There is a new rumor every week in what remains of Lebanon’s Nahr el Bared refugee camp. The hearsay this week claims the Palestinian refugee situation will be one of the priorities of the country’s new cabinet. Palestinian refugees will soon be granted civil rights preparing them for resettlement in Lebanon, says the rumor.
One could almost be forgiven for believing the gossip. Prime Minister Designate Saad Hariri has meet with representatives of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community since his recent election and has voiced his support for better living conditions for refugees. Moreover, it appears Hariri has a level of personal compassion for the suffering of Palestinian refugees. On the surface, it appears the situation for Palestinian refugees is set to improve.
Bumps in the road
There are spanners in the works, however, including the Maronite Christian opposition leader General Michel Aoun. To date, Aoun has been the most outspoken critic of rebuilding the war-torn Nahr el Bared (NBC) refugee camp. Yet his rhetoric indicates that he is not opposed to the concept of rebuilding NBC. He is merely using his opposition as a political tool. He knows the current government would like the refugee camp to be rebuilt. Aoun pushes to stall the rebuilding process, thereby giving himself leverage for future horse-trading. It is not only by working to stall the rebuilding of NBC that Aoun can complicate the lives of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
After finding success in the recent parliamentary elections, Aoun has been demanding a number of key ministerial portfolios for his political bloc, including the Ministries of Interior, Social Affairs, Telecommunications and Agriculture. There could be further negative repercussions for Palestinian refugees if Aoun gets the Ministry of Interior because the Department of Palestinian Affairs is housed within this ministry.
Notably, the opposition politicians other than Aoun are not making much noise about the Palestinian refugee issue. Prior to the parliamentary elections, a few opposition politicians tried to politicize the subject to little avail. The ruling March 14 alliance did a good job of disarming the issue by touting their anti-tawteen (naturalization) credentials, which leads to a very important point. On a deeper level, there is a tremendous, visceral opposition not only to tawteen, but also to Palestinians in general, by many of Lebanon’s Christians (including those affiliated with the March 14 alliance). Hence, the March 14 victory in the elections does not necessarily mean the new parliament will be entirely friendly to Palestinian refugees.
Although Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee issue does not appear to be something that must be defended at all costs, it is clearly close to Hariri’s heart. Furthermore, the topic will obviously be a key element in the Obama administration’s Middle East peace efforts. In fact, in light of Obama’s push for peace and the interests of regional actors, it is possible that Lebanon’s policy towards Palestinian refugees will be imposed on the country from the outside and not grown organically from within. Considering the frailty of the Lebanese political equation, this may not be the wisest of policies. Many Lebanese view the Palestinian refugee presence in their country as the catalyst for the 1975 civil war.
In conclusion, it is extremely difficult to anticipate what shape the new Hariri government’s policy towards Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will take. It is likely that Hariri himself does not yet know. With a hawkish government dominating in Israel and little political will for peace from other regional actors, it is likely that Obama’s Middle East peace plan will come to naught. At that point, Lebanon’s Palestinians will do well simply to keep their heads above water.
John Redwine is an independant Media Consultant for Albany Associates