Palestinians in Lebanon

The Palestinian presence in Lebanon goes back to the 1948 and 1967 exodus and has increased with a flood of Palestinians coming from Jordan following the events of « Black September » in 1970. A number of Palestinians fled from Lebanon during the civil war (1976-1990).

In 1952, the Palestinian population in Lebanon was estimated to 140.000 persons (10% of the population). The economical difficulties and Lebanon’s particular social-cultural make-up – characterized by a fragile confessional balance between Muslims and Christians and institutionalized to the latter’s advantage – excluded the naturalization of this numerous population, moreover dominantly Muslim. Thus the Palestinians in Lebanon have since the beginning been marginalized to the side lines of the local economic and political life.

The Cairo Agreement concluded in 1969 between the PLO and the Lebanese government – as a result of pressure from the other Arab countries – lay the foundation for the development of separate non-formal Palestinians institutions. Parallel to the weakening of the Lebanese political system, there has grown, to the dismay of the Christian elite, the seeds of what could be called a real « PLO-State » in Lebanon.

This growing de facto autonomy – which also concerns the Palestinian military operations against Israel – led the Israeli army to multiply in 1976 its attacks on Lebanon, in order to force the Lebanese government to disarm the Palestinians factions. A part of the Muslim Lebanese population – weary of the Christian grasp on the State apparatus and first victim of a deplorable economical situation – espoused the cause of the Palestinians. These latter became de facto active players of the civil war which started in 1976. The successive Israeli military interventions in Lebanon, in 1978 and 1982 in particular, let a part of the Palestinian population flow back from southern Lebanon to Beirut and the north of the country.

Since the PLO left Beirut in 1982, the influence of the Palestinian political and military groups has waned, and what influence remains is limited to the refugees camps and concerns groups more radical than the mainstream of the PLO.

Presently, the status granted to the Palestinians by the Lebanese government varies according to the legal circumstances of their arrival and establishment:

There are those who, installed in the wake of the 1948 exodus, were registered in the UNWRA census made in the fifties. They are registered by the Lebanese State and received documents in proof which allow them to travel out of Lebanon.

There are those who, in the wake of the same exodus, were not registered in this census. their situation was regularized by the Lebanese State in 1969. They however don’t figure in the UNWRA registers.

The 1967 refugee Palestinians are recognized nor by the UNWRA, neither by the Lebanese State which considers their presence as illegal.

It is difficult to evaluate with precision the present population of Palestinians in Lebanon. For the Lebanese authorities, according to the latest national census, in 1992, they are 317.376. According to the UNWRA 1995 statistics, there are 370,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon of whom 52% live in camps.

A rather significant number of Palestinians living since a long time in Lebanon have acquired the Lebanese citizenship, but their exact number – probably slightly higher than 10.000 – is hard to determine.

In the perspective of a final status for the Palestinian territories and a solution to the problem of the refugees (see « Oslo peace process »), it seems clear that Lebanon is the Arab country which insists the most on their right for return. Also, given the extremely precarious conditions in which the Lebanese legislation forces them to live, these refugees are the most eager applicants for the right of return. But as most are from Galilea (an Israeli territory with an Arab population majority), Israel doesn’t want to hear anything about them. Some diplomats are hoping they can be encouraged to emigrate to Canada or Australia.