‘Creative’ Negotiations: Growing Fear of Naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon

Dr. Bechara Nassar Charbel: ‘Creative’ Negotiations: Growing Fear of Naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon

  • 26 September 2010

In his statement at the Lebanese Presidential Palace on September 18, George Mitchell—the US Special Envoy to the Middle East—stated his country’s opposition to the possibility of ‘naturalization’ of Palestinians in Lebanon. This statement was enough to calm fears of Lebanese population that the Palestinian struggle would conclude at the expense of Lebanon. The issue of ‘nationalization’ has been exploited in the country for several decades and it is still being used as a political card by local and regional parties. This is indeed a real and serious concern as Lebanon itself suffers from sectarian and religious divisions—primarily Sunnis, Shiites and Christians.

No one in Lebanon wants nationalization of Palestinians. All political and sectarian forces oppose it publicly. There is also no evidence that any single party favors it secretly. In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly at the 65th session last September, President Michel Suleiman reiterated the position of Lebanon on its opposition to any type of naturalization of Palestinian refugees on its territories because it would “harm the pillars of stability and security in Lebanon”. President Suleiman stressed that the subject of refugees cannot be resolved through separate Israeli–Palestinian negotiations without involving Lebanon and other countries that play host to refugees. In addition, the subject of naturalization is already two decades old and has been part of the constitution’s preamble that affirms that Lebanon opposes the naturalization of Palestinians and insists that they return to their country. However, not all of this is enough to ease Lebanese concerns. Whenever a fresh round of Palestinian – Israeli negotiations starts, Lebanese continue to feel uneasy.

In fact, Lebanese concerns over the prospect of naturalization are not unfounded. The authoritarian dispensation that ruled Lebanon between 1990 and 2005 exploited the issue to intimidate Christians, even as it denied inhabitants of refugee camps even a modicum of decent living standards on the pretext of keeping the flame of their cause alight. Apart from the local Lebanese debate on the unnatural situation of Palestinians—especially the formation of militia centers that lay outside the authority of the state—the matter of “naturalization” has been the same as the “right of return”. The latter was and still is the fundamental point of contention in any negotiation process or in any serious suggestion for settlement. As a reminder, Resolution 194 of Security Council—issued on December 11, 1948— mentions in one of its clauses the necessity of allowing refugees who want to return home to return at the earliest. However, it subsequently states on the need for paying compensation for the property of those who do not want to return. This last clause lies at the heart of the matter.

Palestinian–Israeli negotiations are taking place today amidst a huge imbalance of power and at a time of major strategic shifts in the region that have severely affected the Palestinian cause and the conflict no longer remain the sole cause of concern in the Arab and Muslim world, as there are other major issues and crises. This has taken away the primacy and immediacy of the Arab-Israeli issue, as other concerns like terrorism, rising Iranian threats in the form of occupation (for example its occupation of the three UAE islands), its hegemonistic ambitions through military proxies (in Lebanon and Yemen), its aim to possess nuclear weapons, are examples of the other issues that have shifted focus away from the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian cause will not fall away from Arab consciousness, but it has lost its pre-eminent place. Therefore, Palestinians are forced to hold negotiations in the absence of an Arab system that the whole world knows has become ineffectual because of internal feuds. Palestinians also go into these talks handicapped by an internal division, after the ‘emirate’ of Gaza overthrew the Palestinian National Authority, which only serves the plans of the ‘Ruling Faqih’ in the region.

In spite of the pessimism expressed by many experts over the possibility of Israeli–Palestinian negotiations making progress on fundamental issues—especially colonies, Jerusalem’s future and the right of return—many international and Arab observers have a feeling that something might be achieved by the Mitchell mission. It is pointed out that there could at least be continuation in negotiations for a year under the cloak of “creative” solutions that Shimon Perez has raised. Over the issue of ‘Jewish state’ that Benjamin Netanyahu is raising, there is a Palestinian formula that states that ‘the state of Palestine’ recognizes the ‘state of Israel’ and allows Israel to call itself whatever it wants. Over the issue of colonies—that Israeli leaders are tenaciously adamant on—there are technical proposals that envision that Israel stop its activities in remote colonies and allows it places of “natural-growth”, and does not give fresh permission in sensitive places. On security matters, there are propositions that seem less problematic. All of these proposals would be easier to hammer out in the second term of the Obama administration, as the US has informed Israel that solving the Palestinian issue is a serious matter of US national security.

From all the above, what is missing is the “right of return” as an authentic right recognized by the United Nations resolutions and several other references, which is opposed to the notion of monetary compensation as is stated in Resolution 194. Some people with deep knowledge call for the payment of billions in compensation in lieu of asking Palestinians to stay where they are—and for a new survey of Palestinian families and individuals. However, there are those who seriously talk about reviving the idea of confederation between Jordan and Palestine—in spite of its opposition by Amman. It has also been suggested that the newborn Palestinian state in the West Bank would issue passports to the Palestinian Diaspora as permanent residents in their countries of residence or possible migrants to immigration lands. In all cases, naturalization of most Palestinian in Lebanon remains a reality. Perhaps, dealing with this issue has already started through Lebanese parliamentary resolution of granting Palestinian refugees humanitarian and social rights but this has been accompanied by extending their right to work, although the decision about the right of ownership has been deferred. Is this a coincidence? Maybe, but it is noteworthy.