In response to:

Lebanon's Agony from the June 28, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Max Rodenbeck is one of the best-informed, fairest, and most perceptive journalists writing about the Middle East [“Lebanon’s Agony,” NYR, June 28], but even he occasionally lapses. Rodenbeck’s analysis hints at but ultimately ignores one of the fundamental reasons for Lebanon’s agony: the anti-Palestinian apartheid practiced more thoroughly in Lebanon (“an island of relative democratic liberty”—so long as you are not a descendant of Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in 1948) than in any other Middle Eastern country. As Mr. Rodenbeck himself notes, descendants of Palestinian refugees are barred from living anywhere in Lebanon but in slum-like refugee “camps,” cannot hold decent jobs, are barred from citizenship (and thus cannot vote or hold office), are barred from Lebanon’s universities, are even barred from holding property, and, as noncitizens, even have a hard time getting passports. Sixty years after their grandparents fled the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Palestinians in Lebanon are in many ways worse off than blacks were under South African apartheid.

Menachem Kellner
University of Haifa
Haifa, Israel

Max Rodenbeck replies:

I agree that the treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon has been shamefully unjust, and that this has certainly been one cause of Lebanon’s many woes. However, I fear that Dr. Kellner overstates the case slightly.

Specifically, it is not true that Palestinians are barred from living outside refugee camps, or from attending state-run Lebanese universities. The problem is that since they are banned from owning property and have no citizenship, they must pay rent or tuition fees just as other foreigners. Many are too poor to do so, partly because Palestinians are not allowed to work in dozens of circumscribed professions. It is rather an exaggeration, then, to conclude that their lot is worse than that of black South Africans under apartheid, with its Pass Laws and rules against miscegenation.

Besides, there are some mitigating factors. One is that in recent years the Lebanese government has taken steps to improve the Palestinians’ status, for instance by reducing the number of professions they are excluded from. A second factor is that unlike black South Africans, or indeed unlike Palestinians in the West Bank under Israeli rule, Lebanon’s Palestinians are not “natives” oppressed by settlers inspired by an exclusionary ideology. They actually cling to their “outsider” status as refugees, and to the hope, however unrealistic, of return to Palestine. Their demand from the Lebanese is simply for normal civil rights and just treatment, not full citizenship.

In a more bitterly ironic sense, while the Palestinians’ own political institutions, including the PLO, have arguably contributed nearly as much as the Lebanese to isolating the refugees, many of the specific legal strictures placed on Palestinians in Lebanon are in fact products of Lebanon’s own horribly flawed but oddly representative democratic processes. Sadly, one thing on which Lebanon’s myriad factions have tended to agree is dumping on the Palestinians.

This Issue

September 27, 2007