Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil, then Lebanon's foreign minister, speaks at a press conference in Berlin, Germany, September 2019. (Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Lebanon’s Neutrality Obstructed by Refugees

Party head, president’s son-in-law, ignites firestorm in Land of the Cedars with controversial statements on issue

Palestinian factions condemned statements by Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement political party, who said over the weekend that Lebanon should become neutral on regional disputes and that this policy would succeed “if neighboring countries recognize it and apply it by removing the explosive elements abroad,” a reference to Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

Michel Aoun, Bassil’s father-in-law and predecessor as leader of the overwhelmingly Christian Free Patriotic Movement, is currently the president of Lebanon.

Earlier on Sunday, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, before a meeting with Bassil, called to achieve the principle of neutrality and to eliminate poverty and hunger in the country, which has been suffering from a suffocating economy and an acute financial crisis that is considered the worst threat to the country’s stability since the civil war that raged between 1975 and 1990.

Ahmad Majdalani, the PA’s social development minister, told The Media Line that the Palestinian leadership was used to such “racist language” coming from Bassil and from other right-wing forces in Lebanon even before 1975. “This kind of discourse was a major reason behind the outbreak of the civil war,” the minister said.

Evoking this history of hatred and racism was not good for Lebanon, as the country could not be neutral on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because some of its land was still occupied, he said.

Beirut claims a largely unpopulated area controlled by Israel that is called Shebaa Farms by Lebanon and Mount Dov by Israel.

“The Palestinian refugees have actually constituted a factor contributing to stability and maintaining balance in the country. Our refugees make positive contributions to the Lebanese economy and add value, given the funds being transferred into Lebanon for them,” Majdalani continued.

Bassil’s statements did not represent the position of the Lebanese government, parliament or presidency, he said.

“The Lebanese government position is historically known to support the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights of return and to establish an independent state,” Majdalani said.

Mohammed Abu Ali, a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon, told The Media Line that Bassil had failed in all of the ministries that he headed, and focused on the Palestinian refugee issue in most of his political speeches to cover that up.

“We are not a burden on the Lebanese government, as the latter doesn’t provide us anything,” Abu Ali said.

He explained that the financial crisis in Lebanon was the result of corruption and theft, where the Lebanese were demanding the return of the “stolen money” at their protests that began last year, known locally as the October Revolution.

“Because of us, the Palestinian and Syrian refugees, foreign currency enters Lebanon through the United Nations, the European Union and other international organizations to cover our living costs here,” Abu Ali elaborated. “The Lebanese government doesn’t provide us any services; we don’t have municipalities, we can’t benefit from the health sector in the country or anything.”

He added that Bassil’s claim that the presence of the Palestinian refugees was a political problem for the country did not make any sense, as between 2012 and 2019, more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees left Lebanon because of the difficult situation.

“Actually, we prefer any solution other than staying here. The situation in the refugee camps of Lebanon is very difficult,” Abu Ali said.

Mustafa, a Palestinian refugee based in Lebanon who asked The Media Line to withhold his last name, said Bassil’s statements were racist and sectarian, as he focused on the Palestinians and Syrians in the country, and not the other minorities.

“What about the Armenians? Basically what happened to them has happened to us, but because they are Christians, they were naturalized and given full rights as Lebanese. But because we are Muslims, we don’t get that,” he said.

Mustafa said that the Lebanese government used the Palestinians to collect aid money, in order to bring currency into the country that was suffering financially because of sectarian quotas and corruption.

“UNRWA [the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees] pays for everything for us. Lebanon doesn’t give us anything,” he said.

Bassil, a former foreign minister, suggested that to adopt neutrality, Lebanon must first “implement an internal consensus that requires national dialogue, and second, secure an international umbrella and external sponsorship.”

He continued, “Third, neighboring countries should recognize our neutrality, by removing the foreign elements from Lebanon and withdrawing the elements behind the bombings; foremost among these is Israel’s occupation of the land, organized terrorism from abroad and the demarcation of borders, in addition to the return of Syrian refugees and the return of Palestinian refugees.”

Asad Bishara, a Lebanese political analyst who served as an adviser to former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, told The Media Line that Bassil’s statements were actually motivated by a desire to avoid advancing the patriarch’s call for neutrality.

“Neutrality was suggested more than once throughout the years, and the Palestinians were here, where that has never formed an issue,” Bishara said.

“Bassil is trying to take Hizbollah’s side here by evading the suggestion that Lebanon adopt neutrality, in order to save the organization from embarrassment because Hizbollah could never directly confront a suggestion from the patriarch,” he said.

Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement and Hizbollah are both members of the governing coalition in Lebanon.

Bishara said that keeping Lebanon at the center of the region’s conflicts was the cause of the country’s instability and that this allowed Iran, the United States and Saudi Arabia to use Lebanon as a negotiating card at various times.

“As long as Lebanon doesn’t commit to the principle of neutrality, it will remain an arena for settling accounts,” he said.

Bishara reiterated that Bassil was serving Hizbollah’s purposes, saying he needed the latter’s support for a future presidential run.

“Bassil is avoiding the truth to serve Hizbollah’s agenda, while Lebanon remains unstable,” Bishara said.

Qassem Qasser, a Lebanese writer and political analyst, told The Media it was unclear what Bassil meant when he spoke about neutrality, as Lebanon was strongly linked to the regional conflicts of the Palestinians and the Syrians by the refugees it hosted.

“Maybe Bassil meant that as long as there are refugees [in the country], Lebanon will have to deal with their political issues,” he said.

However, Qasser said that neutrality could not be achieved, as Lebanon could not be neutral on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially since it was targeted by Israel.

“In addition, as for the Syrian conflict, Lebanon has signed official agreements that it won’t be a channel for any action that targets Syria, regardless of the regime there,” he said.

Michael Abu Nejem, a Lebanese political researcher and analyst, told The Media Line that Bassil had set out a road map for implementing the principle of neutrality suggested by the patriarch and that there was much room to debate the issue.

“Refugees don’t affect Lebanon’s neutrality, but seeking to resettle the Palestinian refugees [in Lebanon] and having the Syrians stay and not returning them to their homeland does,” Abu Nejem said.

He explained that Lebanon was keen to protect its national identity, freedom and democracy, as much it was keen to protect the identity of the Palestinian and Syrian refugees, in order to confront the resolution to the conflict that Israel was seeking, backed by the US.

“They want to eliminate the identities and the rights of these peoples,” Abu Nejem said. It was important to protect the refugees’ rights and the identity of their societies, he added.

“Bassil wasn’t talking about the refugees as refugees. It’s nothing against them, but the issue needs a solution and Lebanon will never accept the resettlement of Palestinians or keeping the Syrian refugees indefinitely,” Abu Nejem said.

On Sunday, the Palestinian factions condemned Bassil’s statements. The Alliance of Palestinian Forces in Lebanon called for “confronting all malicious media campaigns that smell of racism and hatred.”

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