Living in Exile, at Home and Abroad: Palestinians Cope with Ongoing Marginalization

By Jesse Wheeler


News and Analysis

I was struck this past month by two very different, yet ultimately related news stories. First, on 12 December 2018 the Israeli Knesset voted overwhelmingly to reject the Basic Law: Equality bill by a margin of 71-38. A direct quote from the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the text of the bill stated: “The State of Israel shall maintain equal political rights amongst all its citizens, without any difference between religions, race and sex.” Following on the heels of the controversial Nation State law, which essentially formalized de jure that which had always been de facto practice within Israel, the government has now stipulated in no uncertain terms that the state exists for the privilege of one socio-religious group at the expense of another. The overt discrimination and increasing hopelessness of the situation are only highlighted by the fact that that Palestinian citizens of Israel – Christian, Muslim and Druze – comprise nearly 20% of the population, excluding the Palestinian territories under military occupation (which push the figure upwards to 50%). Such statistics seriously challenge Israel’s claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Meanwhile, Palestinians remain caught in a situation of seemingly endless liminality, unwanted guests within their own historic homeland.

Second, to mark the 70th anniversary of UN Resolution 194 granting Palestinian refugees the right of return, Al-Jazeera published on 14 December 2018 a report titled, Palestinians in Lebanon Reflect on ‘Fading Dream’ of Return. For at least four generations, since 1948 when they were violently expelled or fled from their homes in what now comprises Israel, Palestinians have been residing as refugees in Lebanon. Their situation in Lebanon, another Middle Eastern democracy, is overwhelmingly marked by poverty and marginalization, as refugees lack civil rights and are legally banned from numerous vocations. Refugee camps first established for 500 families, like Bourj-el-Barajneh in southern Beirut where I once served as a volunteer English teacher, now house at least 50,000 souls and are lacking in basic infrastructure. The delicate, yet tense demographic balance in Lebanon makes it unlikely that such circumstances will ever improve. The situation is only complicated by the fact that Israel, and now the US, has sought to wash its hands of responsibility for the mess it first created by pushing for the elimination of the “refugee issue” from the scope of acceptable conversation, even to the point of denying the existence of a refugee problem or the existence of Palestinians as a distinct people group. This, of course, would be news to anyone in Lebanon.

Given this environment, the Al-Jazeera report captures three divergent viewpoints expressed by the youngest generation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as they cope with their ongoing liminality, caught between the Scylla of perpetual resistance and Charybdis of normalization.

It records the earnest, heartfelt longing of those whose ultimate hope for escaping their ghettoization is returning to a long-idealized promised land:

“It is beautiful in Palestine, greenery everywhere.”

“There are olive trees. It’s like paradise.”

“Inshallah! One day we will return!”

The report also captures the fading hope of those looking to escape their circumstances for greener pastures abroad – akin to many Lebanese – in Europe or elsewhere:

He will not give up on the right to return – as a principle. “It is our homeland, my homeland. Wherever I work, my country is still my country,” he said.

However, he said if he had a decent life in Europe, that is a right he could choose not to exercise.

Finally, the report captures the bleak, hopeless ambivalence of those youth who after four generations essentially see themselves as Lebanese:

“I was born here, and I want to live here. And who knows how the Palestinians will treat us.”

A return to Palestine might just turn her into a refugee again, she reasoned – only all the harder because it would be in the country that her family dreamed of for so long. She would rather put up a fight in a familiar milieu.

“If I get rights in Lebanon, I’ll take them here,” she said.

Theological and Missiological Reflections

The last thing I seek to do in this reflection is wade into the troubled waters of Lebanese politics, or dare proffer a solution. Having been robbed of their agency for so long, it is for the Palestinians themselves to determine how best to respond to their own marginalization, the seemingly eternal exile in which they find themselves – at home or abroad. I can simply encourage the parties involved to not lose hope and hold firm to the promise of scripture that God stands with the marginalized, that He hears the cries of the castaway, and stands in judgement over princes of this world.

One, albeit ironic, resource I might commend to the Palestinians is that of the Old Testament, a story concerned in its very core with exile. Despite the abuses the text has endured in recent memory, abuses of which the Palestinians are the greatest victim, a careful reading will reveal that they too are heirs to the universal promises found within. Rather than avoid the Old Testament as a source of embarrassment, this is where the Palestinian church might lead the way in reclaiming its subversive message. To appropriate the text in such a manner might send a powerful message, and it might be just what the Palestinians need to reassert their agency.

Finally, I recommend two phenomenal reflections written by my IMES colleagues in recent months which do greater justice to this topic than I ever could: