Sunday, October 4, 2009

Love Palestine, love its Palestinians?: The plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Love Palestine, love its Palestinians?: The plight of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Support for Gaza stops short, operation cast lead and the outpouring of support

During Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, a large number of Arab-Americans, leaders and community members turned out to protest the crimes of Israel in Gaza and the unlimited American support of Israel that enables this carnage. In the Greater Detroit area many of those in the protest were Lebanese who sincerely care about the Palestinian cause. It is great that the Palestinians have this show of support—it is heartening to see the throngs of supporters line up on Warren Avenue.

However, Palestinians in the Arab world are also victims of mistreatment and abuse. This mistreatment reaches appalling levels in Lebanon. One wonders how many of those Lebanese protesting Israeli crimes know, care or do something about the appalling situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, refugees who are now into their fourth or fifth generation of refuge. There is not a single week that goes by without the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar writing a story about the plight of the refugees—the excessive use of force by the national army and the looting of the Nahr al Bared Camp, the foul language written on the walls of the houses of the refugees, the ill treatment of the displaced refugees at the security checkpoints, etc.
You wonder what explains the loudness on the suffering of Palestinians on the hands of Israel versus the deadly silence as to the suffering of the Palestinians who live in Arab lands, particularly Lebanon. You wonder what is behind the almost universal silence of Arab-American newspapers run by Lebanese-Americans who are vocal supporters of Palestine but ignore completely the plight of the Palestinians in Lebanon? Suspicious.

Cognitive dissonance or tribal logic?: Lebanese civil war begins with a lie, ends with a lie

Is it cognitive dissonance? Is it fear of upsetting governments that are prone to abuse those who dissent? Is it a reality lived according to the Arab saying of me and my cousin against the stranger and me and my brother against my cousin? The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon face de jure and de facto discrimination that is not being seriously challenged in any way. A false history of the Palestinians in Lebanon has hardened many hearts to the plight of the Palestinian refugee and sunk into the unconscious of others allowing them the guilty comfort of the false sense of doubt about the injustice that the Palestinians live daily.
The Lebanese civil war began with the grand lie that the Palestinians either hate Lebanon or want it as a substitute for Palestine. One Lebanese fascist group has made the claim that the Palestinians hate Lebanon because it is "green" or that they want to take it over and forget about Palestine. Those deluded Lebanese forget that if Palestinians like Yasser Arafat, Nayef Hawatmeh, Dr. George Habash, Khalil al Wazir and Salah Khalaf wanted to replace Palestine with Lebanon, the Israeli army itself would have been glad to help them do just that. Israeli behavior and Palestinian behavior exposes this claim for the lie it is–the Israelis invaded Lebanon to crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian nationalism aided by none other than the obnoxiously loud and militarily fickle supporters of Israel who provided aid and comfort to the occupier of their own land, the Israelis, time and time again. This includes massacring civilians in cold blood while the Israelis light up the sky and watch from a safe distance.

The reality is that the civil war began with a lie about the Palestinians and ended with a lie about the Palestinians. Not wanting to face the demons of the causes of the civil war and the Lebanese on Lebanese atrocities, the Lebanese ended their war with the myth that it was all the fault of the Palestinians and the Lebanese were merely victims. A former prime minister aptly called The War of the Victims Against the [other] Victims.

Also, the late President of the Republic, Elias Hrawi, summarized this national amnesia and demonizing of the Palestinians in a TV interview stating "let [civil war atrocities] bygones be bygones." When asked about the rights of the Palestinian refugees he stated that he would not "privilege the Palestinians over the Lebanese." That statement sealed the fate of the refugees and ushered decades of discrimination and abuse.

The courage of Natalie Abu Shakra and the shameful silence of others

Not all Lebanese approve of the mistreatment. Al Quds al Arabi of Sept 15., 2009 published an interview with a Lebanese young woman, Natalie Abu Shakra, who was part of the ship that broke the siege on Gaza. Natalie stayed behind and experienced Operation Cast Lead. Abu Shakra compared the lives of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to the lives of the Gazans. She described the Palestinian camps in Lebanon as "ghettos, just as Gaza is." She told al Quds al Arabi reporter Zahra Merhi that the Palestinian refugees suffer from Lebanese government policy, have no rights, live in ghettos created by the state and that the reality of the camps in Lebanon is a "shame to mankind."

What a courageous woman young Abu Shakra is, a courage that we do not see from many men. No one expects all supporters of Palestine to brave the siege of Gaza and experience Cast Lead. However, it is not much to ask that the Lebanese who support Palestine communicate their disapproval of their country's shameful treatment of the Palestinian refugees and demand a change.

There are a number of consulates and an embassy to communicate this concern to. Also, in the Greater Detroit a number of delegations leave for Lebanon to meet with Lebanese officials to raise the concerns of the Lebanese community in the United States. Not one time I heard or read that any of these delegations raised the issue of the plight of the refugees. Not one time even though some of these delegations include some who wear the cause of Palestine on their sleeve, collar and elbow.

Lebanese sectarian democracy: Regime extends rights to groups, not individuals
Human rights groups ignore the biggest victims of abuse among them

The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are victims of the country's consociational regime and its sectarian politics. In this regime individuals are not recognized, only sects that run the government and the lives of their flock. The rights and obligations of individuals are seen through the prison of the sectarian politics and sectarian spoils. In this regime, the refugees are thought of as another "sect" that wants to share the spoils of the sectarian pie. This thinking sees the Palestinians as a demographic threat rather than as a group of human beings that is owed decency and civility in treatment from a people known to have emigrated in large number throughout the world and knows what it means and feels to be outside the country of origin.
It is time for official Lebanon and Lebanese leaders in the United States to make the leap of thinking outside the sectarian box, dealing with the refugees as a human group rather than as a sectarian collection and obsessing about how they play out in the sectarian balance or imbalance. The civil war hardened sectarians in Lebanon are excused for not being able to escape the straightjacket of sectarianism.

However, there is no easy pass for the others—those who merrily and loudly advocate the concept of citizenship, individual rights and liberties, over political sectarianism but have chosen to ignore the Palestinian issue and to instead revel in their pyrrhic victory of the optional removal of the religious affiliation from state IDs. They would have had a bigger impact and a claim to consistency and solid principle in respect for human rights if they had centered their campaign on the Palestinians and challenged the core of the sectarian regime and not its manifestations.

Those in the Mahjar or diaspora, especially those who wear Palestine on their sleeve, simply have no excuse to inaction. They co-own the national shame.

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