Testing the Commitment to Palestinian Refugees: State Responses from Jordan and from Lebanon

History Sep 12, 2023

Exceeding 75 years of displacement, the Palestinian refugee crisis has tested Arab states' commitment to Palestinian refugees and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Within this complex history, shifting state policies toward refugees invite critical investigation as to what determines said state responses to displaced Palestinians. This analysis contributes to this body of research through a comparative analysis of Jordan and Lebanon. These cases show that amid ever-shifting political dynamics, Arab state responses to Palestinian refugees vary according to the perceived impacts of marginalization, resettlement, or naturalization on state power. State power is here defined as the capacity to produce desired outcomes, of which we can include the ability to realize a political agenda, maintain a given social order, and enforce compliance upon a given population. This analysis demonstrates that Jordan instrumentalizes Palestinian refugees to enhance state power, while Lebanon marginalizes them to preserve internal stability. From the Nakba to each country’s civil war, conditions of state strength or weakness determined that King Abdullah would naturalize Palestinian refugees, while Lebanon’s executive power would integrate select wealthy Palestinian Muslims and Christians. When challenged by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), both states attacked Palestinian refugees to preserve internal stability and re-establish domestic control. In postwar contexts, Jordan’s political marginalization of Palestinians demonstrates continued attempts to subordinate Palestinian identities, while Lebanon’s continued neglect of Palestinian refugees rejects integration in the name of political stability.

The Impacts of State Formation on State Responses to the Nakba

King Abdullah of Jordan’s naturalization of Palestinian refugees who were expelled in 1948 reflects the instrumentalization of refugee populations to enhance state power, a decision that was enabled by the strength of the Jordanian state. In 1948, over 700, 000 Palestinians fled their homeland under threat of ethnic cleansing by Zionist militias– an experience of mass dispossession known to Palestinians as the Nakba. A region of newly independent states soon found itself coping with one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 20th century. Jordan’s trajectory of state formation ensured that it was a strong state capable of accommodating and integrating Palestinian refugees at independence (Evermon 2021), as the British protectorate of Transjordan had been strengthened by colonial rule that integrated local tribes into its political system. Governance over Transjordan’s nomadic areas, which accounted for 80% of the Emirate’s territory, was only possible through indirect rule that privileged tribal shaykhs. Where tribal life defined social organization, the moral authority that tribesmen conferred on shaykhs saw them become critical interlocutors to a mandatory power that was preoccupied with strengthening central authority and extending its reach beyond settled territories (Alon 2005). The indispensability of tribal shaykhs to mandatory governance determined that British colonial rule in Transjordan was less coercive than elsewhere in the region, enabling tribes to cultivate a central role in domestic politics. The resulting political configuration had elements of both a modern state and a tribal confederacy (Alon 2005; Evermon 2021, 34). Additionally, the Emir of Transjordan, later King Abdullah bin-Hussein, legitimized his rule in the eyes of the population by claiming Hashemite lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. Transjordan’s transition to independence was thus exceptional for its continuity and stability (Evermon 2021). Already domestically legitimate, King Abdullah coveted rule over Palestine and Palestinians, to the end of establishing and ruling Greater Syria (Plascov 1981). Within this context, Palestinian refugees were merely a tool for extending his power across the region (ibid), for legitimizing oneself as representative of displaced Palestinians was a prerequisite to capturing the prized leadership of the elusive pan-Arab bloc. Nasser’s aspiration for a united, Arab state that extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf never came to pass, but Arab leaders of this era competed and  hungered for pan-Arab leadership, seeing it as the key to great power status. Power was measured by rule over people, so the decision to grant Palestinians citizenship saw the King’s subjects grow by approximately 75% (Bauer 2022, 2). The naturalization of Palestinian refugees was also seen as necessary to legitimize Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank, which symbolically unified the East and West Banks of the Jordan river in 1950. Jordan never signed onto the 1951 Refugee Convention, but more significantly, it committed itself to the Palestine question in Article 21 of its constitution (Evermon 2021, 45-46). Article 21 constitutionally affirms non-refoulement, the principle of international law that prohibits states from forcibly returning refugees to countries where they are likely to face persecution. Promulgated just three years after the Nakba, Article 21 ensured that the status of rights of Palestinians in Jordan would become a defining feature of Jordanian politics. Abdullah wanted to be seen as the sole representative of Palestinians, so he constructed Jordan as the protector of Palestinian rights and guarantor of their welfare. Under the guise of benevolence, the affirmation of Palestinian rights was purely strategic. As Plascov noted in 1981, Abdullah needed the Palestinians, but he neither liked nor trusted them. Though publicly a defender of Palestinians, he colluded with Israel to prevent the emergence of an independent Palestinian state (Plascov 1981). The extension of Jordanian citizenship to Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 thus demonstrates how King Abdullah’s great power aspirations, strategic interests, and lust for pan-Arab leadership informed his decision to integrate Palestinian refugees into the Jordanian populace.

The struggle to achieve Jordanian supremacy in the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship is the conflict that would come to define Jordan’s responses to Palestinian refugees, notably as Palestinians are a demographic majority in Jordan (Bauer 2022). King Abdullah’s ambitions were heavily criticized by other Arab leaders who saw his strategic agenda for what it was, and his preference for giving Palestinians equal citizenship rights to Jordanians was not always shared by his successors (Evermon 2021). Yet he set in motion historical forces that would make Hashemite monarchs permanently vested in the Palestinian cause and the outcome of the Arab-Israeli conflict, if not in the wellbeing of Palestinian refugees themselves. Enshrining the commitment to Palestinian refugees in the Jordanian constitution fused state policy on Palestinians to questions of internal stability, governmentality, and national identity (Evermon 2021,46). Since its promulgation, Jordan’s leadership has struggled to balance the competing commitments it made to refugees, naturalized Palestinians, and Jordanians. The Hashemites have blurred the lines between Palestinian and Jordanian identities when convenient, but underscored their distinctions when it served their agenda, producing discontinuous and contradictory policies that highlight the complexities of being Palestinian in Jordan.

Lebanon’s response to Palestinian refugees in 1948 was informed by the Lebanese state’s reactionary protection of elite power in the context of state weakness. Lebanon achieved independence from the French colonial administration in 1943 and inherited a power-sharing system that divides political power according to Lebanon’s religious demography. Power-sharing in Lebanon dates to 1861, but under the French mandate, it was instrumentalized for European interests (Delatolla 2021; Farsoun and Wingerter 1981). French colonizers privileged Maronite Christians and used their position of power to ensure continued economic and political access to Lebanon. In the process, they degraded Arab, Islamic identities and fomented sectarian divisions (Farsoun and Wingerter 1981). At independence, the power-sharing system underwent little transformation, and the political elite of Christians, Western businessmen, and traditional landholders continued to hold disproportionate power and wealth in Lebanese society (Delatolla 2021; Farsoun and Wingerter 1981). This history of state formation informed the motivations of the Lebanese executive, conventionally made up of a Christian president and a Sunni Muslim prime minister, to integrate or marginalize refugees from 1948. The few refugees who were granted citizenship were wealthy Christians and Muslims (Sayigh 1997, 40), as the executive hoped to tip the balance of power in their favour. By and large, Palestinians were denied the option of naturalization and were forced to remain stateless (Evermon 2021). Integration of Palestinian refugees threatened to destabilize the religious balance of the confessional system, and because most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, it would have reallocated power away from Lebanese Christians (Farsoun and Wingerter 1981). Lebanon therefore self-labeled as a transit country and neglected its responsibilities to displaced Palestinians. Lebanon did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor did they promulgate formal legislation that would address the status of Palestinian refugees. Considered ‘foreigners’ in the eyes of the state, Palestinians were denied the right to work, freedom of movement, or any civil rights (Evermon 2021). State weakness determined that Lebanon had weak absorption capacity for refugees, meaning it lacked the ability to receive, safely house, and facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid to over 100, 000 refugees fleeing across their Southern border. More importantly, though, the executive power and the conservative right perceived that Palestinian integration would disrupt the fragile status quo (Farsoun and Wingerter 1981).

Palestinian refugees on their way to the Galilee region, October-November 1948.

Palestinian Militancy, Insecurity and Repression of Refugees

The rise of the PLO challenged state authority in both Jordan and in Lebanon and pushed both countries into civil war. Such an overt threat to state power led the Jordanian regime, and constituent bodies of the Lebanese state, to violently attack refugee camps in their respective contexts. With consent from Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Arab League, the PLO was created in 1964 to centralize Palestinian leadership, but it dually served as an actor which could be manoeuvred to weaken Jordan, who was Nasser’s regional rival for pan-Arab leadership (Evermon 2021, 49). 1967 was a turning point for Palestinian-host state relations everywhere. Arab states’ stunningly poor performance in the Six-Day War betrayed Palestinians, as Arab leaders who each had strategic interests in securing Palestine and pan-Arab leadership failed to mount a united front and establish an independent Palestinian state (Farsoun and Wingerter 1981). Each was jockeying for position within the pan-Arab bloc, resulting in the losses of Gaza and the West Bank, in addition to immense casualties. The defeat made clear that only Palestinians themselves would be able to restore Palestinian statehood, causing the Palestinian Revolutionary Movement (PRM) and the power of the PLO to grow in exile (Shiblak 1997). In Jordan, refugee camps became the training and recruitment grounds for Palestinian fedayeen militants. Emboldened by Egyptian support, which went so far as to assert that the PLO should militarize along Jordan’s shared border with Israel, the PLO began to take radical actions which endangered Jordan’s national security (Evermon 2021, 49). Most boldly, in September 1970 the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four planes to demand the release of Palestinian prisoners in Europe and in Israel. Their actions humiliated the Jordanian regime and showed an abuse of Jordanian territory, which by 1970, was hosting a state within a state (Barari 2008). Palestinian guerillas captured the Jordanian city of Irbid on September 15th, provoking military action from King Hussein and the Jordanian Army (Evermon 2021, 57). In what came to be known as Black September, the Jordanian regime attacked Amman-based refugee camps to eliminate the fedayeen who were stationed there (Evermon 2021). Thus, when Jordan’s internal stability and national security was threatened by the Palestinian government in exile, refugees were punished for the actions of their leaders. They were pawns in a greater landscape of civil war, not humanitarian subjects in need of protection. The regime triumphed in this conflict, and the PLO was expelled from Jordan, after which it crossed through Syria to establish bases in Lebanon.

Destruction of empty aircraft hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) at Zarqa, Jordan on 12 September 1970.

Jordan triumphed militarily, but it lost the political fight to be seen as representing Palestinians, ultimately provoking King Hussein to disengage from the West Bank in 1988. The Rabat resolution of 1974 was the first major challenge to Jordan’s stance, as Arab states recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people (Barari 2008). Seemingly sidelined from peace negotiations, King Hussein waited for an opportunity to re-enter diplomatic talks as a legitimate player. Israeli invasion in the Lebanese Civil War provided this opportunity, as the weakened PLO made amends with Jordan in pursuit of a political solution (Susser 1990). Jordan was again rebuked in their claims to govern Palestinians, however, by the First Intifada in 1987. Such an overt and sustained display of Palestinian nationalism undermined King Abdullah’s attempts to make Palestinians into subjects of the Hashemite Kingdom. It was a totalizing rejection of occupation and cooptation of the Palestinian issue by Arab leaders for personal gain (ibid). In a political manoeuvre against the PLO, King Hussein renounced all claims to the West Bank and rescinded the citizenship of West Bank residents, rendering them stateless. King Hussein did not warn the PLO of his decision to disengage from the West Bank. As such, disengagement can be seen as Jordan challenging the PLO to live up to their mandate as the sole government of Palestinians (ibid). The rights of refugees became the central issue of disengagement. Residents of the West Bank had their Jordanian citizenship revoked and were given temporary travel documents in their place, marginalizing them to the same degree as Palestinians from Gaza and Palestinians who were displaced after the 6-day war. In an assertion of state power in the East Bank, Jordan pursued a strategy of Jordanization which removed Palestinians from government offices and scapegoated them for declining economic conditions (ibid). Shifting regional politics forced Jordan to recalculate its policy towards Palestinian refugees, but its motivations show continuity. At all stages, the Hashemite Kingdom was intent on asserting Jordanian supremacy within the Jordan-Palestine relationship, which King Abdullah had made a central facet of Jordan’s domestic politics.

First Intifada in the Gaza Strip, 1987. Photo by Efi Sharir, via Wikimedia Commons.

The PLO in Lebanon similarly created domestic political unrest that would result in a civil war, wherein Palestinian refugees suffered violent retribution for the behaviour of their leadership. Because Palestinians in Lebanon were so marginalized, the PLO arrived to a readymade base of popular support. The PRM “created a sense of identity, national pride and confidence among Palestinians in Lebanon of all social levels” (Shiblak 1997, 264) and provided refugees with the protection and empowerment that the Lebanese state failed to provide. Ultimately, it was the Lebanese state’s failure to improve social and economic conditions for Palestinians that allowed the PLO to become as powerful as it did. Empowered by this reception and the Cairo agreement of 1969, which gave the PLO the authority to administer refugee camps, the PLO began to operate as a state within a state, as it had done in Jordan (Shiblak 1997). Their autonomy from Lebanon was so clear that the area of West Beirut where most Palestinian offices were located became known as the ‘Fakhani Republic’ (Shiblak 1997, 268). For the first time since the Nakba, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were dignified through the provision of social services and advocacy from a government that recognized their humanity. Palestinian armed presence exposed the weakness of the Lebanese state and exacerbated sectarian divisions in Lebanese society by presenting a governing alternative for Lebanese Muslims, who were also economically marginalized under the power-sharing system. The PRM was used by Lebanese progressive parties to challenge the conservative elite, and as such, it destabilized the confessional system and contributed to the emergence of civil war in 1975 (Shiblak 1997). The PLO’s presence provided for Palestinian refugees in the short term, but it harmed them in the long term. Its role in the civil war caused Lebanese public opinion to turn against Palestinians and provoked various actors to attack refugee camps. Brynen argues that Israeli retaliation to the PLO’s guerilla warfare in Southern Lebanon, compounded by the PLO’s misbehaviour and the structural threat they posed to Lebanon, caused Lebanese sympathies for Palestinians to decline (1989). Their actions triggered invasion by Israel, while arrogant fedayeen made a mockery of Lebanese law and unmasked the fragility of the Lebanese state. The threat posed by the PLO gave rise to an unusual alliance between Syria, Israel, and the Maronite Phalanges, who terrorized and massacred Palestinian refugees on numerous occasions (Shiblak 1997, 266). Syrian intervention to root out the radical PLO further weakened Lebanon and justified a siege on West Beirut camps (Shiblak 1997). Thus, the challenge that the PLO presented to the Lebanese state saw multiple actors, some of which were Arab regimes or its constituent parts, justify the violent attacks on Palestinian refugees in the context of civil war. In this context of insecurity, the legal regression on refugee protection culminated with the abrogation of the Cairo agreement, which revoked Palestinians’ right to work, reside, and move within Lebanon (Shiblak 1997, 269). As in Jordan, the PLO’s challenge to state power provoked violent responses against Palestinian refugee populations.

Prayer service in The Hague, Netherlands for victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese Shia, September 1982.

Post-war Stances with Continuous Motives

The rights of Palestinian refugees in Jordan vary according to when they arrived in Jordan and from where, but across all policies, the most influential factor in Jordan’s response to Palestinian refugees is its preoccupation with asserting state power. This manifests today as a pursuit of supremacy within the Jordan-Palestine relationship (Susser 1990). In present-day Jordan, refugees from 1948 and their descendants have the same rights as Jordanian citizens, a status that was conferred on them by King Abdullah. Palestinians from Gaza after 1967 and the West Bank after 1988 are stateless, holding only temporary travel documents that do not give them a right to work, own property, or be educated by the Jordanian state (Evermon 2021). Palestinians in the East Bank are politically marginalized, and the regime continues to view them as a suspect group that is capable of destabilizing Jordan’s domestic politics (Reiter 2004). Contemporary marginalization of Palestinians is an assertion of Hashemite power, as the monarchy is bent on keeping Palestinians as second-class citizens. Though state policies have metamorphosed, and Jordan may appear to have distanced itself from the Palestine question, Jordan’s stake in the final solution is as important to the regime as ever. The Hashemites will never recover their position as representatives of the Palestinian people, but Jordan has successfully carved out a role for itself as mediator between Israel and Palestine to ensure that its interests will be considered in peace negotiations. This interest holds deep implications for governmentality over Jordan’s populations and for its internal stability.

State neglect of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s post-war context reflects the deeply entrenched perception that Palestinian integration would destabilize Lebanon. A chronically weak state that has historically seen Palestinians as politically threatening and economically burdensome, Lebanon today believes that Palestinian resettlement will only further weaken the country. Capitalizing on the change in public opinion since the civil war, refugee camps continue to be depicted as a security threat to the state, justifying increased surveillance and securitization from Lebanese authorities (Sayigh 1995). Lebanese politicians across the political spectrum continue to view Palestinian refugees as a threat to the confessional system, and they resent Palestinians for the PLO’s involvement in the civil war (Haddad 2000). Post-war reconstruction excluded Palestinians, and politicians have even encouraged them to leave the country (Sayigh 1995). There is no plan for resettlement, integration, or accommodation, while UNRWA funding declines as part of a broader international campaign to pressure all parties for a peace settlement. In what Carpi argues is an exercise of state agency (2019), Lebanon’s conscious neglect of Palestinian refugees and explicit destruction of refugee camps communicates two messages. To Palestinians, it communicates that Lebanon is not their home and that resettlement is not an option. To the international community, it signals that their patience awaiting a final solution has dried up. Refugee camps are evermore spaces of liminality –— in between spaces where refugees can live but not thrive, indefinitely awaiting a political arrangement that will dignify them (Carpi 2019). Lebanon’s hostility to Palestinian refugees has persisted through the decades because it has not been able to overcome its condition of state weakness. From independence, through civil war and Syrian occupation until present day, Lebanon has struggled to assert state power domestically and maintain social order. As it struggles to fulfill its obligations to Lebanese citizens, politicians still believe that Palestinian integration will undermine state power, resulting in unanimous hostility from the political establishment.

The 2006 Lebanon War's toll on the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, December 2007. Photo by British Ambassador Frances Guy via Wikimedia Commons.


The cases of Jordan and Lebanon demonstrate that Arab state responses to Palestinian refugees vary according to whether states perceive resettlement or naturalization to enhance or undermine state power. King Abdullah’s naturalization of Palestinians from 1948 was instrumental. He saw Palestinian refugees as prospective subjects of the Hashemite Kingdom and calculated that naturalizing them would lend greater legitimacy to his annexation of the West Bank. His actions set in motion historical forces that explain Jordan’s continued investment in Palestine and the marginalization of Palestinians in Jordan today. All can be seen as attempts to subjugate Palestinian identities to Hashemite rule in an assertion of state power. Applied to Lebanon’s context of state weakness, resettlement or naturalization of Palestinian refugees has only ever been perceived as a threat to the Lebanese confessional system. The initial hostility of the Lebanese state towards Palestinian refugees was a reactionary response driven proximately by the Maronite Christian and Sunni Muslim state executive, but in post-war Lebanon, opposition to Palestinian resettlement is shared across the political spectrum. Owing to the PLO’s involvement in the civil war, politicians from all religious identities perceive integration as a security and political threat that would undermine state power.

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