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A Hard Won Victory

The Story of 68 Palestinian Families in Lebanon

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Masnaa border crossing (Syria/Lebanon)

Predictions about the likely course of events in this region, including occasional ones by this observer, have a way of not panning out as expected. But one prediction I offered recently to Palestinian friends in Syria—namely that Lebanon’s “media” would fail to inform the world about an important Palestinian victory achieved in late May—has so far turned out to be accurate.

The confrontation which took place recently in a small office at Lebanon’s General Security (GS) Information Branch headquarters was for the most part civil in tone—an over-the-hill American in handcuffs refusing to answer questions from a fat guy in uniform, who kept making a racket by striking his desk with a small metal rod, this as the Yankee began a hunger strike: it has been kept quiet. No coverage in the media. And frankly, that’s fine, because arguably it wasn’t that newsworthy in any event. But the problem which had given rise to the incident surely was.

It evolved around critically important Baccalaureate exams, whose dates, between the first and seventeenth of June, were fixed months ago by the Syrian Ministry of Education. More than 364,000 students in Syria, including thousands of Palestinian refugees, are scheduled to take the exams, required for the General Secondary Certificate for 2014. Some 28,000 additional students will be taking the Technical Secondary Certificate exams. Graduating seniors in Syria must pass these exams before receiving their diplomas and enrolling in university.

The saga, briefly told, has to do with the fact that the war in Syria over the past 33 months has forced into Lebanon between 1.2 million and 2 million Syrian refugees, including approximately 80,000 Palestinians, from Yarmouk refugee camp and elsewhere, and last week’s important victory on their behalf managed to go unreported in the sectarian-poisoned, highly politicized Lebanese media.

With a population of around 3.4 million, (eleven million emigrated during and since the 1975-1990 civil war that killed more than 170,000 Lebanese) Lebanon has been impacted fairly dramatically by the refugee influx in terms of housing, jobs, water and electricity. Some of these were already in weak circumstances even before the events of March 2011, and since the war began, clashes between pro and anti-Assad forces have spilled over the border, making the situation ever more precarious. Many of those bombed or shelled out of Syria’s 10 official Palestinian refugee camps have been squeezed into sardine-canned slums that were established between 1948 and 1951 and which were originally designed as temporary, short-term housing. Residing in an area intended to house one-sixth of its current population, these refugees, 90% of whom have no jobs according to UNHCR, due to 88% of all jobs being outlawed for Palestinians in Lebanon are experiencing skyrocketing costs in healthcare, electricity and water, and they are also undergoing massive social problems. One of the latter is a marked decline in access to education, particularly among post-Baccalaureate Palestinian teenagers.

With Lebanese elections, both presidential and parliamentary, currently creating a host of political vote-harvesting opportunities, politicians have wasted no time in snatching the low-hanging fruit of six decades of refugee bashing, seizing the moment to blame refugees for all this confessional failed-state’s maladies. Vicious anti-refugee campaigns have been launched by some electoral contestants, much to the chagrin of those hoping to find haven here as well as portions of the international community, including campaigns seeking not only to expel those already here but which also press to bar those still coming in (and often arriving at the rate of thousands each day). Among the proposals being put forth are for internment camps, to be set up somewhere in a no-man’s land, which presumably would make US internment camps created for Japanese-Americans in World War II appear almost civilized by comparison.

Various measures and proposed measures, all of them inhumane and many illegal, have rained down from government ministries and party headquarters by candidates offering themselves as leaders of a state that many now claim to be a lost cause. One action, clearly illegal, taken by the present government is a proclamation by the Lebanese Interior Ministry, currently headed by Nihad al-Mashnoup, a member of the anti-Syria Future Movement.

Al-Mashnoup arbitrarily issued an order banning refugees who journey to Syria to vote or take Baccalaureates—or to check on family members or see what’s left of their homes—from regaining entry to Lebanon. The decision was put into effect on June 1, the first day of the BACC exams. It was issued just a few days after thousands of Syrians flocked to their country’s embassy in Beirut to vote in the recent election. In response, letters of protest were sent by both the Syrian and Palestinian embassies, with Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdul-Karim branding the action a “retaliatory measure” aimed at the Assad government for purpose of impeding the vote process.

“It goes against the simplest rules of human rights as it contravenes the work of the International Commission on Human Rights, as international assistance is intended to reach the Syrians at home as well as those abroad,” Ambassador Ali declared.

Others argued that al-Mashnoup’s motive was obvious, and that the clumsily-pushed plan would actually increase refugee support for the Syrian regime. Omran Zoubi, the articulate Syrian Minister of Information, claimed that the decision would affect about 500,000 Syrians, while Human Rights Watch pointed out, accurately, that the capricious restriction would be a fundamental violation of international law.

Lebanon is tightening restrictions for Palestinians fleeing there from Syria after the Lebanese interior ministry declared that improving conditions justify a return to pre-war entry regulations. “As the situation in Syria is improving, especially in Yarmouk, the exceptional circumstances cited as their reason for entry into Lebanon are no longer relevant,” a source from the Interior Ministry told some media outlets in Beirut a couple of weeks ago. “The red alert has been switched to green” he enthused.

This claim is patently false and it is reveals deep ignorance of what is going on in Yarmouk—as well as unattractive malevolence. 283 refugees have died inside Yarmouk just from starvation and two more died due to the camp siege last week despite a few aid parcels entering. As often as not, militia inside Yarmouk follow those who are handed a food parcel and rob them of it at gunpoint. And sell them at exorbitant prices which most Palestinians in Yarmouk do not have. Lebanon’s government errs with its claim. In point of fact, “the exceptional circumstances cited as their reason for entry” are as relevant as ever-if not more so today.

Palestinian-Syrians have become refugees twice over as a result of the Syrian war. They face greater hurdles even than Syrian nationals as they try to flee to neighboring countries with longstanding Palestinian populations of their own that governments do not want to see grow. Some 70,000 Palestinian-Syrians are in Lebanon, on top of a pre-war UNWRA registered Palestinian population of 455,000 many of whom have fled Lebanon due to its ‘cold war’ against this population which be the hour that some in the PLO leadership in late July of 1982, while trapped under the Israeli siege, seriously erred and bought into Reagan-Habib fake promises of protection for the camps in Lebanon and recognition of a State of Palestine within 6 months.

“How can Lebanon turn its back on desperate people who have lost their homes, relatives and livelihoods and are running for their lives from a war zone?” asked HRW Middle East Director Joe Stark. “It is unconscionable and illegal that Lebanon (would) push them back to a place where their safety and very lives could be in danger.”

The reason HRW is right is that the international refugee protection system, based firmly on the 1951 Refugee Convention, stipulates (in Article 33) that states have a duty of non-refoulement, and the duty to grant to refugees in their territory a range of legal rights (outlined in articles 2 to 32).

While there is no obligation under international law to grant asylum to refugees, states are still bound by the principle of non-refoulement. That principle, basically stated, is that no refugee shall be returned to any country “where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” So basic and universally accepted is this premise that it is now generally considered to be part of customary international law and binding upon Lebanon, even though its government has to date not ratified the Refugee Convention. Additionally, the principle is not limited to those formally recognized as refugees, but also applies to asylum-seekers. Such persons must not be returned to any country where they would face persecution. Furthermore, the rule remains in effect until they are declared not to be refugees. Several times Lebanese officials have sought to avoid this international humanitarian obligation by arguing to local media outlets that those who have fled into Lebanon are not ‘refugees’ but rather ‘displaced persons.’ But no UN agency accepts such a bald-faced attempt at evading the non-refoulement obligations, and perhaps especially not by a country whose own citizens have so often benefited from the very same legal principle it now seeks to sidestep.

For the past year at the Masnaa border crossing between Syria and Lebanon the Lebanese government has acted in an arbitrary and illegal manner. On August 8, 2013, GS abruptly changed its entry policies for Palestinians living in Syria, and began turning away all Palestinian asylum seekers. Entire families, children, the elderly and the sick were stranded at the border, fearing to return to Syria. A Palestinian spoke with this observer at the time.

“Lebanese border guards told this observer, in the company of about a dozen Palestinian asylum seekers waiting to enter Lebanon that they had “received a call from the Lebanese General Security office telling him and his immigration colleagues managing who gets in our out of Lebanon, not to allow any more Palestinians to enter the country,” he said. Word quickly spread to Beirut and Damascus and to taxi driver who make the daily run not to pick up Palestinians or you will lose a fare.

As the saga intensified, a partial solution was eventually agreed to by GS after the UN, EU, and several human rights organizations expressed condemnation of this exhibition of inhumanity.

Likewise, concerns similarly were expressed over Lebanon’s callous new imperative in regards to Palestinians from Syria wanting to return to take the crucial Baccalaureate exams. Time was getting short as the first of June drew near and the students had to make arrangements for travel, housing, food, etc. The toughest decision for most was the risk of leaving Lebanon for Syria and possibly not being allowed back in to rejoin their families. Hurried meetings were held in Damascus by volunteers from the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign and the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com), with a few similar meetings also occurring in Lebanon.

Appeals for help from international activists and some NGO’s in Lebanon began to be offered. What the PCRC and SSSP as well as the Palestine embassy were trying to bring about was a one-time exemption, for 18 days, so Palestinian students could take the BACC in Syria and return to their families in Lebanon. To this end, Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Ashraf Dabbour repeatedly contacted GS, working to convince them to do the right thing by the students. Additional urgent appeals to GS were made by a few NGO’s, but usually without so much as a returned phone call.

Finally, it was in this context that an American, as noted above, ran afoul of GS, finding himself placed in handcuffs while being told he would be immediately deported. Fairly clear was it to the no account fellow, however, that GS would not follow through on its threats, and as friends of the detained, including a couple of well-known journalists from mainstream media, began making inquiries on the matter, a solution was worked out—sort of on the spot.

Even sort of amiably.

GS relented and agreed to allow Palestinian students in Lebanon a one-time 19-day visa to take their BACC exams and return to Lebanon. The handcuffs came off. Apologies. Handshakes. Smiles all around and a few kisses on foreheads by the grateful American. And there are no hard feelings. One hopes.

At that point, less than 72 hours remained before the first exam on Sunday June 1, which necessitated the next somewhat frantic project: passing word of the exemption to the more than 6,000 Palestinian students who wanted to take the exam. Many had already resigned to putting it off a year, and no doubt some dropped out completely. But as the word spread, it soon came about that 68 Palestinian students were committed to going at the last minute so to speak.

And with respect to the thousands of Syrians who wanted to return to Syria to vote but were barred, they also got a reprieve. Soon al-Manar reported that GS was issuing badges for refugees headed to Syria to vote and that the badges were for a specific duration. “That means that the Syrians in Lebanon can vote without losing their status as refugees,” the reporter said.

For its own part, the Lebanese National News Agency reported that “the Syrian border is currently witnessing a traffic jam because the Syrian refugees are heading to Syria to participate in the Presidential elections,” providing also the additional information that GS was “implementing security measures in accordance with the Syrian elections along the border to organize their entry to Syria and their return to Lebanon.”

What went unmentioned, of course, is that among those crossing the border would be 68 Palestinian students traveling to take their BACC exams—or that much of the credit for securing the exemption, and thus making the massive egress possible, rightfully goes to the Palestinian embassy.

Unperturbed, Mr.Maher Moshail, Cultural Counselor for the embassy, accompanied the students to the Masnaa crossing and waved goodbye, shouting good luck to them as they headed off to sit their BACC exams in Damascus.

Admittedly for Palestinian students and their families from Syria it was only a modest victory, but maybe it will turn out to be a watershed event along a resistance path, one that sooner rather than later leads to the obtainment of the most elementary civil rights, to work and to own a home, for Palestinians in Lebanon—the only country on the planet that bars these birthrights.

This drama demonstrates that the government of Lebanon can be encouraged; using right reason and common sense, to grant some civil rights if there are advocates willing to press them. There is so much talent, but also frustration, growing despair, and security threats in the teeming Palestinian camps here. A broad-based, internationally supported, peaceful civil rights campaign is much needed in Lebanon and long overdue.

Abed, a bright, young Palestinian student from Ain al-Hilwel, has asked this observer more than once recently, “Where are all the pro-Palestinian activists and bloggers?” He goes on to comment:

“It’s great to write countless and often repetitive articles on the Internet, and demonstrations in the west are good and very much appreciated. But if our international supporters want to make history, and achieve more for we students and our families and community, and for Lebanon’s economy, than anything since the Nakba, then help us get the right to work. Come to Lebanon. It will only require a few committed experienced organizers, and we in the camps will join this international campaign by the tens of thousands for sit-in and demonstration and (to) convince our Lebanese brothers and sisters to let us work and help to rebuild their economy.”

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).