Palestinians in Lebanon reflect on ‘fading dream’ of return

Beirut, Lebanon – There were 20 boys in the group, aching to catch a glimpse of Palestine. They jumped on to a bus which took them from a refugee camp in Beirut to the south of Lebanon, on the border with Israel.

There, they hurled stones at the Israeli soldiers, even though they could hardly see their targets and most probably failed to hit any. It was an act of defiance, learned from TV.

“It is beautiful in Palestine, greenery everywhere,” one of them said. Mustafa is a fourth generation Palestinian refugee. “There are olive trees. It’s like paradise.”

In his reminiscences, he throws together his brief impressions of that day with what he has heard from the elders in his family. “Inshallah! One day we will return.”

If that wish was ever achievable, it today seems further away than ever.

US President Donald Trump said on September 26 he would reveal his grand peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “in the next two to three to four months” – and was seemingly taking the Palestinian right of return off the table.

Why thousands of Palestinian refugees are moving out of Lebanon

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the UN‘s Resolution 194, granting Palestinians the right of return, one of the three issues integral to the Middle East peace process.

The logic in the Trump government seems to be in sync with Israel’s; only those born in historic Palestine would reportedly be counted as refugees – not their descendants.

The Trump team is therefore expected to cap the number of Palestinian refugees at half a million – about a tenth of 5.5 million registered with the UN. 

That would likely deprive Mustafa, and millions like him, of the promise of Palestine.

Mustafa lives in south Beirut’s Bourj el-Barajneh camp, built for 500 families in 1948, now packed with 50,000 refugees.

Barely 16, he was listlessly puffing out rings of smoke in the corner of a street that was littered with foul-smelling garbage. A mass of matted electric wires hung above him.

Lebanon has always reminded its Palestinian refugees that they will never be accepted as citizens. Lebanese politicians fear that granting citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians, almost all Sunni Muslim, will alter the country’s delicate demographic balance.

In a daily reminder that Palestinians are not welcome in Lebanon, they are legally banned from 30 vocations, all well paying jobs that could enable them to raise their status and pull themselves out of poverty.

The alternative being offered by President Trump’s team is to offer the Palestinians residency, if not citizenship, in their host states.

That seems unlikely to find favour with either the Palestinians, who would still be left stateless, or host governments. In Lebanon, additionally, Hezbollah is in a position to enforce its view that the goal should be retaking Palestine, not making the status quo more palatable.

If not Lebanon, what about Europe?

Not far away, Khalil, 21, spends his day skirting the armed young men who populate the camp. Anyone who doesn’t have work, he said, joins the Palestinian armed factions that control camp security – most of the young men. Mostly, he says, they do it to get their hands on a weapon.

“They fire at will, wherever, whenever they like,” he said.

Khalil is soft-spoken and ambitious, uninterested in violence. He is catering to the customers at his father’s general store, waiting for his luck to kick in.

He wants to study accountancy at a good university. That can be achieved in Europe, he thinks. He is asking himself whether he would accept resettlement in Europe instead of the right to return if the Trump deal offered it.

That’s not a thought that has crossed Mustafa’s mind. He dropped out of school, feeling that however hard he studied he would never have a career. Khalil, on the other hand, has at least theoretical options.

This does not mean he is prepared to abandon his identity, he says. He will not give up on the right to return – as a principle. “It is our homeland, my homeland. Wherever I work, my country is still my country,” he said.

However, he said if he had a decent life in Europe, that is a right he could choose not to exercise.  

Of course, this remains theoretical. Europe at present is in no hurry to hand out residence or citizenship to another group of refugees, already reeling under the impact of the Syrian crisis.

Palestinian by origin, Lebanese by birth

By contrast, Nadia Rdeini loves Lebanon. Moreover, she is skeptical about whether she would have as good a future – or even a future at all – in an independent Palestine.

Speaking to Al Jazeera in a smart cafe in Christian East Beirut’s most fashionable restaurant street, she arrived in a pink chiffon headscarf, saying: “I was born here and I want to live here. And who knows how the Palestinians will treat us.

Maybe, after so long, those already living there would see them as outsiders, she added.

Nadia in East Beirut’s Gemmayzeh district [Anchal Vohra/Al Jazeera]

A return to Palestine might just turn her into a refugee again, she reasoned – only all the harder because it would be in the country that her family dreamed of for so long. She would rather put up a fight in a familiar milieu.

“If I get rights in Lebanon, I’ll take them here,” she said.

It is not just her own prospects in Palestine that she doubts, but the whole practicalities of the “right to return”. How would a Palestinian state cope with all the extra millions of returnees?

She claims that most Palestinians would not want to settle down in a future Palestinian state. “In my generation, if anyone says that they want to live in Palestine for ever, they are lying.”

Her approach to envisioning her future takes a completely different track to Mustafa, whose only vision lay in a Palestinian state, or Khalil, with his European utopia. She would much prefer to stay in Lebanon. As such, she does not care about a right to return – but would like the right to visit.

She represents a third way, albeit a minority one for Palestinians, perhaps akin to the Hong Kong residents who were given British passports on the former colony’s return to China in 1997 – without the right to live in Britain.

Room for compromise?

The message of all three of these young Palestinians was that they were not willing to trade their national identity for a better quality of life – but they were nevertheless desperate for that better quality of life.

The question for the 5.5 million Palestinians about to be made stateless is whether any future available to them is compensation enough for the loss of a dream.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken of a ‘State Minus’ for Palestine, a demilitarised state with limited authority.

Most Palestinians will not accept anything less than a fully independent state but some may be ready to discuss the right to return. That, as long as any settlement under discussion was fair and not exploitative.

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