For more than a month, large protests throughout Lebanon have been gaining size and momentum, driven by the announcement that the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which provides services and relief to Palestinian refugees, will no longer cover the cost of regular hospital visits for Palestinians in Lebanon. This move has been interpreted as representing a wider decline in the fortunes of Palestinians in Lebanon and the resulting protests recently culminated in the shutdown of the agency’s offices in Beirut. While the protests have been non-violent, if these grievances are unaddressed, a combination of factors, including some linked to the war in Syria, could lead Palestinians in Lebanon to decide that violence is the only tool at their disposal to attain their humanitarian and political needs.
Cuts in assistance, rising poverty rates, the absence or impotence of their political representatives, an increase in extremism and the presence of foreign fighters in the camps, combined with growing hopelessness, could contribute to confrontations with the Lebanese state.
The UNRWA cuts have the potential to significantly affect humanitarian conditions for Palestinians, who are a particularly vulnerable group in Lebanon. Poverty rates are high among this community and they are largely dependent on UNRWA for education, jobs and welfare assistance, in addition to health care. The poverty rates are partly due to the fact that Palestinians are restricted in which sectors they are legally permitted to work, with the vast majority working in agriculture or construction for low wages and in harsh conditions, according to a 2012 study by the International Labour Organization.
The situation for Palestinians has been deteriorating recently in the context of the wider economic and political crisis Lebanon is facing. The country has been without a president since May 2014 and last year its economy is reputed to have experienced zero GDP growth. Lebanese citizens have also been protesting in great numbers against their government’s dysfunction, corruption and civil rights abuses.
While some Lebanese parties and their constituencies can still look to regional patrons for political support and consequent economic benefits, Palestinians’ regional alliances are diminishing. Previously, certain Palestinian groups in Lebanon received political backing from Damascus. Yet since Syria’s withdrawal in 2005 and particularly since the outbreak of its civil war in 2011, Palestinians in Lebanon can no longer look to the Syrian government as a major political ally.
Two additional drivers of Palestinian vulnerability and potential destabilization are also linked to the Syrian civil war: the growing presence of extremist groups and foreign fighters in Palestinian refugee camps, and the declining financial state of the UNRWA itself. The war has exacerbated divisions between Palestinian factions and groups in Lebanon, which makes it more difficult to maintain security in the camps. Hamas’s decision to close its political office in Damascus and endorse the Syrian uprising against its erstwhile patron Bashar al-Assad provoked a split among Palestinian Islamist groups – of which there are many operating in the camps in Lebanon – into pro- and anti-regime sides.
In addition, armed groups from Syria such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front have established a presence and alliances in refugee camps, particularly Ain Al Hilweh. Extremist groups composed of foreign fighters who are new to the Lebanese scene are less likely to value their relationship with the state or with local actors because they have not experienced the outcomes of past conflicts in the camps or do not feel invested in the security of the local community. Rather, they are more likely to engage in clashes with security forces or with rival groups, as argued in a recent paper by Lebanon Support, an NGO.
At the same time, the Syria crisis has led to unprecedented financial difficulties for UNRWA, with donor funds tied up in meeting the needs of Syrians and host communities. Last autumn, UNRWA schools across the region faced a serious threat of having to cancel the school year for lack of funding, until at the last minute Gulf countries gave donations under strong pressure from Palestinian-hosting governments.
It is in this context that the announced cuts in health care assistance in Lebanon have prompted fear that new reductions to welfare and rent assistance could be forthcoming, as protesters have expressed. These cuts and their political marginalization are driving Palestinians’ escalating sense of hopelessness.
In addition, UNRWA’s existence and role providing for Palestinians in lieu of their host country state has long been a symbol of the Palestinian people’s perseverance for their cause of return to their homeland. For many Palestinians, reductions in UNRWA assistance are an upsetting sign of the agency’s diminishing role, which they fear could have long-term effects for their own national cause. This hopelessness is compounded by the de facto defunct peace process with Israel. Since last year there has been a noted upswing in the number of both Palestinians and Lebanese leaving for Europe alongside Syrian refugees.
Most Palestinians do not have the option of leaving Lebanon, however, and while they have not been linked to a major destabilization since the conflict in Nahr Al Bared refugee camp in 2007, it is important not to become complacent about what the outcomes of today’s deteriorating situation could be. The conditions that existed during the 2007 conflict are present again here: a war across the border, extremist groups infiltrating Palestinian refugee camps and Palestinian divisions that could undermine security arrangements. For years there have been persistent warnings that the situation for Palestinians constitutes a ‘ticking time bomb’ for Lebanon. The factors that could lead to an outbreak of violence not only in the camps but also around the country are now greater than ever.
Palestinian hopelessness and Lebanon’s political and economic crisis could add up to wider-scale instability in the country involving Lebanon’s various armed groups, a government unable to respond effectively, and regional powers already engaged in escalating proxy conflicts elsewhere. Donors should rapidly deliver the additional financial support that UNRWA needs; this is the only way to defuse tension in the short term. Over the medium term, Palestinians must be better included in the international community’s efforts to combat poverty and instability in Lebanon.
Doris Carrion, Research Associate, Middle East and North Africa Programme (Chatham House).