anti-Palestinian feeling within the country.


The following extract is taken from a Palestinian-run website:


“Under the guise of preparing armed resistance to Israel, the PLO insisted on political, police, and economic control of the refugee camps, as well as access to large areas of South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley that were used for training. This generated increasing friction with the Lebanese population. Clashes over who was in charge between the Palestinians and Lebanese security and military led to armed incidents flaring up all over Lebanon, as the Palestinians were operating from refugee camps in the South, in and around Beirut, and in the North.”

And all that’s before the most famous event when it comes to Palestinian-Lebanese relations, Sabra and Chatila.


“For 40 hours in September 1982, members of the Israeli-allied Lebanese Phalangist militia raped, killed, and injured a large number of unarmed civilians, mostly children, women and elderly people inside the encircled and sealed Sabra and Shatila camps. The estimate of victims varies between 700 (the official Israeli figure) to 3,500.”


Suffice it to say that there are reasons for Lebanese hostility toward Palestinians and likewise, reasons for Palestinians to be hostile toward Lebanese. This hostility is obviously ongoing and both sides have been guilty of pushing the boundaries. Most famously was the attack on Nahr el Bared camp.


The camp issue is a sensitive one. Simply put, the Palestinians hold weapons to ensure their safety. An understandable attitude given that they’ve been pushed from pillar to post by every Arab nation with little in the way of real, concrete assistance. However, the Lebanese are anxious to demilitarize the camps, again, an understandable desire.


The question is, how do you grant a group extended civil liberties without taking their weapons from them? Additionally, the Lebanese state has the thorny issue of Hezbollah’s weapons and their place with Lebanese society.


It’s a complicated situation that the West does not fully comprehend.


This region is an ethnic, religious mosaic. There are little in the way of the unifying factors and the chasms that divide communities lie close to the surface. The illusion of “Arab unity” or solidarity can be shattered in an instant.


The reality of the situation is this:
1.   1. No Arab country truly cares about the Palestinians. They use them as a political football.

2.   2. The Palestinians and Lebanese both have reasons to distrust each other.

3.   3. Both the Palestinians and the Lebanese have been catastrophically failed by their political elites since the creation of Israel and Lebanon.

4.   4. It is the Lebanese and Palestinian people who have suffered as a result, not the leadership.


Racism exists in the Middle East. Racism exists in every country the world over. That such a violate region is home to such attitudes should strike every intelligent individual as blatantly obvious. However, it does not help the situation when the media presents only one side of the story.


Is it wrong? Of course. Is it surprising? No.


Why am I not surprised that I’ve typed that sentence twice in a matter of days?


One thing’s for certain, it makes my homeland look uncomplicated.


However, the issue is being considered, so maybe there’s room for hope.