Sunday a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting alongside hundreds of supporters of the Palestinian cause in the 7th Annual Conference of the SOAS Palestine Society in London. Listening to the vibrant experiences of activists from the west bank, Gaza, Israel, the US and Europe, I felt excited and empowered. Still, I could not but agonise about the absence of the voice of Palestinian refugees, or better said, that of the Palestinians in the neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon and Syria.
This was not the first such international activist space for Palestine to be so, and it is not because those of us in the Arab neighbouring countries are being excluded. On the margin of the meeting a young Palestinian is pushing for a campaign on representation of all Palestinians in what they hope to be a revived Palestinian National Council. I am provoked to search who among the Palestinian community in Lebanon does represent me, not by necessity in the global struggle for Palestine, but at least within Lebanon. Needless to say the answer to that quest was not easy; we are trapped between the patriarchal non-representative warring political factions and corrupt charities, and the eager to please official Palestinian representation alongside the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC). The problem was not one of representation – as in electing an individual to speak on our behalf -, it was one of voice. There was nobody to represent us, because our own voice of what we need and want was stifled by many years of marginalization in countries for which oppression of rights and expression was the norm. Today, our silence as Palestinians in Arab countries reveals as much about Arab coercion as it does about Palestinian vulnerability.
It is in search of that voice that I drafted the below. What do I need today to regain the ability to speak for my rights? What do we as Palestinians in Lebanon need to do in our quest for true representation?
1. Break out of the externally imposed identification of the Palestinians in the Diaspora as mere “refugees”: That image, though as dear to us as Naji El-Ali's Handala and Kanafani's Umm Sa'ed should not summarise who we are, even those of us who live in the camps and hold ID cards that label us as refugees. Being mere refugees has trapped us in the status of victims and made our plight a humanitarian one rather than a political struggle. This was not our doing, it was part of a process of depoliticization of the Palestinian cause by the international community even before the creation of the state of Israel. Today we have an international relief agency (ie UNRWA) as a quasi government for service provision without any capacity from our side to impact the policy, operation, and funding of that agency. Our image of deprivation is used by, and at times even nurtured, by many non-governmental organisations to attract aid that we only get a fraction of and which only serves to further deepen our dependency.
Abandoning that label as the primary identity of who we are is not a waiver of our right of return nor a denial that we as people were displaced by force out of Palestine. It is true we are refugees, but there is more to being Palestinian than that. How we frame who we are today needs to be guided not by the labels imposed on us by international organizations, nor merely by our past, but by how we envision ourselves in the future. Being Palestinian is about our aspirations and victories, not our suffering and defeats.
2. Recognise that the array of backgrounds and experiences that we have is our strength: Linking being Palestinian to suffering and the refugee status has often caused us to shun those who we thought “have not suffered enough” or who have taken a nationality other than the dreadful travel document of the Lebanese state. True, many of us have lived through horrible times, either through periods of crisis like wars in the camps and Israeli invasions, or due to the longer lasting systemic policies that have impoverished us and instilled in whole generations of youth a deep sense of despair. True, if you do not live in the camp and have a nationality that would allow you a relatively decent job and better education, you might be better empowered to raise your voice, but this does not make you by necessity wiser or more worthy of speaking on behalf of Palestinians (just like yours truly is pretending to do in this text). Yet on the other hand, holding refugee status, and suffering discrimination does not give you exclusivity or 'premium' rights to the Palestinian identity. This in any case should not be our discussion, we all want justice for all Palestinians, we all want an end to the Israeli colonisation and the right for return, and we will do much better if we fought for these together and in equality. Equality also includes forging a partnership between those of us less fortunate, and others among us who managed to accumulate wealth and status; a partnership that goes beyond the former being the recipient of aid from the later.
3. Contribute to the visioning process of the right for return: Today, the “right of return”, though thankfully still at the core of the Palestinian demands, has lost its essence for Palestinians in the Diaspora. Its use appears like reliance on a sedative or pain killers; a mere word said for the rights of the refugees but until it becomes a reality their situation is put on hold. Within Lebanon we use it as proof in the face of Lebanese right wing attacks on Palestinians that “we really do not want to take over your country”. We are at times so defeated in front of discriminatory policies in our countries of residence that “return” is the only way we can imagine to escape it. We are implying that once a resolution is reached in Palestine we will pack our stuff and leave, as if we never existed there. This is not true, and does not help our envisioning of what “return” truly involves, and does not help the Lebanese either. The 65 years of presence in Lebanon has marked both the Palestinians and the Lebanese (and I dare to say positively). No matter what place a Palestinian who was born in Lebanon eventually decides to call home, her experiences in Lebanon will remain part of who she is.
Among the broader struggle, few are those who write about the right of return with simultaneous understanding of both the situation of Palestinians in the Diaspora and that of the places they envision them to return to, making “return” sound like a mere redistribution of people over maps and not one of complex socio-economic realities of the people and the places they inhabit. Those most deserving of and eager for a return are the ones who know the least about the reality of life on the ground for Palestinians in different areas of historic Palestine. A person who lives in Rashidiyeh refugee camp in the south of Lebanon will probably know very little about a Palestinian only tens of kilometres away in Nazareth; At least much less than a Palestinian American who has the nationality which allows him to visit both Lebanon and Israel. There is no need to reiterate how the fragmentation of the region is mirrored as rupture between the different Palestinian communities, but there is a necessity to support channels of communication that allow for a richer collectively owned vision. A vision that hopefully is free to imagine Palestine of the future not merely as the antithesis of Israel.
4. Combine the struggle for Palestine with the fight against discrimination in Lebanon: For us to be able to return we need to be able to grow as individuals and groups, and we need to improve our living conditions in Lebanon. Demanding our rights in Lebanon and improving our situation is to strengthen us as we engage in our struggle. Living a decent life will not make us any less Palestinian or less deserving of return. The dismal situation which tens of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon are living in cannot persist till the aspired-for return. Whoever makes the claim now to be fighting for the rights of Palestinians cannot only be looking at the strategic without seeing that the urgent needs of today make obtaining that strategic ever more difficult. The immediate needs cannot merely be dealt with through charity or further knocking on UNRWA's doors. We need to be demanding that Lebanon respects its obligations as host state.
5. Make clear the links between our struggle against discrimination in Lebanon and the broader Lebanese struggle for democracy and justice: Organising for the rights of Palestinians in Lebanon supports the rights of the Lebanese too, and does not do them injustice as some would claim. A state that respects non-citizens, like refugees and migrant workers, is the same one that respects its own citizens. Every time a breach of the rights of Palestinians is allowed, the strength of the rights framework within Lebanon is weakened. The arbitrary detention of a Palestinian today means that arbitrary detention is accepted. If he or she is tortured in prison, that means that the torture apparatus is functioning and allowed victims to practice on. Soon enough these same measures will be used against some “less favourable” Lebanese (and they are).
In the post war period most Palestinians have shied away from engaging politically in Lebanon, especially given the disastrous interventions of the Palestinian political factions in the past. Palestinian political silence deepened in the post 2005 period with the ongoing crisis in Lebanon. Today as some Lebanese are engaged in action for a just non-sectarian system, a partnership for the rights of the Palestinians can only do both struggles well, as it supports the rights-for-all discourse as opposed to the logic of sectarian distribution of benefits. We are all victims of the same injustice, and our fight will be stronger together. For Lebanese activists, this is an invitation to take on board the demands of the Palestinians in nation wide campaigns.
developing activism plan by Palestinians in Lebanon and I need to translate it into applicable action. Possibly the right intervention now is one that organises around issues that combine social, economic and political demands, and is aligned with the Lebanese fights for Justice. One such example could be electricity supplies in the camps; while the condition of electricity varies in different camps, they are in most subject to the whim of a dysfunctional camp committee and the local factions, as well as the negotiation on its delivery with the local Lebanese authorities. All of that is further complicated by the chaos within the camp. As the Lebanese suffer from the same corrupt management of electricity production and supply in Lebanon, this could be a space for joint action. Other spaces could be the accessibility and functioning of professional syndicates, garbage collection, and the corruption of charitable institutions and international aid.
Wherever we start, we can change our course of action along the way and make discoveries about our priorities and how best to obtain them. Only through that though can we recover our muffled voice – not by identifying individuals to speak on our behalf, but by strengthening the community which pushes people forward to speak for demands it had already formulated.