What’s Behind the ‘Disappearance’ Of 420,000 Palestinians in Lebanon?

Rashidieh Palestinian camp, on the border of Occupied Palestine

The first ever official census of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was finally released on 12/21/2017 in Beirut. The village by village and camp by camp survey by 500 specialists found that only 174,422 Palestinian refugees are living these days in the country. Counted were al Palestinians living in the 12 official camps and 156 informal settlements known as ‘gatherings’ and those living outside these areas across Lebanon. This figure is shockingly lower than the previous estimate of 469,331 Palestinians by UNWRA and as many as 600,00 by other for political purposes.

Lebanon is a country where demographics have long been a politically sensitive subject to be approached with extreme caution. For the past nearly 85 years (since 1932) Lebanon’s leaders have refused to allow a count of the population out of feelings of terror that a rival sect, among the 17 other rival sects, might gain power at their expense were there to be an honest count. Consequently, plenty of political lords have used fake population figures, without fear of contradiction by a forbidden official government count, to secure benefits-political and financial- for their own sect.

With respect to Lebanon and regional endemic tribalism, one is reminded of the words of Hannah Arendt from her volume, “The Origins of Totalitarianism:”

“Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies”, “one against all”, that a fundamental difference exists between these people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man”.

The reason for UNWRA’s own higher figures since it was created by General Assembly Resolution 302 (IV) 69 years ago this month to help feed and care for refugees forced out of their homes in Palestine, its mandate has always been to register all Palestinians who, since the 1948 Nakba, apply for its help. This UNWRA has faithfully done to the best of its ability while facing many obstacles-political and financial-over the decades. Affecting its record keeping, starting in 1950s, scores of thousands of Palestinian refugees left Lebanon for a better life abroad. Just as more than 1,780,000 Lebanese have done since the onslaught of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975. Hence the larger number of UNWRA recorded registrants. UNRWA does not have a headcount of every Palestinian refugee who currently resides in Lebanon. What they do have are official registration records for the number of registered Palestine refugees in Lebanon. If a Palestinian registered with UNRWA in Lebanon should decide to live outside Lebanon, as countless thousands have, they don’t normally advise UNWRA that they are moving.

As a gentleman this observer admires, Hassan Mneimneh, chairman of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, which coordinated the census, told the media a couple of weeks ago, “tens of thousands of Palestinians left Lebanon when the Palestinian Liberation Organization withdrew from the country in 1982. This observer knows something about this firsthand as he was on one of the August 1982 boats than left Beirut harbor by boat for Tunis courtesy of an invitation from Yasser Arafat along with the American journalist, Janet Lee Stevens. Unfortunately, Janet missed the boat as she was assuring a group of Palestinian women in Burj al Barajneh camp in South Beirut that all would be OK as they worried about losing their PLO protection. The next month was the Sabra-Shatila massacre and seven months later April 18, 1983 Janet and our unborn child, Clyde Chester Lamb III were killed in the bombing at the American Embassy.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians left Lebanon when the PLO withdrew from the country in 1982.

Like the Lebanese over the past 3 decades, many Palestinians try to leave Lebanon at the first opportunity. And why wouldn’t they? Lebanese seemingly leave their birth country any chance they get these days and during Lebanon’s civil war more than one million left and hundreds of thousands have until today. There are fewer than 3.5 million Lebanese remaining with many of them searching for the first opportunity to begin a new life elsewhere because they realize that there is little future here for their children given the deep prevailing corruption of the former ‘warlords’ who appointed themselves ‘political lords. Other reasons include the growing Iranian occupation of Lebanon and the failure of the Sunni and Christians to counter the takeover of their country.

According to this seminal study, undertaken by both Lebanese and Palestinian statistics bureaus and the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, 45.1 percent of the 174,000 Palestinians in Lebanon live in refugee camps, while the remaining 54.9 percent live in “other gatherings.” According to the census taking teams spokesperson: “We would see huge numbers used, 500, or 600 thousand, and these would be used in politics. But this demographic project was able to define things, and thank God today we have results,”

Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in an address at the event where the figures were released. The survey sheds much needed light on the living conditions of 174,422 Palestinian refugees, as well as another 18,601 Palestinians who fled the neighboring conflict in Syria to camps in Lebanon. The survey found that the number of Palestinian in Lebanon were split essentially evenly between men and women, with half of the total being 24 years or younger. The percentage of Palestinian youth is nearly identical to the numbers of youth across the Middle East.

Dear reader can imagine what these demographics and living conditions portend for this region as the bright, energetic and acutely aware youth seek justice and empowerment from dictatorships who have cynically denied them empowerment for countless decades. Revolution is in the air across in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps and across this region.

The survey sheds light on the living conditions of 174,422 Palestinian refugees, as well as another 18,601 Palestinians who fled the neighboring conflict in Syria to camps in Lebanon. The painstakingly conducted count found the Palestinians evenly divided between men and women with half of the total 24 years or younger. While 7.2 percent are illiterate, 93.6 percent of children aged between three to 13 were enrolled in schools. Also documented is the well-known fact that Lebanon’s Palestinian camps suffer serious problems, with varying degrees of poverty, diseases, overcrowding, unemployment, poor housing and lack of any functioning infrastructure. The census found that the rate of unemployment among young Palestinians aged 20 to 29 is 28.5 percent whereas for Lebanese it is currently 6.8 percent.

Announcing the population survey results, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said Lebanon had a “duty” towards Palestinians. He pointed to “exaggerations” as for the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon which estimated the count at 600,000. He said the “actual number is 174,422,” assuring “that the State will adhere to its responsibilities.”

Hariri lamented how “some parties in the international community wish to offer no help to UNWRA but instead want to disrupt UNRWA.” Pointing to the UNRWA’s financial crisis, he said: “It directly affects the basic requirements of refugees in Lebanon. We call upon donor countries to increase their contributions and support to enable UNRWA fulfill its financial obligations to meet the needs of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.” With a total of $644,701,999 in contributions, the US, EU, UK, Sweden, Norway, Germany, The Netherlands and Japan pay 71% of the annual UNRWA budget. Mr. Hariri omitted mention of the fact that Lebanon, like Israel, donates zero dollars to UNWRA’s budget.

Assuming the PM is sincere, and this observer does, then Lebanon “adhering to its responsibilities” can be quickly demonstrated by its Parliament granting Palestinians the half-century overdue elementary civil rights to work and to own a home granted to every refugee on earth by every country but Lebanon.

Why do many Lebanese politicians inflate the number of Palestinians in Lebanon?

Plenty of Lebanese and regional political lords have used the inflated Palestinian population figures seeking political advantage.

Lebanon’s anti-Palestinian block that consistently mispresents the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is led by more than one Christian militia who committed the 1982 massacre at Sabra-Shatila and by the Amal Shia militia that carried out the 1985-89 massacres at three camps which they servilely, on orders from the east, labeled “wars of the camps.” There were no wars but rather massacres of Palestinian civilians who were without weapons to protect themselves since the PLO left Lebanon in August of 1982.

Among others with a long history of misrepresentation of the number of Palestinians, is Lebanon’s Iran appointed President, Michel Aoun. When this observer last met with Aoun as part of a delegation of pro-Palestinian Americans, Aoun stressed the point as he has done dozens of times before and since, that there are 600,000 Palestinians in Lebanon who, he implies are sucking Lebanon dry. Sometimes Aoun, who this past week, 12/26/2017, was accused by Ashraf Rifi former General Director of the Lebanon’s Internal Security Force (ISF) (2005-2013) and Minister of Justice (2014-2016), of stealing $ 26 billion uses the figure of 500,000 Palestinian refugees.

In Aoun’s defense re the $ 26 billon theft charge by Rifi, to date its unproven and if he did it Aoun would by no means be setting a record for theft of public money among Lebanon’s political lords, some of whom continue their decades work of bleeding Lebanon dry. Also accused by Mr. Rifi of the same crime as Aoun is his anti-Palestinian son-in-law Jebran Bassil , who Aoun, in Lebanese got appointed Foreign Minister despite Bassil having admitted he has no qualifications for the post but is close to Hezbollah and Iran like his father-in-law. This week Bassil is again facing calls to resign. This time for remarks he made this week about Israel being no threat to Lebanon. Speaking on Iran funded Al-Mayadeen on 12/26/2017, Bassil in his position as Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, stated: “For Lebanon, [Israel] isn’t an ideological cause. We are not against Israel existing in security. We accept it. We are not against it. We just want all people to live in peace and to recognize each other. This is not a blind cause.” Adding “We are a people who accept and want the Other, despite our differences.”

In response to Bassil’s statements, former Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk called on Bassil to immediately be fired, declaring: “If Jebran Bassil does not find an ideological difference with Israel and demands security for it, Cabinet should dismiss him because he violates the Constitution. “Is this Lebanon’s position in international forums? This is shameful!”

As do some other anti-Palestinian politicians in Lebanon, including the former Minister of Education and Aoun partner, Elias Bou Saab as he a few months ago incited his Christian supporters with the 600,000 Palestinians in Lebanon gross exaggeration at an event at the American University of Beirut (AUB) which this observer attended. Mr. Saab knows that many of his and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) political party supporters worry about Muslims swamping them politically and socially much as was the case in the run-up to the 1975-90 civil war.

Truth told Mr. Saab is probably not all that wild about this observer because at the above-noted event earlier this year in the presence of the UN’s elegant Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag and a number of officials and directors of NGO’s and plenty of media, this no-account observer proceeded to deliver a short- well so it seemed to me- lecture with ample details and statistics to the then Minister of Education Bou Saad on the subject of inflating the number of Palestinians in Lebanon for political purposes. I also painstakingly addressed the subject of the right to work and home ownership for Palestinian refugees forced into Lebanon against their will seven decades ago. Despite the Ministers public assurance that he would meet with me and we can “fix the problem about the right to work” I still not heard from the gentleman.

But as life instructs us, there is plenty of good in all of us and during his three years as Minister of Education, Elias Bou Saab did, to his great credit, work to get a significant number of the 200,000 Syrian refugee kids now scattered across Lebanon into its public-school system employing a double session innovation whereby Syrian child could study using the same classrooms during split shift afternoon-evening time slot.

Some of the same political motivations have led to fake statistics regarding the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. As of the end of November 2017, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) tallied 997,905 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. A clear majority of them being women and children who fled their country to Lebanon from the outbreak of the civil war in March of 2011. More than 70% live in extreme poverty, struggling to eke out a living while sheltering in informal tented settlements or unfinished buildings because Parliament has refused to authorize refugee camps where they could receive more organized assistance.

The highest number of Syrian refugees who were ever in Lebanon from the ongoing war next door was 1,011,366.  From 2011 until September 2017, nearly 49,000 Syrians departed Lebanon for third countries under the UN’s resettlement program including the United States, Sweden, and France. Others left on their own, making the dangerous sea journey to reach Europe.

As with the Palestinian refugee’s count, the UN Syrian refugee tally has been shown to be 500,000 fewer than the 1.5 million scare tactic number some Lebanese politicians and their media have hyped for political purposes. By buying food and necessities, made possible with international humanitarian aid, partly in the form of ‘food stamp ATM cards’ the Syrians are growing Lebanon’s economy and Lebanon shopkeepers are generally thrilled with them.
But Syrian refugees are not growing Lebanon’s economy according to experts at the International Labor Organization (ILO) as fast as the Palestinian refugees would grow this country’s ailing economy if they were allowed the elementary civil right to work and home ownership as required by international humanitarian law and Lebanon’s constitution. Lebanese law targets Palestinians that denies them the right to work, social security, or joining a union. There are at least 25 banned areas of work for Palestinians including medicine, law, engineering and pharmacy. Also outlawed for Palestinian is ownership of land, property or a home.

As Fathi Abu al-Ardat, a representative of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, noted this past week: “when Palestinians have the rights to work and can live a decent life, they will improve the country on the level of economics, on the level of community, even on the level of security and stability for the country.”

Iran & Hezbollah know better but also use inflated Palestinians population numbers to keep the increasingly restive Shia population loyal by inflating the size of the Palestinian Sunni “Takfiri” threat to Lebanon. Approximately 92-96% of Palestinians are Sunni and many resent Iran’s efforts at colonization for several reasons. One is that in Syria, Iran’s funded and trained 12 militia including Hezbollah and the Al Quds force that have killed nearly four thousand Palestinians, and have targeted a majority of Syria’s ten Palestinian camps. Including the destruction of Yarmouk in Damascus which before the civil war began was home to 120,000 and another Palestinian camp in Latakia last month. The most recent demolished camp, over the past two weeks, was in the Southern Ramal district of Latakia, which residents claim Iran wants to ‘develop.’ For nearly 70 years, Ramal has been located along Latakia city’s southern coastline, on a strip of land that slopes down towards the Mediterranean Sea. The district was settled as an informal encampment in the 1950’s by Palestinian refugees fleeing Jaffa and other coastal towns. Approximately 10,000 Palestinians in Syria have lost their homes in Ramal.

By slinging inflated figures for the number of Sunni Palestinians in Lebanon at the Shia community, Iran’s leadership reportedly hopes to help Hezbollah whose primary bases, South Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, and South Lebanon increasingly believe that their sons, brothers and fathers are dying in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan for no reason except the whims of Iran’s Wali al-faqih. Iran also seeks to instill fear among its own population to quell the growing number of protests from its own population spreading across Iran.

Iran, according to even neighborhood Hezbollah sources, has vastly overreached in the region with its hegemonic objectives and the people of the region, including increasing numbers of Shia, including thousands of fed up Iranians. Many Hezbollah leaders have long objected to what they have been ordered to do in Syria and the region. Moreover, thousands of Iranian citizens have taken to the streets of the country’s second-largest city, Mashhad and other towns this week to once again protest high prices, unemployment, and the fact that their government is spending countless billions funding militia across the Middle East while “our women are selling themselves on the streets for money to feed their families and our young men are forced to steal!” Videos on Nazar’s Telegram channel showed citizens in Mashhad, an important religious center in the northeast of Iran, not chanting “Death to America” but rather “Death to the dictator” (Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei) and protesting about their ruler’s efforts at regional hegemony, rather than improving conditions at home. “Not Gaza, not Syria, not Lebanon, my life for Iran” was one of main chants.

Iran’s brutal theocratic rulers have a problem as many Iranian believe and hope that the current rebellion will rapidly spread and become for their rulers what Benghazi in February 2011 was for Gadaffi and Deraa, Syria was a month later for Assad.

The claimed “Resistance” has also long used the inflated figure for political advantage as they seek to rein in many of their hard-core Shia supporters with claims that Palestinians in Lebanon comprise another 600,000 Sunni so why empower them with the civil rights to work and own a home? Given Hezbollah’s political power it would take just 90 minutes in Parliament to grant Palestinians the right to work and home ownership. But the tribal “Resistance” axis has chosen to block these elementary civil rights.

Hopefully growing pressure from the new generation of young Palestinians vying for leadership positions in the camps and the growing number of young Shia in the region who no longer want to be fodder from their leaders seeking revenge for the events at Karbala 1,500 years ago, can persuade the “Resistance” that true Resistance begins with improving the Palestinian camps and being allowed to seek a job. Not killing and being killed crossed this region, with no end in sight nor any cogent rationale.

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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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