Filled with hundreds of thousands of marginalised and heavily armed Palestinians deprived of basic political rights, Lebanon’s refugee camps are a time bomb that needs urgent attention. Nurturing Instability: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugee Camps, the latest International Crisis Group report, examines conditions and recommends steps to improve the situation of their inhabitants and reduce risks. Unlike in other host countries, the refugee question is at the heart of Lebanese politics, a source of passionate debate and trigger of violence. It also is a breeding ground for jihadi militants and a tool manipulated by outside actors.
The precarious situation results from years of neglect and mismanagement reflecting Lebanon’s security-first policy that discriminates against Palestinian refugees. “Over the years, virtually nothing has been done to genuinely address the problem”, says Sahar Atrache, Crisis Group’s Lebanon Analyst. “The effort to hold refugees at bay and prevent their social or economic absorption has dangerous implications”. The problem is compounded by regional and domestic faultlines between Lebanese parties; Palestinians and Israel; Palestinian parties; and Arab states. It also is entwined with sectarian divisions. Palestinians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims; as the hope of significant return to Israel diminishes, fear has revived of their naturalisation in Lebanon, which would affect the delicate confessional balance.
Action is needed by all parties, focused on three critical steps:
*Clarifying the Refugees’ Status and Improving Camp Conditions. Lebanon should grant refugees fundamental rights, except for the right to acquire citizenship or to vote.
*Reviewing the Approach to Camp Security. Palestinian factions should ensure camp stability, ban public display of weapons and respect Lebanon’s sovereignty; Lebanon should define a local security forces code of conduct and punish offenders. Palestinians and Lebanese should regulate arms in the camps, while the Lebanese and Syrian presidents begin negotiations to dismantle Palestinian military bases outside the camps.
*Enhancing Lebanese-Palestinian and Inter-Palestinian Cooperation. Coordination between the state and Palestinian factions must be strengthened; Palestinian institutional mechanisms are needed to protect Lebanon from the Fatah/Hamas rivalry’s fallout.
“The camps are a tinder box blend of socio-economic deprivation, political marginalisation, mistrust of the state, ineffective security, radicalisation, weapons and divided leadership”, warns Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East Program Director. “The Gaza conflict did not spark a conflagration. But the next match, domestic or regional, is likely to be struck soon”.