Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Dr Maria Holt, Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminister


    "Oh people, tell the world about what happened to the Palestinian people. Describe what happened to us".[5]

    "I come from Kapri outside Akka. It was bursting with fruits and vegetables. Every valley and mountain was full of grapes, olive trees, figs... We fled and left it all behind us. What can we do?" [6]


  1.1  With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, between 750,000 and 900,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homeland to neighbouring areas; approximately 100,000 crossed the northern border into Lebanon. [7]Today, 59 years later, they are still in Lebanon and still waiting to return. In many ways, the Palestinian refugees residing outside their former homeland have become a "forgotten people". I would argue, however, that, unless a just solution can be found to the plight of the refugees, especially those in Lebanon, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be satisfactorily concluded.

  1.2  According to survivors, the flight from Palestine was a deeply traumatic experience. From interviews I have conducted with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, [8]most of the people who went there in 1948 expected to be able to return to their homes in Palestine once the fighting had ended; they took few possessions; many carried with them the keys to their houses. When they first arrived in Lebanon, the refugees lived in tents provided by the international community. Individuals recall the discomfort of this period, the sand, flies and lack of privacy. Gradually, more permanent dwellings were constructed.

  1.3  By the 1960s, a Palestinian resistance movement (embodied in the Palestine Liberation Organisation), which contained both political and military components, began to take shape in order to struggle for the right of return. In 1969, the Cairo Agreement between the PLO and the Lebanese government gave Palestinians autonomy over their own camps and affairs. For the next 12 years, the living conditions of ordinary refugees improved. They took advantage of better access to employment and enjoyed the benefits of Palestinian institutions. [9]This period, often referred to as "the days of revolution", ended abruptly in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon and expelled the PLO.

  1.4  As a result of their insecure status, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been subjected to various episodes of violence during their 59-year exile: for example, the siege and massacre of Tal al-Za'ter refugee camp in Beirut by Lebanese Christian groups, 1975-76; the Lebanese civil war, 1975-90; the Israeli invasion and occupation, 1982-85; the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila area of Beirut by members of the Christian Lebanese Forces, 1982; the siege of camps in Beirut and the south by the Lebanese Amal militia, 1985-87.


  2.1  In recognition of the rights of the Palestinians, the United Nations adopted Resolution 194 on 11 December 1948. It states: "(The General Assembly)... resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of, or damage to, property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible".

  2.2  Through Resolution 194, the General Assembly established the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) "to provide international protection for all persons displaced as a result of the 1947-48 conflict and war in Palestine... The Commission attempted to provide legal and diplomatic protection for Palestinian refugees during its early years of operation" but, in the mid-1950s, concluded "that it was unable to fulfil its mandate due to the lack of international political will to facilitate solutions for Palestinian refugees consistent with Resolution 194 and international law".[10]

  2.3  The main instrument protecting the rights of Palestinian refugees, the Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinians in Arab States (Casablanca Protocol) of 11 September 1965, calls on member states of the Arab League to allow Palestinian refugees the right of employment and the right to leave and return to the states in which they reside. But this "has been patchily implemented".[11]

  2.4  In May 1950, a special agency, the United National Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was created to "to provide emergency assistance to the hundreds of thousands of destitute Palestinians who had been uprooted as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict".[12] It provides free schooling to refugee children between the ages of six and 16, basic medical care, and relief services. UNRWA's mandate permits the organisation to operate only at the discretion of the host government, which means it is entitled to provide assistance but not protection to the refugees.

  2.5  Unlike other refugees in the world, "Palestinians are singled out for exceptional treatment in the major international legal instruments which govern the rights and obligations of states towards refugees: the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and its 1967 Protocol (Refugee Protocol); the Statute of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and, specifically with regard to the Palestinians, the Regulations governing the mandate of... (UNRWA)". [13]The relevant provisions of these instruments have been interpreted as restricting the rights of Palestinians as refugees in comparison to the rights of other refugee groups and, as a result, "Palestinian refugees have been treated as ineligible for the most basic protection rights guaranteed under international law to refugees in general".[14]

  2.6  The denial of rights, as the Palestinian Human Rights Organisation in Beirut notes, "has prevented the Palestinian refugee community from prospering and has placed them on a course of de-development".[15] PHRO believes that "Palestinians must be recognised as refugees, not aliens, and granted the rights outlined in such covenants as the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, and more broadly, the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights".[16] Such moves would in no way compromise, as many in the Lebanese government argue, Lebanese support for the right of return.


  3.1  Initially regarded as temporary guests in Lebanon, the Palestinian presence soon grew problematic. After ten years, as it became apparent that the Palestinians' stay would be longer than anticipated, a Department of Affairs of the Palestinian Refugees was created, as an office within the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior, to cope with the refugee population. Although it has "responsibility for administering the Palestinian presence in Lebanon", there is no obligation to provide basic social services—that is left to UNRWA. [17]Under the Law Pertaining to the Entry Into, Residence In and Exit from Lebanon, of July 1962, Palestinian refugees are defined as "foreigners" and not allowed to work without a work permit. In 1994, only 0.14% of a potential workforce of 218,173—approximately 350 people—obtained work permits; a further 4.86% worked the restricted fields; the remaining 95% were either unemployed or casually employed in the informal sector. [18]

  3.2  Besides the difficulties that Palestinians face in finding employment, they are prevented from participating in most sectors of society. In the field of higher education, Palestinian refugees must compete with other non-Lebanese students for the small number of places available to foreigners at Lebanese educational institutes. In April 2002, tuition fees for foreign students, who include Palestinian refugees, were tripled. Palestinians, like other non-nationals in Lebanon, do not receive equal treatment in the court systems because they are denied access to the judicial support fund and therefore unable to afford legal representation. Lebanese law prevents non-nationals, including Palestinian refugees, from forming representative bodies, such as unions or syndicates, or electing political representatives. A law passed in April 2001 requires that anyone owning property in Lebanon must be a citizen of an "established state"; as Palestinians are stateless, they are not allowed to own land in Lebanon. The Lebanese government has prohibited structural development services within the refugee camps which means, firstly, camps destroyed during the Lebanese civil war cannot be rebuilt; secondly, damaged or demolished houses within the camps cannot be repaired; and, thirdly, new camps cannot be constructed nor existing camps expanded. [19]

  3.3  Far from treating the refugees more humanely, in 1995 the Lebanese authorities "decided that all Palestinians holding Lebanese travel documents... would henceforth require visas to enter the country. (This) ruling means effectively that these laissez-passer holders no longer have the legal right to reside in Lebanon, or indeed anywhere else in the world".[20] These additional restrictions on travel and residency have been imposed, say critics, "to encourage their permanent departure".[21]

  3.4  The present Lebanese government has discussed ways of improving the lives of Palestinian refugees, such as giving them Lebanese nationality or relaxing employment laws but, as its own situation is now somewhat precarious, such ideas are currently suspended. Many of the refugees to whom I spoke were sceptical about Lebanese government intentions.


  4.1  According to recent figures, there are now 405,425 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA in Lebanon; of these, the majority (214,093) reside in 12 camps scattered throughout the country. [22]The refugees, who are mainly Sunni Muslims, represent approximately 10% of the population of Lebanon and are regarded as a threat to the country's delicate demographic balance. They can be divided into three groups: those registered with both UNRWA and the Lebanese government; those registered with the Lebanese government but not with UNRWA; and those not registered at all. There are several thousand refugees not registered by UNRWA; they receive only minor services from UNRWA and no assistance from the Lebanese government. [23]During my fieldwork, I met several young people without legal identity. Besides being unable to travel or enrol in higher education, they cannot even get married and are reluctant to move outside camps for fear of being arrested. [24]The annual growth rate among Palestinians in Lebanon is 2.3%, the lowest among all five UNRWA fields of operation. [25]An estimated 60% live below the UN poverty line, although the real figure is probably higher. The "illiteracy rate is high among adult Palestinians in Lebanon and may be rising as increasing numbers of refugee children drop out of school".[26] A large number of the refugees in Lebanon have been displaced at least twice in their lifetimes, as a result of civil war, invasion by Israel, and violent attacks by various groups on the camps and their residents. It is estimated that the community may have lost between 50,000 and 60,000 people in casualties and out-migration since the Israeli invasion of 1982.

  4.2  Since the Oslo agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the government of Israel, in September 1993, funding for Palestinian refugees living outside the country has declined significantly. In May 1997, Canada—the Gavel Holder for the Refugee Working Group—led an International Mission, which included representatives from the EU, Egypt and Japan, "to assess and give profile to the needs of Palestinian refugees, and to mobilise international humanitarian assistance".[27] The Mission discovered the mood of the refugees in Lebanon to be "one of despair, hopelessness and increased frustration".[28] The first consideration, they suggested, should be humanitarian issues. [29]

  4.3  The health situation in the refugee camps of Lebanon is a matter of grave concern. All the camps are severely overcrowded and Lebanese government restrictions prevent families from extending their houses. Cramped living conditions, inadequate sewerage systems and the lack of piped water into homes mean that infections spread quickly. Many of the medical problems experienced by camp residents, including children, can be attributed to poor environmental conditions and also feelings of profound anxiety about the future. Very high unemployment means that a high proportion of people are dependent on the free health care provided by UNRWA, which operates clinics inside the camps. Although consultations are free, the clinics are usually understaffed, which means patients may have to wait for a long time to see a doctor. Medication is also free, but often not available. One of the main problems facing refugees is a lack of affordable hospital care. UNRWA is able to cover only a fraction of hospital costs and, therefore, patients must find the rest of the money themselves, a situation certain to cause immense hardship to poor families. [30]Besides UNRWA, the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), which was founded in Lebanon in 1969, as a humanitarian affiliate of the PLO, also provides health care to the refugee community. In 1996, the PRCS conducted a survey to assess the health needs of the refugees. They discovered that deteriorating economic conditions and the resulting widespread poverty were significant contributory factors to a deteriorating health situation. In addition, the effects of long-term exile were blamed for an increase in psychological problems. [31]


  5.1  There are three key areas of responsibility to bear in mind when considering the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon: firstly, the responsibility of Israel in creating the Palestinian refugee problem and subsequently exacerbating it; secondly, the responsibility of the international community, through the non-enforcement of United Nations resolutions, specifically UN Resolution 194; and, thirdly, the responsibility of the Lebanese government, which is currently failing to meet its international legal obligations with respect to the refugees.

  5.2  The plight of the Palestinian population in Lebanon goes far beyond humanitarian concerns and the refugees insist that their problems should not be considered only in these terms. There are also political and national dimensions, and I would argue that attempts by Israel and some western countries to remove from the agenda of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process the question of Palestinian refugees, their rights and their future is both out of step with the treatment of refugees elsewhere (for example, Macedonia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo, Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) and unlikely to contribute towards an acceptable resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

  5.3  The majority of refugees in Lebanon, most of whom originally came from northern Palestine, insist upon the right of return, which is a right guaranteed under international law, to their original homes, now situated in Israel, a claim so far rejected by the Israeli government. In the meantime, the Lebanese government is keen to see an end to this long-running tragedy, both for the sake of the refugees themselves and also for the future of Lebanon, a country with a small population, limited territory and a finely balanced demographic structure.

  5.4  According to those concerned with Palestinian refugee rights, there are three possible solutions to the problem: resettlement in a third country, local integration in the country of asylum, and voluntary repatriation. Of these, "[v]oluntary repatriation—or return—is often referred to as the preferred solution".[32] When asked about their own preferences, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, with few exceptions, will insist on their right to return to their country (and by that they mean the areas from which they or their families originally came and not some future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip)


  6.1  My recommendations fall into two categories: those concerned with the internationally-recognised rights of the Palestinian refugees and those referring to their right to live in comfort and dignity in their temporary place of refuge.

  6.2  The right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants and the question of compensation for those who do not wish to return must be placed firmly back on the agenda of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The government of Israel should be encouraged, in the interests of securing a genuine and lasting peace, to reconsider its rejection of Palestinian refugee rights and to reach a compromise with the Palestinians.

  6.3  The refugees themselves have a right to play a role in decisions about their future. In the past, they "were more often than not considered in terms of humanitarian assistance rather than individuals with rights and as legitimate actors in the peace process. They were assessed, surveyed, quantified, classified, but few policymakers, diplomats or commentators bothered to ask and listen to the refugees themselves about how they envision a solution to their plight".[33] Representatives of the refugees must be included in any final status negotiations.

  6.4  The role of UNRWA should be strengthened so that it is capable of providing effective protection (and not merely assistance) to Palestinian refugees. This means that the terms of its mandate need to be amended. The organisation's sources of funding also need to be secured so that it can budget more efficiently for the needs of the refugees. This would contribute towards restoring confidence in the organisation on the part of those it is meant to help.

  6.5  A particular area of concern, expressed to me by many refugees, is the lack of security in old age. Those who work for Lebanese employers are not entitled to pension provision and, as a result, the elderly are entirely dependent on their families. It would be useful for UNRWA to look into the possibility of providing financial support to older members of the refugee community.

  6.5  Until the refugees are able to exercise their right of return, "they should be able to enjoy access to essential services and exercise their rights to work, education, healthcare and property ownership"[34] in Lebanon. The Lebanese government should be encouraged in its efforts to improve the legal conditions under which refugees live so that they may take advantage of better access to health, education and employment. Such measures would make an enormous difference to their physical and psychological well-being.

March 2007

5   Translated from recordings of mourning women made by ABC News in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, September 1982. Back

6   Fatima Badawi, who fled from Palestine in 1948 with her two daughters, quoted in Refugee Stories, Bourj el-Barajne, UNRWA, February 2007. Back

7   UN estimate. Back

8   Between 2000-03 for my PhD thesis and in 2006-07 for an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on Palestinian refugee women in the camps of Lebanon. Back

9   McDowall, David, The Palestinians, London: Minority Rights Group, Report No 24, 1987, p 26. Back

10   BADIL, Palestinian Refugees-International Protection, Back

11   Elsayed-Ali, Sherif, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Forced Migration Review, Issue 26, August 2006, p 13. Back

12   Hansen, Peter, UNRWA Commissioner-General, Building on Success: 52 Years of Work to Protect and Promote the Health of Palestine Refugees, first published 1998. Back

13   Akram, Susan M, Reinterpreting Palestinian Refugee Rights under International Law, and a Framework for Durable Solutions, BADIL-Information and Discussion Brief, Issue No 1, February 2000. Back

14   Akram, Reinterpreting Palestinian Refugee Rights under International LawBack

15   PHRO, Political and Legal Status of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Back

16   PHRO, Political and Legal Status of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Back

17   Said, Wadie, The Status of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, The Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine and The Jerusalem Fund, May 1999. Back

18   Said, The Status of Palestinian Refugees in LebanonBack

19   Palestinian Human Rights Organisation, Political and Legal Status of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, Beirut. Back

20   Khalidi, Muhammad Ali, Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, Middle East Report, November-December 1995, p 28. Back

21   Zakharia, Leila, Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, Outsider, October 1996. Back

22   UNRWA, 31 March 2006. Back

23   Palestinian Human Rights Organisation (PHRO), The Palestinian Right to Work and Own Property in Lebanon, Beirut, April 2003, p 3. Back

24   Petrigh, Cynthia, No freedom, no future: undocumented Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Forced Migration Review Issue 26, August 2006, p 15. Back

25   UNRWA fields of operation: West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Back

26   Arzt, Donna E, Refugees into Citizens: Palestinians and the End of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, New York: The Council on Foreign Relations, 1997, p 46. Back

27   Refugee Working Group, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada, Missions to Refugee Camps, "More than US$15 million mobilised as a result of the International Mission to Lebanon", 1998. Back

28   Report of the International Mission to Lebanon. Back

29   Report of the International Mission to Lebanon. Back

30   Information supplied by Rebecca Roberts of the University of York, who conducted fieldwork in the refugee camps of Lebanon from September to November 2000 for her PhD. Back

31   Information provided by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) Lebanon, November 2000. Back

32   Elsayed-Ali, Sherif, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Forced Migration Review, Issue 26, August 2006, p 13. Back

33   BADIL Resource Centre, "Palestinian Refugee Participation", Back

34   Elsayed-Ali, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, p 14. Back

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