A three-year-old Palestinian refugee, Mohammad Wahbah, died in Lebanon after he was reportedly denied life-saving surgery. His family did not have the necessary funds for his medical treatment and the hospital refused to operate without advance payment.
Mohammad’s story is not entirely shocking considering the horrific conditions under which hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are forced to live.
But there is more to this than just the humanitarian aspect. There is also a political dimension that is critical to understand.
As early as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and certainly since the Oslo Accords in 1993, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been relegated to the bottom of the region’s political priorities. The ‘82 war saw the systematic destruction of Palestinian political influence in Lebanon; and the ‘93 agreement designated what should have been a pressing issue of refugee to be discussed in the ‘final status negotiations’, which never actualised.
The consequences of these two events have been dire, particularly to the Palestinian refugees of Lebanon scattered in 12 refugee camps and many other ‘gatherings’ throughout the country.
Following the purging of the official Palestinian political discourse from any serious emphasis on the refugees, the collective discourse too grew increasingly unaware of and oblivious to the hardship faced by Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East.
Considering the little sympathy that Palestinian refugees enjoy within the Lebanese government, Lebanon has become the most opportune place for the ongoing plot against their Right of Return — a right that has been at the centre of the Palestinian fight for justice for seven decades.
Particularly worrisome is that there is little by way of counter-efforts made by Palestinians and Arabs to at least raise awareness of the massive change in perception regarding the plight of the refugees and their ‘inalienable right’ to return to their Palestinian homeland, as confirmed repeatedly by international law, starting with UN Resolution 194 in 1948.
Immediately after the US administration of Donald Trump began to promote its ‘Deal of the Century’, Palestinian refugees have, once more, taken centre stage.
Many news reports have been pointing to an elaborate American plot to downgrade the status of refugees, to argue against UN figures indicating their actual numbers and to choke off UNRWA, the UN organisation responsible for refugees’ welfare, from desperately needed funds.
Israel and the US understand that without refugees collectively demanding their rights, the issue of the right of return could move from being an urgent, tangible demand to being a sentimental one which could be nearly impossible to achieve.
I spoke to Samaa Abu Sharar, a Palestinian activist in Lebanon and the director of the Majid Abu Sharar Media Foundation. She narrated that the nature of the conversation among refugees has changed in recent years. In the past, “almost everybody, from young to old, spoke about their wish to return to Palestine one day; at present, the majority, particularly the youth, only express one wish: to leave for any other country that would receive them.”
It is common knowledge that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are marginalised and mistreated especially when compared to other refugee populations in the Middle East. They are denied most basic human rights enjoyed by Lebanese or foreign groups, or even rights granted to refugees under international conventions. This includes the right to work, as they are denied access to 72 different professions.
With the Syrian war, the situation has worsened. Tens of thousands more refugees flooded the camps which lacked most basic services.
A suspiciously timed census — the first of its kind — by the Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics, conducted jointly with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics last December, resolved that the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon stands at only 175,000.
The survey was conducted at a time when the US administration has been keen to lower the number of Palestinian refugees, in anticipation of any future agreement between the Palestinian National Authority and Israel.
According to UNRWA statistics, there are more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees who are registered with the UN. There is no denying that there is an influx of Palestinian refugees wanting to leave Lebanon. Some have done so successfully, only to find themselves contending with the misery of yet a new refugee status in Europe.
Clearly there are those who are keen to rid Lebanon of its Palestinian population.
“There is more than one organised network that facilitates the immigration of Palestinians at prices that have recently gone down to make it more accessible to a larger number of people,” Abu Sharar told me.
Ignoring the misery of Palestinian refugees of Lebanon is now coming at a heavy price. Relegating their plight till ‘the final status negotiations’ is now leading to a two-fold crisis: the increased suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and the systematic destruction of one of the main pillars of the Palestinian refugees’ ‘Right of Return.’
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018).