Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lebanon, the Devil, and Idle Hands

There is an old saying, “the devil makes work for idle hands.” Over the past few days, this saying has been proving itself out yet again in Lebanon.

Over the past three days, the Lebanese army has been fighting with a Palestinian militant group called Fatah al-Islam. According to news reports, the current clashes started when Lebanese security forces raided a building on Sunday to arrest Fatah al-Islam militants accused of robbing a bank in Tripoli. The militants fought back and attacked Lebanese army positions outside the Palestinian refugee camp where they are based, and the Lebanese army responded by striking targets within the refugee camp with tank shells and exchanging fire with Fatah al-Islam militants holed up inside.

Under the terms of the 1969 Cairo Agreement, Lebanon ceded control of the Palestinian refugee camps to what was at the time known as the PLO. Under this agreement, Lebanon’s army is barred from entering the camps.

Reading these news stories calls to mind one very disturbing question: why are Palestinian “refugees” still living in refugee camps in Lebanon when most of these so-called refugees were born there? Palestinian “refugees” migrated to Lebanon in 1948 when the state of Israel was founded.

Most of these Palestinian “refugees” did not flee the area now known as Israel – most have never even seen it, save those people over 60. In fact, the ones who made the decision to flee (those who were adults at the time) would now be over 80 years old today. The vast majority of the Palestinian “refugees” living in Lebanon were born in Lebanon, and many of their parents were born in Lebanon too, and yet because they are descended from actual refugees, they are not accorded the rights of Lebanese citizenship. They cannot vote, and there are many jobs they are barred from holding, and so unemployment and underemployment are rife. To add insult to injury, most of these “refugees” are kept in “refugee camps”, with insufficient size and inadequate infrastructure to support a burgeoning population. With this treatment, is it any wonder that Fatah al-Islam and other criminal gangs can get an easy foothold?

Someone who is born in a country but is not accorded the status of citizenship and the same rights as other citizens is not a refugee, he/she is a second-class citizen, much like blacks were in the southern United States during the “Jim Crow” days of segregation. And, when a group of people is kept in that state for multiple generations, is there any wonder that one is faced with a legion of young, angry men?

Israel isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Lebanon should know this, and the Palestinians should know this. Why, then, are Palestinians still living in refugee camps, and why are they still referred to as refugees in Lebanon? If this thinking does not change, these refugee camps will be permanent fixtures.

The true long-term solution to Fatah al-Islam and other criminal groups is to improve people’s economic prospects and integrate them into society. Granting full Lebanese citizenship to all Palestinians who were born in Lebanon would be a good start. Once this is done, the refugee camps can be integrated into the Lebanese environment as normal towns. Productive people are happy people, and unlikely to support groups like Fatah al-Islam.