The xenophobia pervading Lebanon this summer is threatening over one million Syrian and Palestinian refugees currently living there.
On 13 August, the Arabic language service of Deutsche Welle broadcast an episode of JaafarTalk, a television program that tackles controversial issues in the Arab world. Entitled “Is there racism against Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon?”, the program dealt with institutionalized discrimination and a culture that has previously torn itself asunder over refugees and sectarian strife.
During a heated exchange between Samer Manaa, a Palestinian human rights activist, and Naji Hayek, a Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) activist, Hayek bluntly stated that Lebanon has “endured [Palestinian refugees] for 70 years and if we want to open the book into old scores, has endured the death of 100,000 people.”
He derisively asked if the dignity that Palestinians talk about includes the “kidnapping, killing and bombing of neighborhoods.”
Throughout the past two months, partisans of the xenophobic current in Lebanese politics have mobilized politicized memories of these events in the media to justify discrimination and the use of camps as sites for the Lebanese army to project its military strength.
Hayek had previously stated in a 25 July interview on the FPM-linked OTV television station that the camps host “tens of thousands of militants” and accused Lebanese citizens who support granting civil rights to Palestinians of undermining the Lebanese state, suggesting that they may support the union of Lebanon and Syria.
These outbursts illuminate an enduring division in Lebanon around the presence of Palestinian refugees, with some political parties seeing Palestinians as representing threats to Lebanon’s sovereignty and security.
This securitization of Palestinian refugees – defining them as principally a security concern – has precipitated bloody confrontations throughout Lebanon’s modern history, from pre-civil war clashes to civil war-era massacres up to the 2007 military campaign in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
Labor ministry’s war on Palestinians
This summer, the labor ministry launched a campaign to combat what its minister Camille AbouSleiman described as “illegal foreign labor.”
Palestinians and Lebanese critics of the campaign described the pursuit of Palestinian workers as the cynical exploitation of xenophobia by AbouSleiman – a member of the Lebanese Forces political party – to appeal to his party’s base.
When Palestinians organized protests in camps throughout the country, Lebanese satellite channels became platforms for AbouSleiman’s supporters to invoke memories of the civil war to conflate Palestinian political organizing with the weakening of the state.
On 30 July, the introduction to LBCI’s evening news compared pro-Palestinian protests with 1975 protests in Sidon.
The bloody ending of those demonstrations, particularly the killing of pro-Palestinian politician Maarouf Saad by Lebanese security forces, represented a pivotal moment in the descent of Lebanon into civil war.
The program framed the protests as a challenge to the state and suggested that Palestinian organizing merits a response from the Higher Defense Council, a government body concerned with defense policy composed of the president, prime minister and select cabinet members.
Marcel Ghanem’s Sar El Waet (It’s About Time) on MTV Lebanon dealt on 18 July with the ministry’s campaign against foreign labor.
An audience member stated that “domestic and foreign elements are exploiting the issue and that brings us back to 1975 because some people want chaos and war.”
While this discourse is generally associated with parties like FPM and LF, activists from the so-called “civil society” current have adopted this language as well.
On the same episode of Sar El Waet, Mariam Majdouline Lahham, a journalist and supporter of the Sabaa Party, questioned Palestinians’ classification as refugees.
She stated that “no refugee goes to another country carrying a knife” and “before they ask to be treated equally in the workforce, they shouldn’t have weapons.”
When the host expressed shock at Lahham’s statement, she responded that she has “always said that weapons should only be with the Lebanese army.”
Expressing unwavering support for Lebanon’s military institutions has become a trope in Lebanese politics where the strength of the army is a proxy for gauging the strength of the Lebanese state.
Throughout Lebanon’s history, Palestinian camps have been sites for the army to project its strength so as to confirm the supremacy of the state.
Military posts are currently stationed along the perimeter of camps, though prior to the 1969 Cairo Agreement, residents were monitored by the Deuxième Bureau, the pre-war military intelligence organ.
In 2007, the army battled the Islamist militant group Fatah al-Islam which had attacked a military checkpoint and was based in the Nahr al-Bared camp. Though the army defeated the militants, it also destroyed the camp and displaced more than 30,000 people.
Despite the burden carried by vulnerable communities, the military operation in Nahr al-Bared is celebrated as a victory by partisans of FPM and LF for a poorly equipped army that has few achievements and is weaker than the paramilitary Lebanese resistance organization Hizballah.
On 1 August, to commemorate Lebanese Army Day, OTV accompanied a naval ship that patrolled the coast along the camp – that has yet to be completely rebuilt – as part of a segment in which the reporter lauded the army for the “ferocity of ground forces and the innovations of the air force” accompanying the navy in returning the camp to state control.
The exhibition was partly a performance for Army Day, but it was also to show that the state has fully imposed its sovereignty on the camp, in the form of an extreme military presence whose imposition the government prioritized over rebuilding the camp.
OTV and similar networks promulgate an image of camps as potential terrorist havens that must be monitored and controlled by the military.
The media discourse regarding Palestinians facilitates their marginalization because it transforms victims of ethnic cleansing and forced displacement into a security threat.
The idea of granting civil rights to Palestinians is disregarded by Lebanese chauvinists because their conceptualization of this community is that of foreigners whose presence destabilizes Lebanon rather than a segment of society that has been an integral part of Lebanon for over 70 years.
While the campaign of the labor ministry is deplorable, it has catalyzed Palestinian civil society to mobilize to demand the cessation of discrimination in labor and property rights as well as the end of military cordons around camps.
It is now essential that the voices of this movement are amplified so they are not obscured by the fear-mongering rhetoric in the media.
Thomas Keppen is a graduate student at the American University of Beirut. His research focuses on media coverage of the 1973 tobacco farmer uprising in Lebanon.