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Better understanding current challenges facing Lebanon

Lebanon is Unique

Lebanon is a unique country. It is both Arab and Mediterranean with a long trading history. Today it serves as an entrepot and transhipment centre, while it has the prospect of significant off-shore oil and gas. It has mountains as well as a relatively fertile hinterland. The indigenous population is fairly evenly divided between Christians and both Sunni and Shia Muslims, with significant minorities of Druze and Armenians. Lebanon is host to some 330,000 Palestinian refugees, most of whom, or their parents, have been there since the early 1970s. It is sad to record that the original five camps have become slum-like enclaves, sometimes dominated by militias or criminal gangs. This has happened despite the best efforts of UNWRA and was, of course, not helped by the Israeli invasions of 1982 and 2006, and the Sabra and Chatila massacres.

Lebanon has endured a bitter and destructive civil war between 1977 and 1990. This has been well described by Robert Fisk and other authors. The Taif Agreement of 1990 made possible the rebuilding of Beirut and adjusted the earlier constitution. It provided for proportionate community representation and power-sharing. This has worked, because no-one wants to return to war. Today Lebanon is one of the very few functioning democracies in the Middle East. This, however, is at risk, since it has not been possible to elect a president and the Prime Minister has to cope with a cabinet whose members enjoy powers almost amounting to a veto on the others.

A Front-Line State

Lebanon should be seen as a “front-line state” for two reasons. It is a next-door neighbour to the vicious civil and religious war in Syria, which has already lasted four years, with heavy loss of life and displacement of population. Secondly, Lebanon is still in a situation of unresolved war, or cold peace, with Israel to the south. This explains the presence of so many Palestinians and the ambivalent attitude towards them of successive Lebanese Governments. It also accounts for the existence of Hizbollah, the Shia “Party of God” whose armed wing controls much of south Beirut and southern Lebanon. Hizbollah is strongly helped by Iran and is allied with the Assad regime in Syria. Its support has been critical for the survival of that regime. Hizbollah is a war-hardened resistance movement, now able to exert itself politically and to spread its influence into neighbouring areas. It does not, however, aim at world domination.

Impact of War in Syria

The Syrian war has led to a huge outflow of refugees. Many have gone to Turkey and Jordan. In the former, they have been placed in camps, organized by the army, with military precision. In the latter, there is one huge camp, with some international help, while others are accommodated by families. In Lebanon some 1.1 million refugees have been taken in, without any camps. (Lebanon remembers its experience with the Palestinians). The influx has been fitted in by dispersal, by sharing, by renting and by using whatever buildings happened to be available. This is an amazing achievement. The UNHCR has helped, together with other UN agencies, by providing food, rental subsidies and some basic welfare services. Local NGOs have had an important role. Many children, however, are not in school, and some have found low-paid jobs.

Response by Lebanon

The Lebanese fear first that the newcomers may become permanent, which would affect their delicate communal and religious balance, and secondly, that further refugees may arrive if the fighting becomes worse. For this reason border control is being strengthened, with help from Saudi Arabia for the Lebanese army. There was talk of opening one camp, for assessment purposes, but even this may not happen.

The pressures outlined above have produced a remarkable plan. The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan was agreed last December, by all the UN Agencies involved, by many international and local NGOs, but also by all the relevant Lebanese Government Departments. Its stated aim is to ensure that the poorest Lebanese are treated just as well as the refugees, who are in need. This admirable objective is designed to prevent jealousy and bitterness, by providing help and support for all. Its achievement will demand very substantial external funding. There is a strong risk of donor fatigue and the record of pledges being paid in full is not very encouraging.

Help and Support

For the sake of the stability of Lebanon and of the wider Middle East, investment in the Plan seems crucially important. The large Lebanese worldwide diaspora should help, and all inward investment, that creates jobs, would assist the implementation of the Plan. Solar and wind energy may be growth areas, together with the use of “grey water” for irrigation. Off-shore oil and gas could also assist, particularly if an early start can be made on their development.

HMG have already done much for the crisis through multi-lateral channels. If they are able to provide bilateral aid, this might well concentrate on health and education and on leadership training for selected Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian young people. Our resources of soft power can help to stabilize a situation which has both problems and potential. We hope that it is not too far-fetched to see Lebanon as something of a model for a new Syria.

Our three-strong delegation, comprising Andrew Love MP (Labour), Brooks Newmark MP (Conservative) and Lord Hylton (Crossbench), was facilitated by CAABU and BGIPU funding to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Lebanon. We met the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Minister for Social Affairs, the traditional leader of the Druze community, as well as Members of the Lebanese Parliament from a variety of parties. We visited the offices of the UNHCR and UNICEF and were able to see some of their NGO partners in action. We visited the unsatisfactory Palestinian enclave of Bourj el-Barajneh. We remain most grateful to all who gave generously of their time and who entered into positive discussions with us. We look forward to returning their hospitality in London.

Lord Hylton