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Studies 23 December, 2014

Palestinians in Lebanon: A Racialized Minority or One of Many “Others”?

Waleed Serhan

Waleed Serhan is a sociologist in the areas of racial and ethnic studies, migration studies, social movements, and globalization and development. He received his Ph.D. from Trinity College, Dublin in 2014 and his MSc in development studies from the University of Glasgow in 2007. He is was a visiting scholar at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar for a period of three months. He was a teaching assistant on Race, Ethnicity and Identity for two years at Trinity College, Dublin. He also taught Power, State and Social movements for one year also at Trinity College, Dublin. Prior to pursing an academic career, Waleed worked in the social development sector for over three years among the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon. He also worked as a research assistant at the United Nations Development Programme’s MENA regional office based in Beirut, Lebanon. 

Introduction

This article is part of a wider study conducted on the exclusion of Palestinian refugees by the Lebanese state, in which extensive research led to the demonstration of a link between exclusion and racialization. This exclusion is analysed using critical race theory and the theoretical concept of racialization. Employing the theories of Michel Foucault and David Theo Goldberg on the racial state, and Zygmunt Bauman’s theory on the gardening state, the study deals with racialization as a phenomenon of modern states.[1] It focuses on the practices of the state, and not on racialization between Lebanese and Palestinians as peoples. While the exclusion of Palestinians in terms of institutional discrimination can be analyzed in its own right, racialization as a theoretical concept incorporates discrimination but also goes beyond it. Racialization reveals the “ideology” or rationale behind discriminatory practices.

Racialization as a theoretical concept is understood and used differently by different scholars. The definition given by Goldberg has been adopted in this study: “to impute exclusionary or derogatory implications to social conditions.”[2] It emerged, through this four-year study, that Palestinians are racialized through multiple dominant narratives in the Lebanese political discourse. With regards to the Lebanon’s recent past, Palestinians are blamed for the breakout of the Lebanese civil war by large segments of the Lebanese population. When the civil war ended, following the signing of the Taif Accord in 1989, Palestinians were considered “guests” who did not respect the hospitality offered to them by the Lebanese, and who consequently brought about the destruction of Lebanon. Currently, due to the idea of tawteen, or the naturalization or permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon, Palestinians are seen as a demographic and cultural threat to the Lebanese world order and way of life premised on consociation, sectarian balance, and religious coexistence.[3] Palestinians are equally thought to be a military danger.

While derogatory categorizations of Palestinians by Lebanese politicians exist, they remain rare. However, this does not mean that Palestinians are not racialized, according to Goldberg’s definition. Rather, Lebanese politicians evade being labelled as racist by reiterating the danger of tawteen, The institutional racism faced by Palestinians is justified by arguing that such discriminatory practices prevent the demise of Lebanon which is premised on consociation and religious coexistence, and serve to protect the Palestinian right of return to their homeland which they would otherwise forgo if they were integrated and offered a comfortable living in Lebanon.[4] Palestinians are denied their civil and social rights in Lebanon under the pretext of preventing tawteen, which is made out to be detrimental and even catastrophic to Lebanese and Palestinians alike.

In this article, the position of Palestinians refugees is analysed as a uniquely racialized minority in Lebanon. One commonly hears that in a Lebanon deeply divided on confessional and political lines, Palestinians are only one of many “others.” This narrative implicitly glosses over and downplays the plight and predicament of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It also makes their racialization appear natural in such a divided society, thereby rendering it unworthy of mention, let alone of academic study. The article starts with exploring the boundaries between Lebanese and Palestinians, and then moves onto examining this uniquely racialized position through archival research of Lebanese newspapers regarding two similar incidents. The first relates to a Palestinian refugee camp and the second to a Lebanese town in East Lebanon. The discourse used by Lebanese politicians and newspapers in relation to these two incidents is analyzed. This brings up the question of whether this position of Palestinians as the “ultimate other” factors into the construction of the Lebanese “self.”

 
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[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin, 1977); Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (London: Penguin, 2004); David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002); Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, (Oxford: Polity, 1991).

[2] Goldberg, The Racial State, p. 12.

[3] In Lebanese political discourse tawteen signifies the naturalization or permanent settlement (even without naturalization) of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. As Palestinians are predominantly Sunni Muslims it is believed that their permanent presence will tip the “delicate” sectarian balance between Lebanese confessional communities. In this discourse, this scenario is portrayed as the demise of Lebanon which is founded on religious coexistence and power-sharing between confessional groups. The rejection of tawteen was instituted in 1990 as an amendment to the Lebanese Taif constitution of 1989.

[4] Simon Haddad, “The Origins of Popular Opposition to Palestinian Resettlement in Lebanon,” International Migration Review 38 (2004): 470-492; Ruba Salih, “From Bare Lives to Political Agents: Palestinian Refugees as Avant-Garde,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 32 (2013): 66-91.