My grandfather Fayez Hamdan Fayad will never forget the year 1948. A Palestinian refugee, he will always remember the time he was forced to flee his home. “I remember the day we [the Palestinians] were forced out of our homeland by the Zionist regime like it was yesterday. I remember that the ones who refused to leave their homes that they lived in for centuries were executed in cold blood.” Millions of Palestinian refugees like my grandfather were forced to flee their homes to neighboring Arab countries including Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Little did they know that becoming refugees would not only lead to the loss of their homeland, but also to the denial of their basic human rights in countries they cannot even call home. The Lebanese government, like many other Arab governments, mistreats and discriminates against Palestinian refugees.
To understand the reason behind why my grandfather, like millions of other refugees, was expelled from his homeland, one must look back to the early 1900s. On November 2, 1917, the Middle East would change forever with the drafting of the Balfour Declaration. Written by Arthur Balfour, former Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Britain at the time to be sent to Lord Rothschild, a British banker, and prominent Zionist leader, the Balfour Declaration confirmed the British governments’ support for the establishment in Palestine of a “national home” for the Jewish people. In 1922, Britain was formally awarded the mandate to govern Palestine under the authority of its first High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, a Zionist and a recent British cabinet minister. The mandate created the Balfour Declaration. On May 14, 1948, the state of Israel was established; the British Mandate of Palestine was terminated a day later. Zionists of all religions rejoiced in the establishment of the state of Israel, but for Palestinians, this marked an era of oppression and injustice. The Nakba, also known as the Great Catastrophe, refers to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which spanned from December 1947, even before the official establishment of the state of Israel, to January of 1949. During this time, at least 750,000 out of 1.9 million total Palestinians were made refugees beyond the borders of the state.
In the Nakba, Zionist forces took more than 78 percent of historic Palestine, ethnically cleansing and destroying about 530 villages and cities, including my grandfathers’ city of Safad, and killing about 15,000 Palestinians in a series of mass atrocities, including more than 70 massacres. One of the more well-known massacres was the Deir Yassin Massacre. On April 9, 1948, hundreds of innocent Palestinians, including women and children, were killed in the village of Deir Yassin in western Jerusalem by two Zionist armed groups, Lehi and Etzel. In the aftermath of the massacre, Zionist forces went from house to house in western Jerusalem, which was mostly inhabited by Palestinians at the time, ordering people to leave or else face the same fate as the residents of Deir Yassin. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Israel rejected a petition by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz for the declassification of documents, reports, and photographs concerning the Deir Yassin massacre. The court cited the possible damage to Israels’ foreign relations and its negotiations with the Palestinians.
To many, it is very apparent that Israel has committed a range of injustices against the Palestinian people. A current prime example is the ongoing massacre of peaceful Palestinian protesters by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on the Gaza border, a crime that has been spoken out against by many European nations, the United Nations, and the international community. However, a narrative that has not gained much coverage is the treatment of Palestinian refugees under many Arab governments, some of which exhibit a very pro-Israel foreign policy and some which have a more neutral but leaning more towards pro-Israel foreign policy, like the Lebanese government.
According to The United Nations Relief Workers Agency, (UNRWA), 500,000 recorded Palestinian refugees are living in Lebanon, making up 10 percent of Lebanon’s population. These refugees are scattered among twelve camps across the country, often described as urban ghettos. According to the US Department of State, “widespread and systematic discrimination” against Palestinians in Lebanon prevents them from integrating into mainstream society. This discrimination is prevalent at all levels including denial of citizenship, employment, education, and health care among others.
The first roadblock preventing Palestinian assimilation into Lebanese society is the denial of the right to citizenship. Citizenship is Lebanon is transmitted by paternity. Consequently, Palestinian children who are born in Lebanon and are born to mixed marriages between a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father cannot obtain Lebanese citizenship. This policy prevents intermarriage between Palestinians and Lebanese who are culturally brothers and sisters, resulting in the exclusion of Palestinians from the society of their fellow Arab brethren. More importantly, without citizenship, Palestinians have difficulty securing access to a variety of services, including jobs, public education, and health services. Not only do Palestinians experience denial of citizenship, but they also are denied fundamental statehood. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch states that Palestinians are prohibited from legally acquiring, transferring, or inheriting property in Lebanon.
When it comes to education, Palestinians are systematically denied access to public education. As such, Palestinian children are left to attend one of 69 UNRWA schools or private schools, which are unaffordable for most families. The few who get the opportunity to obtain a professional degree often struggle to find jobs because they are prohibited from working in the public sector.
Take 39-year-old Palestinian refugee Hassan Ghassan, who was reported on by Al Jazeera. He studied electrical engineering, attaining his degree in 2010, and is among the very few that have gained qualifications despite a lack of funding for education for Palestinians. Even though a new law in 2010 granted some employment rights and removed some restrictions, Ghassan will not be employed in engineering as long as he stays in Lebanon. As Ghassan explains, “Here in Lebanon there is no law, there is no government, and nothing is happening. Forget the whole [law] – what’s written and what you hear and what you see, forget it.” According to UNRWA, Palestinians are prevented from working in the public sector and thirty-six specified professions, including medicine, law, and farming. This restriction greatly impacts Palestinians’ ability to provide for basic necessities. American University of Beirut (AUB) reports that sixty-five percent of Palestinians live in poverty and that over time, Palestinians are pushed even deeper into poverty.
Access to health care is no less of a dire situation. Palestinian refugees are denied access to Lebanese public health care facilities and rely on UNRWA and other non-profit organizations like the Palestinian Red Crescent Society for health services. Services through NGOs are extremely limited, and many Palestinians are forced to endure untreated injury and disease due to huge private health care costs. A survey study by the American University of Beirut and UNRWA found that 81.3% of Palestinian refugees report at least one family member suffering from a chronic illness. Not only are health services greatly needed by Palestinian refugees, so are education and employment: The previously mentioned survey explains that “health conditions improve with increasing educational attainment and employment levels.” As of February of this year, Trump has cut off all funding to UNRWA which only worsens the situation.
As we examine the tragedies that befall this group of forced migrants, it must be understood that forced migrants, like Palestinian refugees, suffer many types of injustices at all levels. It is time that the Lebanese government, as well as other host countries, treat refugees from Palestine, or the rest of the world, as human beings, and as one of their own.
Photo: Sabra Shatila Memory