In Lebanon, rage for Jerusalem but not for Palestinians at home
Beirut - Abeer Kayyal, a 19-year-old student, is adamant about a few things.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, not the Israeli capital. The United States doesn’t have the right to give Jerusalem to the Israelis. Every grain of sand is Palestine,” she said.
However, the young Palestinian woman is also firm about her rights in Lebanon — or lack of them.
“We don’t have our rights here — to work, to own things,” she said while standing at a pro-Palestinian protest near the US Embassy. “The Lebanese people are our brothers but they should give us our rights.”
There has been widespread condemnation in Lebanon of the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. A Hezbollah-aligned newspaper carried the front-page headline “Death to America.”
Lebanon harbours widespread anti-Israeli sentiment, bolstered by the southern neighbour’s invasions during the civil war and repeated conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s.
While authorities have directed deep anger at US President Donald Trump and Israel, there has been little noise about the plight of Palestinians, such as Kayyal, within Lebanon.
The United Nations says Lebanon is home to approximately 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees, who fled to the country in several waves after the creation of Israel in 1948. They largely live in deplorable conditions in 12 refugee camps where provision of basic commodities is inadequate.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, provides social services such as schools and doctors’ surgeries but operates with a $49 million deficit.
Palestinians are barred from owning property and working in up to 20 professions, condemning them mostly to low-paid posts.
Since Trump’s announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Lebanon’s Future parliamentary bloc, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has described it as a “blatant violation” of Palestinians’ rights to Jerusalem as the capital of an independent state. It called for “all the world’s nations… to establish a global front that defends legitimacy, principles of justice, freedom and democracy, and the need to respect international resolutions.”
At an emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul, Lebanese President Michel Aoun talked of Israel acting “against the course of history and is defying human and social development.”
Speaking in a televised address to tens of thousands of people in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah told Palestinians to “have faith in Allah and in the resistance that have triumphed in every battle it engaged in” — a likely reference to Hezbollah’s conflicts with Israel.
All such addresses failed to address the poverty, discrimination and barriers to development faced by Lebanon’s Palestinians.
“All parties in Lebanon, including Harakat Amal — supposedly on the so-called resistance side — are punishing Palestinians for having participated in the civil war,” said Hassan Chamoun, a Lebanese supporter of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel.
He said he was concerned that Palestinians in Lebanon were manipulated by the political elite that has remained in power since the end of the civil war in 1990.
“Most important, it’s to always keep a ready, Arabic-speaking cheap labour that one can repress easily. It’s at the end a class manoeuvre by the ruling elite,” Chamoun said.
Lebanon’s politicians claim that giving Palestinians full citizenship within the country would undermine their right of return to land in the present-day state of Israel.
That is a null argument, said Jad Chaaban, an associate professor of economics at the American University of Beirut.
“Providing Palestinians their basic human rights in Lebanon would in no way undermine the right of return,” he said. “Also, the Lebanese must acknowledge the fact that many Palestinians born in Lebanon are entitled for Lebanese nationality, as many have lived, worked, consumed and contributed to the local economy for decades, without any rights or proper recognition.”
While leaders remained quiet on the issue, some Lebanese have used the protests that have taken place since Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians at home.
At the same demonstration outside the US Embassy attended by Kayyal, Vladimir Mawleh, a 17-year-old half-Lebanese, half-Russian high school student from Labwe in the Bekaa Valley, said Israel had no rights over Jerusalem but Lebanon needed to support its Palestinian population as a priority.
“Palestinians should have all their rights in Lebanon. The government should support Palestinians in Jerusalem but they should first give rights to Palestinians in Lebanon,” he said.
Some Palestinians claim they do not want full civilian rights in Lebanon.
“I was 1 year old when the Nakba happened and my country has now been destroyed,” said 70-year-old Amouna Massoud, from Beirut’s Sabra Palestinian refugee camp, in reference to the forced exodus of Palestinians in 1948. “I don’t want rights in Lebanon. I want to return to Palestine,” she said at Hezbollah’s anti-Israel march.
The Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, an inter-ministerial agency, will next week publish the government’s first study on the country’s Palestinian population but did not give information on its stance regarding work and property ownership rights.
Like Palestinians across the region, the community in Lebanon feels abandoned by Arab leaders but they see little hope of improving their own situation or that of people in Israeli or Palestinian-controlled territory.
“My heart really hurt when I heard Trump’s decision about Jerusalem,” Kayyal said. “We will fight. I can’t do anything except stand here outside this embassy and protest.”