Saturday, June 19, 2010

Understanding the failure of the Lebanese parliament to pass legislation ending the terrible treatment of the Palestinian refugees

The scandalous division in the Lebanese parliament over the bills ending policies of discrimination in housing ownership and employment came up in a phone conversation I had with a relative of mine, a Palestinian refugee from Syria. My relative was puzzled by the treatment of the refugees in Lebanon and by what happened in the parliament. The country of his family's forced refuge, Syria, gives the refugees all the rights Syrians have except the right to vote and to run for office. The world has moved away from such blatant discrimination, how could those who speak of democracy, human rights shamelessly act the way they did he asked?

Any Muslim, any Arab but not a Palestinian Muslim

This phone conversation got me thinking of a situation that puzzled a friend of mine from Dearborn, a Muslim Palestinian attorney born in the US whose parents were from the West Bank, with no ties to Lebanon. Learning that Lebanon was seeking basketball players from overseas, this man wanted to take a break after law school and play basketball in Lebanon. He asked for my help. I called a Christian Lebanese friend of mine of Palestinian origin and asked him to help. He said his cousin works in recruitment of basketball talent and he would see what he could do. Then almost as an afterthought he asked me where is this player from. I told him he is an American born to a Palestinian Muslim family from the West Bank. There was an awkward silence. "It won't work," he said.. A Muslim American of any other nationality would do, he said. A Christian Palestinian would do but not a Muslim Palestinian even if he and his family have nothing to do with Lebanon. "Sorry."

Christian Lebanese and the Palestinians

Why a Christian Palestinian would be acceptable but not a Muslim one? If the Christian Lebanese right wing still has a vendetta from the civil war, why would a Christian Palestinian be ok and not a Muslim one, if the issue is the Palestinians as a people? This mystery is demystified by two interactions I had. On a flight from Amman to Beirut I was sitting next to a Lebanese Christina man. Our small talk, predictably, ended in politics. We talked about the war and the aftermath. We spoke about the different players in the civil war. To my surprise when he spoke about Palestinians he meant Muslim Palestinians. To him the Christian Palestinians were not "Palestinians." This realization is validated by the treatment of Christian Palestinians during the civil war. I once asked a Christian Palestinian friend who lived in the Christian sector of the city if the Christian militias bothered his family. He told me not at all. He thought a little bit and said the neighbors sometimes mocked his grandfather's Palestinian dialect. But that was it. He was accepted in Christian Lebanon. Even the few Christian Palestinians who were not naturalized were accepted in the turf of the Lebanese Christian right.

The beginning and end of the war

Began with a myth ended with a myth

The civil war of Lebanon that broke out in the 1970s began with a myth and ended with a myth. The war began with the myth/blatant lie that the Palestinians want to "take over" Lebanon. It ended with the grand lie/the founding lie of the Taif Republic that the Lebanese are innocent from the war and its atrocities and it's all the Palestinians' fault. The Lebanese Christian right wing needed a convenient enemy that does not draw attention to Lebanese vicious disputes and conflicts- so during the war they chose to have the Palestinians as the public face of the enemy.

More importantly, the Lebanese civil war ended by an imposed Syrian peace on the feuding Lebanese factions. Unwilling to examine the war period, or to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to bring the civil war's many Lebanese war criminals to account, official Lebanon chose to "let bygones be bygones" as the late President Elias el Hrawi put it. But the masses and the youth who did not live the war needed a war narrative, a villain and a hero. The right-wing Christian narrative that carried the day was that the Palestinian was the villain and the Lebanese people the innocent victim of the "wars of others." Vindictive policies toward the Palestinians followed.

Christian Lebanon and Muslim Lebanon

At the heart of the division over the issue of the Palestinian refugees basic rights is an existential question regarding Lebanon itself as a polity. Whose Lebanon is it? I worked in California with a Lebanese Christian of Syrian origin. He said that the religious divide in Lebanon is sickening. He related how in college a Christian Lebanese girl one time stated that she is annoyed by how "Muslims are acting as if they owned Lebanon." My secular Syrian nationalist friend replied to her that Christians too act as if they own Lebanon. She replied, without hesitation, we do! Lebanese media report that the Palestinian issue divided the Lebanese in parliament along communal religious lines. The reality is that the Lebanese are divided along religious lines and the treatment of the Palestinians is a manifestation of this awful division. If the Lebanese truly believed and acted as if Lebanon is their country, regardless of sect and religion, these bills would not have been before parliament at all. The Palestinians would have been dealt with decently and honorably from their day one of forced refuge in Lebanon. They haven't and the Lebanese have to look at themselves in the mirror to know why. Stop pretending.

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