Divergent views from Lebanon, but one common goal

By  Franklin Lamb

Shatila Camp, Beirut:

Lebanese opponents of civil rights for Palestinian refugees often use less objective and more crude wording to define "tawtin" ("settlement") than is normally employed in civil society discussions. During last summer's debate in parliament, which failed to enact laws that would allow the world's oldest and largest refugee community the basic civil right to work and to own a home, the "tawtin or return" discussion took on strident and dark meanings, which were largely effective in frightening much of the Lebanese public from supporting even these modest humanitarian measures. Right-wing opponents of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon often define tawtin during public discussions as "implantation" (as in inserting a foreign malignant object or virus into Lebanon's body politic), or "grafting," "insertion," "impalement," "forced integration," "embedding" "impregnation", or "patriation".

The concept's varied meanings among a largely uninformed Lebanese public have by and large prevented a balanced consideration of the provision in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that includes "a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UNGAR 194."

The discussion in Lebanon has centered on presumed Palestinian desires to stay in Lebanon at all costs, as opposed to returning to their country Palestine. The large anti-Palestinian political community has kept the discussion focused on the API's language: "the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation [tawtin] which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries."

The concept, indeed the very word “tawtin”, was used in the summer of 2010 as an emotional bludgeon or cudgel embodying all manner of dire social predictions from the political parties representing the Phalange, Liberal Party, Lebanese Forces, and Free Patriotic Movement's leader General Michel Aoun.

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Virtually all opponents of Palestinian civil rights frequently claimed that tawtin would ruin Lebanon. This was arguably the main reason that there was a broad-based consensus in support of the parliamentary decision of August 17, 2011 to do essentially nothing to enact relief for Lebanon's quarter million Palestinian refugees.

It was a spurious argument because very few in Lebanon, and even fewer in the Palestinian community, have any desire to see tawtin actually implemented. One remarkable aspect of last year's tawtin "debate" was that, in private discussions, few politicians publicly decrying its dangers really thought tawtin was a realistic threat to Lebanon. Nonetheless, the chimera was used to maintain a power base in their own sect or community. These political leaders assumed that their supporters wanted no rights for Palestinians in Lebanon; tawtin was a useful political boogie man. This view was not only common in various Christian sects but also among many Druze and Muslims. Numerous politicians have explained in private that their supporters by and large still believed that the Palestinian refugees were the cause of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and many of Lebanon's current woes and wanted them out of Lebanon as soon as possible.

Another political factor contributing to the false depiction of tawtin were widely-rumored American and Israeli plans to use tawtin to permanently settle thousands of Lebanon's Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and thus take pressure off of Israel to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 194's right of return mandate. These suggestions by  visiting US officials during last summer's parliamentary examination of tawtin and return riled segments of the Lebanese public and provided grist for right-wing elements to politically, socially and economically squeeze Palestinian refugees yet again.

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Palestinian refugees' views regarding tawtin were unfortunately rather muted or not credited during 2010 discussions in Lebanon and parliament. Occasional statements by Palestine Liberation Organization leaders that Palestinian refugees were grateful for Lebanon's hospitality and realized that they had overstayed their welcome, but that they had every desire and determination to return to Palestine, were largely ignored.

The fears of certain elements of Lebanese society about tawtin are unwarranted. The oft-expressed view that Palestinians secretly want to stay in Lebanon and abandon their right to return has been consistently refuted by Palestinian public opinion surveys, academic studies, and most compellingly by the statements of Lebanon's camp residents themselves.

According to a recent survey, fully 96 percent of Lebanon's Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps and more than 24 communities, insist on their full right of return to Palestine, eschew tawtin, and agree with the language of the API regarding 194.

Over the past few years, and one imagines even more since the events in Tunisia and Egypt, the demand for the full right of return has increased. The events at Tahrir Square raise hopes among Palestinians in Lebanon that return to Palestine may come sooner rather than later. Tahrir Square reinforces the view that Palestine's occupation could crumble faster than many have believed possible given the military and political power granted by the American and European governments.

Meanwhile, there exists in Lebanon near unanimity among the 18 sects and various Palestinian factions. Tawtin is not a desirable option. Only justice for Palestine, including the right of return as restated in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative will resolve the dilemma of tawtin or return for Lebanon and her Palestinian refugees.

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Dr. Franklin Lamb is Director of the Sabra Shatila Foundation in Lebanon. He is working with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign Dr Franklin Lamb(PCRC), in Lebanon to encourage its Cabinet and Parliament to enact basic civil rights legislation for Palestinian refugees, including the right to work and to own a home. Dr Lamb is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.