Lebanon: Is Annapolis casting a shadow on exiled Palestinian refugees?

1_2 The international press made big bones of the fact that the world's powers, gathered in Paris yesterday, pledged almost $2bn more for the creation of a Palestinian state than the Palestinians had requested or indeed expected.

But here in Lebanon, the news may not bode as well for the country's estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees. On the surface, the dream of Annapolis may fall – but only in a large sense – under most of their collective political aspirations: full recognition as a people and the establishment of a sovereign homeland. It will not, of course, bring most of them home because for the majority of them, home is Galilee in Northern Israel.

In the short term, Annapolis has shifted the focus towards the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and amid the diplomatic backslapping and nay saying, the over four million Palestinian refugees exiled in neighboring countries had been moved to the shadows.

Now with the Paris donations, totaling $7.4bn in what Condoleezza Rice called a "vote of confidence" for the Annapolis endeavor, the question is will this success of spell trouble for the exiled Palestinians.

Of all the host countries with Palestinian refugee populations in the region, Lebanon's are living in the most squalor, denied property, citizenship and work rights in a country wary of offsetting its tenuous confessional balance.

2_2 The broad consensus is that the standard of living in the camps in Lebanon took a turn for the worst with the Israeli invasion and eventual ousting of the PLO in 1982. The PLO had hitherto provided key social services to its populations in conjunction with UNRWA. UNRWA operations were scaled back under US and Israeli scorn over UNRWA workers being also members of resistance movements.

And then that squalor was deepened this May when Nahr al Bared became a battlefield between Islamic militants Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army. The humanitarian consequence was the scattering of the camp's 30,000 residents, mostly to the 11 other camps in the country, adding additional pressure on their improvised infrastructures already at breaking point.

(Photo: Shatila camp, Beirut, July 2007)

In the midst of this crisis, I spoke with Mohammed Abdel-Al, UNRWA emergency coordinator for the Nahr al Bared region. He explained that in order to cope with the crisis, UNRWA had to put out calls to its usual donor countries for extra funds. They acquiesced and food and shelter was provided for the refugees.

While Paris is framed as an exceptional, once-off funding drive, will it come to be a de facto siphoning off and redirection of donor country sympathy and, more importantly, cash, away from the exiled Palestinian refugee population living in UNRWA camps? Will countries be less willing to write the checks if there is another Nahr al Bared (and many think there may well be one, its name is Ein el-Hilweh, a camp in the southern city of Saida) or even worse, will funding focused now on the establishment of a sovereign and democratic Palestinian state, lead to the further scaling back of UNRWA thus worsening further the lot of all of Lebanon's refugees.