During the 1948 war with the nascent state of Israel it is estimated that around half of the 1.4 million Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes or fled, to neighboring Arab states. At the end of the fighting, the new state of Israel controlled 77 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine, while the West Bank and the Gaza strip fell to Jordan and Egypt respectively.
This period of Palestinian history has come to be known as al-Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’. Of the 750,000 displaced Palestinians, approximately 110,000 (mostly from northern Palestine) sought refuge in Lebanon. The majority of refugees registered with UNRWA and placed in one of the dozen camps operated by the organization around the country. While some of the wealthier refugee families from 1948 and 1967 were given citizenship, the Lebanese government has refused to naturalize the vast majority of Palestinian refugees. Moreover, it has actively discouraged assimilation fearing that an influx of Sunni Muslims would upset the Lebanese political system balancing the country’s minorities.
While Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, following the Oslo Accords of 1993, have seen the implementation of self-rule by the Palestinian National Authority, and been promised a future Palestinian State, the peace process seems increasingly unlikely to secure any meaningful “right of return” for the majority of Palestinian refugees now living in Lebanon who trace their displacement back to 1948.
A growing recognition since Camp David II, on the part of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Western governments, of the highly marginal position of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon has led to call for a policy of “Lebanon first”. This proposal acknowledges the need to prioritize the claims of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in any final status agreement due to the intransigent position of the government towards a policy of naturalization, and the extreme deprivation that has come to characterize life, not only in the original UNRWA camps, but also the unofficial camps that have developed around the country.
Despite this long overdue recognition of the precarious position of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, their fate continues to be uncertain as their host country determinedly calls for their removal, and Israel adamantly resists their return. Meanwhile, the generation of 1948 whose memories of life in Palestine are dying out, is replaced by generations whose collective sense of past and future is bound up with a country they have never seen.