Arab League head Amr Moussa, Ismail Haniyeh
Arab League head Amr Moussa, Ismail Haniyeh Israel news photo: Flash 90

The Lebanese parliament has postponed voting on a bill that would grant civil rights to descendants of Arab refugees by one month after postponing it for the last 62 years. The refugees in question are those descended from Arabs who fled pre-state Israel during the War of Independence.

More than 400,000 such descendants are registered as refugees with UNRWA in Lebanon, comprising approximately 10% of the country's population. They are still not allowed to work in most professions or to own property and thus preserve their refugee status, using it to pressure Israel in the UN and world media.

The original refugees left Israel in 1948 when promised by Arab leaders that they would return after a quick victory against the fledgling Jewish state. Since this did not occur, the refugees remained where they were, some coming under Israeli sovereignty as a result of the 1967 Six Day War, when once again the Arab nations vowed to destroy Israel and failed.

Arab countries have consistently refused to integrate the refugees into their respective countries, causing a boom in "refugee" demographics as time went on. Their children and grandchildren continue to be termed refugees by the UN, whereas untold millions of non Arab refugees have been resettled and rehabilitated by that same body and host countries all over the world during the same period..

The debate over whether or not to grant refugees civil rights turned into a stormy debate between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon's parliament.  Muslim Mps supported the bill, as did Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri.

"Should we deprive Palestinian refugees in Palestinian camps of their rights, so that they become terrorists in the future?” Hariri asked. Refugee camps in Lebanon have provided a fertile ground for terrorist groups for decades. In 2007, the group Fatah al-Islam waged war on the Lebanese army in the Nahr al-Bared camp; more than 400 people were killed and the village largely destroyed.

Christians in both the coalition and opposition opposed the rights bill, arguing that it could lead to refugees become naturalized Lebanese. Sami Gemayel of the Phalange party said the bill was unconstitutional. Lebanon's constitution prohibits “non-Lebanese” from settling in the country.

If the refugees became Lebanese citizens, they would greatly increase the country's Sunni Muslim population, potentially upsetting the fragile sectarian balance.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization said in a statement that it supports Lebanon's right to choose how to treat refugees. “Approving Palestinian rights is a private Lebanese concern before being a Palestinian necessity and it's in no way linked to naturalization,” the PLO said.

Refugees and their supporters have decided to hold demonstrations on June 27 to demand civil rights. Participants will march on the Parliament building in Beirut.