A Hard Won Victory
The Story of 68 Palestinian Families in Lebanon
by FRANKLIN LAMB
Masnaa border crossing (Syria/Lebanon)
Predictions about the likely course of events in this region, including occasional ones by this observer, have a way of not panning out as expected. But one prediction I offered recently to Palestinian friends in Syria--namely that Lebanon's "media" would fail to inform the world about an important Palestinian victory achieved in late May--has so far turned out to be accurate.
The confrontation which took place recently in a small office at Lebanon's General Security (GS) Information Branch headquarters was for the most part civil in tone--an over-the-hill American in handcuffs refusing to answer questions from a fat guy in uniform, who kept making a racket by striking his desk with a small metal rod, this as the Yankee began a hunger strike: it has been kept quiet. No coverage in the media. And frankly, that's fine, because arguably it wasn't that newsworthy in any event. But the problem which had given rise to the incident surely was.
It evolved around critically important Baccalaureate exams, whose dates, between the first and seventeenth of June, were fixed months ago by the Syrian Ministry of Education. More than 364,000 students in Syria, including thousands of Palestinian refugees, are scheduled to take the exams, required for the General Secondary Certificate for 2014. Some 28,000 additional students will be taking the Technical Secondary Certificate exams. Graduating seniors in Syria must pass these exams before receiving their diplomas and enrolling in university.
The saga, briefly told, has to do with the fact that the war in Syria over the past 33 months has forced into Lebanon between 1.2 million and 2 million Syrian refugees, including approximately 80,000 Palestinians, from Yarmouk refugee camp and elsewhere, and last week's important victory on their behalf managed to go unreported in the sectarian-poisoned, highly politicized Lebanese media.
With a population of around 3.4 million, (eleven million emigrated during and since the 1975-1990 civil war that killed more than 170,000 Lebanese) Lebanon has been impacted fairly dramatically by the refugee influx in terms of housing, jobs, water and electricity. Some of these were already in weak circumstances even before the events of March 2011, and since the war began, clashes between pro and anti-Assad forces have spilled over the border, making the situation ever more precarious. Many of those bombed or shelled out of Syria's 10 official Palestinian refugee camps have been squeezed into sardine-canned slums that were established between 1948 and 1951 and which were originally designed as temporary, short-term housing. Residing in an area intended to house one-sixth of its current population, these refugees, 90% of who have no jobs according to UNHCR, due to 88% of all jobs being outlawed for Palestinians in Lebanon are experiencing skyrocketing costs in healthcare, electricity and water, and they are also undergoing massive social problems. One of the latter is a marked decline in access to education, particularly among post-Baccalaureate Palestinian teenagers.
With Lebanese elections, both presidential and parliamentary, currently creating a host of political vote-harvesting opportunities, politicians have wasted no time in snatching the low-hanging fruit of six decades of refugee bashing, seizing the moment to blame refugees for all this confessional failed-state's maladies. Vicious anti-refugee campaigns have been launched by some electoral contestants, much to the chagrin of those hoping to find haven here as well as portions of the international community, including campaigns seeking not only to expel those already here but which also press to bar those still coming in (and often arriving at the rate of thousands each day). Among the proposals being put forth are for internment camps, to be set up somewhere in a no-man's land, which presumably would make US internment camps created for Japanese-Americans in World War II appear almost civilized by comparison.
Various measures and proposed measures, all of them inhumane and many illegal, have rained down from government ministries and party headquarters by candidates offering themselves as leaders of a state that many now claim to be a lost cause. One action, clearly illegal, taken by the present government is a proclamation by the Lebanese Interior Ministry, currently headed by Nihad al-Mashnoup, a member of the anti-Syria Future Movement.
Al-Mashnoup arbitrarily issued an order banning refugees who journey to Syria to vote or take Baccalaureates--or to check on family members or see what's left of their homes--from regaining entry to Lebanon. The decision was put into effect on June 1, the first day of the BACC exams. It was issued just a few days after thousands of Syrians flocked to their country's embassy in Beirut to vote in the recent election. In response, letters of protest were sent by both the Syrian and Palestinian embassies, with Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdul-Karim branding the action a "retaliatory measure" aimed at the Assad government for purpose of impeding the vote process.
"It goes against the simplest rules of human rights as it contravenes the work of the International Commission on Human Rights, as international assistance is intended to reach the Syrians at home as well as those abroad," Ambassador Ali declared.
Others argued that al-Mashnoup's motive was obvious, and that the clumsily-pushed plan would actually increase refugee support for the Syrian regime. Omran Zoubi, the articulate Syrian Minister of Information, claimed that the decision would affect about 500,000 Syrians, while Human Rights Watch pointed out, accurately, that the capricious restriction would be a fundamental violation of international law.
Lebanon is tightening restrictions for Palestinians fleeing there from Syria after the Lebanese interior ministry declared that improving conditions justify a return to pre-war entry regulations. "As the situation in Syria is improving, especially in Yarmouk, the exceptional circumstances cited as their reason for entry into Lebanon are no longer relevant," a source from the Interior Ministry told some media outlets in Beirut a couple of weeks ago. "The red alert has been switched to green" he enthused.
This claim is patently false and it is reveals deep ignorance of what is going on in Yarmouk--as well as unattractive malevolence. 283 refugees have died inside Yarmouk just from starvation and two more died due to the camp siege last week despite a few aid parcels entering. As often as not, militia inside Yarmouk follow those who are handed a food parcel and rob them of it at gunpoint. And sell them at exorbitant prices which most Palestinians in Yarmouk do not have. Lebanon's government errs with its claim. In point of fact, "the exceptional circumstances cited as their reason for entry" are as relevant as ever-if not more so today.