Breaking with the ‘National Consensus’

[Translator’s Introduction: The article below by Fawwaz Traboulsi first appeared in Arabic in the Beirut daily as-Safir of September 13, 2007.


For several decades, there was an official dogma regarding Palestinian refugees in Arab countries. According to this dogma, proclaimed by both Palestinian and non-Palestinian leaders, all that the Palestinian refugees wanted was to return to their homeland. True, that yearning was real enough, but understated or willfully ignored was the elementary fact that, before returning to Palestine or to whatever part of it that would be restored, Palestinians wanted their human and civil rights to be acknowledged and respected. Invoking this dogma thus became a way to prevent the implantation of Palestinian refugees and to justify various forms of discrimination they endured in their host countries. Officially, Palestinians were welcomed as fellow Arabs and their rights recognized by the governments of Arab countries where they sought refuge;  notwithstanding official recognition, however, Palestinian rights were routinely trampled in practice. In the name of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, invoking this dogma was thus used to serve the interests of local elites totally unrelated to Palestinian welfare.


This official dogma regarding Palestinian refugees continues to this day, though with diminished force, overshadowed by the many conflicts other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have engulfed the Middle East in recent years. But the discrimination against Palestinians remains, now justified and enforced by other class and state interests.


In the case of Lebanon in particular, this official dogma has been combined with an elaborate fiction since the 1975-1990 civil war, and sometimes the fiction has become more important than the dogma and eclipsed it altogether. This Lebanese fiction has been to make the Palestinians into an alien presence that is supposedly threatening the very well-being of Lebanon and its citizens — a fiction cooked up for fraudulent reasons, as Traboulsi carefully explains. What’s more, in so doing, Traboulsi places himself squarely at odds with both of the two main camps in the current Lebanese standoff. Both government and opposition politicians routinely talk about the Palestinian presence as a burden Lebanon cannot shoulder or shoulder alone. If there is something on which the two camps agree, it is a refusal to a permanent settling of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Thus, in an otherwise inane speech to the UN General Assembly on September 28 and without fear of antagonizing either of the two camps back in Beirut, President Lahoud of Lebanon could declare with total confidence that a permanent settling of Palestinian refugees “will dangerously alter the delicate balance of Lebanon’s existence as a nation based on diversity and coexistence among a large number of its sects” — a statement thoroughly debunked by Traboulsi’s article.


In years past, Palestinian refugees were ostracized in the name of that dogma that said all they want is to return to Palestine; today, they are further victimized under the pretense that they endanger “Lebanon’s existence as a nation.”


In the article below, Traboulsi is addressing Lebanese and Arab audiences familiar with events of recent decades, often evoked in passing without further elaboration. A few points to identify these events and place them in their historical context:


(1) Traboulsi refers to the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 not as a single war, but as a period of “many wars,” which in fact it was. It involved Lebanese parties, armed organizations of the PLO, the Syrian army, and the Israeli army, with frequent infusions of weapons and money from parties further afield. Erstwhile allies often turned on each other during that period, and with increased frequency after the Israeli invasion of 1982.


(2) Traboulsi mentions several individuals and groups that were involved in the 1975-1990 wars; these or their successors all continue to play prominent roles in one of the two contending camps of the current Lebanese standoff.  The Lebanese Front is a precursor of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing organization now headed by Samir Geagea; Geagea is one of the three main leaders of the current pro-government coalition, along with Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt. Traboulsi mentions another chieftain of the Lebanese Forces, Elias Hobeika, who led the Lebanese militias involved in the 1982 massacre of Sabra-Shatila, before dissociating himself from the Israeli army and then throwing his lot with the Syrian regime; Hobeika was assassinated in 2002, a few days before testifying in a Brussels court against his former ally Ariel Sharon in a lawsuit brought against the latter by survivors of the massacre. Traboulsi also mentions the “war of the mountain,” the “war of liberation,” and the “war to unite all guns,” commonly referring to different episodes of the 1975-1990 period.


(3) The Taif Accord was an agreement between Lebanese factions of the 1975-1990 wars, convened in the city of Taif, Saudi Arabia, under the auspices of the League of Arab States. The agreement was negotiated in October-November 1989, based on which a cease-fire was enforced by Syrian troops and gradually took effect in the course of 1990. Once the cease-fire was in place, Syrian troops were to withdraw after a cooling-off period, but they did not do so, in violation of the agreement. That Syria was given a free hand in Lebanon throughout most of the 1990’s, despite Israel’s objections, was in exchange for Syrian participation in Desert Storm, the 1991 US-led campaign to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait.


(4) The “battle of Nahr al-Barid” is the devastating three-month battle of this past summer, which pitted the Lebanese army against the jihadi group Fateh al-Islam which had ensconced itself in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Barid in northern Lebanon. It resulted in the total destruction of the camp and the forced displacement of its 30,000 to 40,000 refugee inhabitants.


— Assaf Kfoury]


After the battle of Nahr al-Barid, much has been said and repeated about a Lebanese “national consensus” regarding the Palestinians in Lebanon, a presumed rejection by all Lebanese of a final settling of Palestinians on Lebanese soil. Many commentators continue to voice their alarm about the “conspiracy” to permanently settle the Palestinians.


The writer of this article, a Lebanese citizen, wishes to openly declare that he will have no part of such a consensus — and more, that it is time to expose it for the fraud that it is.


This presumed danger of a final settling of Palestinians is another tale in the politics of lies and self-deception that has prevailed since the Taif Accord. In a complex and diverse country such as Lebanon, this accord sought to develop a consensus based on a deception. It sought to achieve national unity by inventing a presumed enemy of all Lebanese, short of finding a real common enemy, or by fabricating a phony scare that would frighten everyone.


There is a history to this tale and the purpose it has served. At the time of the Taif conference, a party had to be found to bear the blame for the disastrous consequences of the many wars fought during the 1975-1990 period. These wars came to an end of sorts, but without an honest reckoning and accounting of the responsibilities that had led to them. And worse, they came to an end by elevating to the seats of power the very warlords that had fought each other mercilessly. The only party left out of this equation were the Palestinians. The other parties at the Taif conference had thus found the perfect scapegoat that would unite them all — the Palestinian side — which they thus turned into all of the following: the cause and object of that murky “conspiracy” that had to be feared, the reason that there had been internal wars, and the constant danger to fend off against, then and in the future.


The parties of the Lebanese Front have used the specter of a final settling of Palestinians to justify their blood-soaked history during the 1975-1990 period. They have never tired of declaring that they were fighting “against foreigners”. In their account of that period, their history was one of resistance against the “conspiracy” of permanently settling Palestinians on Lebanese soil, conveniently ignoring who instigated the internal wars and who profited from them. Thus, not only have these parties concealed their responsibility for putting the country to the torch, they have also managed to confound the beginnings and ends of the 1975-1990 wars and everything that happened in between.


Twenty-five years ago, in September 1982, was the massacre of Sabra-Shatila. On this occasion, let us not forget that the massacre was planned with the intent to eliminate the “superfluous people” for which there is no room in a settlement of the Middle East crisis. That slaughter of Palestinian civilians took place in a drive to frighten them to leave Lebanon, after the eviction of the PLO and its armed factions in the summer months of 1982. The refusal of a final settling of Palestinians was a euphemism, pure and simple, for their forced migration out of Lebanon under the threat of death.  


On the pretense that the many mini-wars in the years 1975-1990 were against the “conspiracy” aiming at a final settling of Palestinians, the conspiracy mongers have wanted us to forget that most of these wars, even after the withdrawal of the PLO and its organizations in 1982, were between Lebanese parties. What was the relationship between this “conspiracy” and what was then called the “war of the mountain” in 1983, which resulted in driving out most of the Christian inhabitants in the Shuf region? Further back, what was the relationship between the refusal of a final settling and the forcible migration of the Muslims out of the Nabaa district in 1976? And what was the connection between this “conspiracy” and General Aoun’s decision to ignite the so-called “war of liberation” and the “war to unite all guns”? And what was its connection with the internecine war between the Geagea and Hobeika factions of the Lebanese Forces, or between the Amal movement and Hizbullah?


During the years of Syrian hegemony, from the early 1990’s and until 2005, the bogey of a permanent implantation of Palestinians played an important role in rallying a number of politicians, particularly Christians among them, to the side of the Syrian regime. The declared reason was that only the latter would be able to keep the Palestinians in check and disarm their organizations. Thus, incitement against the implantation of Palestinians became another means to justify the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese territory, although it was in clear violation of the Taif Accord.


What’s more, all this talk about the refusal of a permanent settling of Palestinians is a perfect example of the kind of vile repudiation which Palestinians have had to endure, in this case the crass refusal to acknowledge their many and varied contributions to Lebanese life — from the construction worker to the successful banker, and the many others in all professions from teaching to contracting. If this is what the refusal of a permanent settling means, it is a dark stain on Lebanon’s much-trumpeted hospitality, which allows rich Saudi citizens to buy plots of land of one million square meters at the heart of the Lebanese mountains while denying a Palestinian refugee the right to own a dwelling not exceeding a few dozens of square meters!


Let’s not overlook that the refusal of a permanent settling also presumes that Palestinians have to be taught lessons in patriotism and how to remain loyal to the idea of an eventual return to Palestine, which in turn presumes that Lebanese can be more concerned than Palestinians in defending the latter’s right to return. On this phony presumption, it has been necessary for example to prevent construction material from entering Palestinian refugee camps, so as not to let camp dwellers be seduced by the idea of a permanent stay and aspire to remain in Lebanon! Everyone knows that foreign visitors, who have countries to return to, all aspire and are allowed to remain in Lebanon, so why shouldn’t we allow those without a country to aspire to the same?  Under repeated policies of encirclement and neglect over the years, the Palestinian camps have become infested with shadowy armed groups, which Lebanese and Syrian security agencies have, by turns, promoted and used to do their dirty work, and then incited to fight each other. And here is Lebanon belatedly awakening to the reality that these groups have the military means to take hostage an entire camp (Nahr al Barid) on the very watch of the proponents of the refusal of a final settling.


Last but not least, the tale of the refusal of a final settling of Palestinians comes in the wake of another issue that is rarely discussed honestly. The proponents of this tale maintain that Lebanon, because of its confessional makeup, cannot sustain the integration of Palestinian refugees who are Muslim in their majority. Because of Lebanon’s confessional makeup, they claim, this will create an imbalance between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. The first flaw in this kind of logic is to equate the right of legal residency in Lebanon with the granting of Lebanese citizenship. Palestinians can be legal residents, with the same rights and duties of all non-citizen residents in Lebanon, without precluding their right to return to whatever part of their homeland that will come under the control of a Palestinian authority according to UN resolutions. But let’s pursue this idea to the end: In a country where the confessional power-sharing formula is not based on percentages of the different religious sects in the first place, even if we were to equate the permanent settling of the refugees with the granting of Lebanese citizenship — which is certainly not maintained by anyone — what will be the effect of adding another 250,000 Palestinians to the number of Muslims in a country of 4 million where Christians represent no more than one-third of its inhabitants?


Treated with fraudulent remedies, the wounds in Lebanese-Palestinian relations have never ceased to  fester and bleed. And here is another new wound caused by the events of Nahr al-Barid, once again treated with fraudulent remedies, as government officials have rushed to promise the rebuilding of the destroyed camp without drawing the necessary lessons for rebuilding relations between the two peoples.


Towards rebuilding harmony between the two peoples, we need to understand that Lebanon can no longer be a base for Palestinian armed organizations. Armed resistance from Lebanon is no longer an option for Palestinians, nor can the country provide the means to sustain such a resistance and serve its purpose. We also need to realize that the issue of Palestinian weapons in Lebanon is the result of fear — fear caused by a history of massacres, further compounded by the growing racism peddled by politicians — not to discount the fact that parties and governments have also used it, and continue to use this issue to serve external agendas unrelated to Palestinian interests.


If we want to avoid a repeat of the Nahr al Barid episode, with another terrorist organization abducting an entire Palestinian camp, we need an agreement that will stipulate the removal of all  military weapons from Palestinian camps in exchange for the recognition and safeguarding of the Palestinians’ civil and political rights. No need to spell out the details of such an agreement here, but the time has come to undertake the necessary steps towards its realization. And the first step on the long road to Lebanese-Palestinian reconciliation is to free ourselves of the fraud called the “conspiracy” to permanently settle the Palestinian refugees!



Fawwaz Traboulsi has taught at the Lebanese American University, Beirut-Lebanon. He has written on history, Arab politics, social movements and popular culture and translated works by Karl Marx, John Reed, Antonio Gramsci, Isaac Deutscher, John Berger, Etel Adnan, Sa`di Yusuf and Edward Said. His most recent book in English is A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2007). The translator, Assaf Kfoury, is Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. 





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