Palestinians in Lebanon seek right of return
“We know when we start a campaign we work for an achievable goal,” declares Wafa Yassir, the energetic head of Norwegian People”s Aid (NPA), which runs programs for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
“And we know the right of return is not an easy goal. It may not happen in our lifetime. But we have to keep this right for the coming generation, and after that. And one day we will get it because it”s our historic right and we won”t give it up.”
She adds softly, “I cannot give up a country that we had, when I find my father crying when he sees Jaffa on TV. I cannot give this away.”
Pro-Palestinian organizations are set to participate in the World Social Forum, which takes on a different structure this year with broad-based civil society marking a Global Day of Action on Saturday, 26 January, in capitals around the world.
There will be a demonstration in Jerusalem around the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when they were forced out of the land that became Israel in 1948. Palestinians in Lebanon are some of the worst off — having been displaced up to five times from fighting and the civil war since then.
Highlighting the right of return is fundamental, says Ziad Abdel Samad, the director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) in Beirut.
“Palestinian networks are coordinating to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nakba,” he says. “And the message for Lebanon is socio-economic rights for Palestinians now — for them to live like human beings — until the implementation of the right of return.”
Samad believes the Palestinian NGO movement in Lebanon is unusual for the Middle East. “It”s hard to find independent civil society in Arab countries,” he says. “In general, space for civil society is very bad, they don”t have the right to exist. And if they do, they are related in one way or another to their governments, or reflect their government”s policies and are not independent.”
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon was the primary employer and service provider in the Palestinian camps prior to 1982, when it was sent into exile in Tunis. Peripheral local groups like the Ghassan Kanafani Foundation, Najdeh, Beit Atfal Assumoud and the General Union of Palestinian Women worked to fill the void and gradually expanded, while new NGOs emerged to work alongside United Nation”s Relief and Works Agency”s (UNRWA) over-stretched services.
Their activities became more urgently needed during the first Gulf War when Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait and other Gulf States and the refugee camps no longer received their remittances. Former prime minister Rafiq Hariri”s cabinet responded by increasing the number of licenses it provided for Palestinian NGOs, including for organizations backed by Islamist groups like Hamas.
However, there are no purely Palestinian-led organizations that are legal in Lebanon.
“There are three types of NGOs for Palestinians,” explains Jaber Suleiman, a coordinator for A”idoun, a local group advocating the right of return, and most recently organizer of a conference for Palestinians refugees fleeing Iraq.
“The first are registered as Lebanese NGOs with the Interior Ministry. Because Palestinians cannot have NGOs, the Lebanese agree to cover our activity and work as an administrative committee. The second are international NGOs working in the camps. And the third are local with permission only from the Muslim court — some get funding from religious groups, others from the people.”
NPA is one of the biggest international NGOs working with Palestinians in Lebanon, getting its start rebuilding the shattered Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut after the brutal Israeli invasion in 1982. Since then the charity has developed local partnerships with an expanding Palestinian civil society network that advocates for the Palestinian right to return. But its immediate fight is for civil rights for Palestinians living in Lebanon.
Because Lebanon”s controversial and delicate sectarian-based government was threatened by the large influx of Palestinian refugees, it passed a series of discriminatory laws forbidding Palestinians from taking work in over 70 professions, from owning property, or building inside the camps. These are the laws that NPA and other NGOs are trying to change for the just over 400,000 Palestinians currently registered with UNRWA.
But the space for pro-Palestinian advocacy in Lebanon has become more limited since the fighting last summer between the Lebanese army and militant group Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon”s northern Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, which deepened local animosity towards Palestinians.
“We were doing advocacy and lobbying to change the property law [for Palestinians], but then Nahr al-Bared happened and we couldn”t even talk about it,” says Yassir. “Now we are in a difficult situation. If only the current government allowed the right to own property and to work, this would make life so much better and improve living conditions.”
Coordinated by ANND, the Palestinian NGO Forum network in Lebanon comprising Palestinian NGOs “fronted” by Lebanese has teamed up with Arab-Israeli counterpart Ittihad, and the Palestinian NGO network in the West Bank and Gaza to address local issues, with the right of return the overall theme.
“As a network the first objective was to bring Palestinian issues to the global agenda,” Samad explains. “When we participated in the World Social Forum for example, we tried to raise the Palestinian issue from different perspectives. With Lebanon it was the issue of refugees, and socio-economic and human rights. With the West Bank and Gaza, it was about ending the occupation, and an independent state. And when it came to Ittihad, it was the struggle for equal rights as a minority.”
“We are trying to establish one Palestinian network,” agrees Suleiman, “based on the slogan of unity for the Palestinian land and people. I can”t say there are not many difficulties because there is a wide spectrum of NGOs with a variety of political views. But we are trying to this now,” he says. “We prefer to have a consensus.”