Palestinian refugee from Lebanon removed from MEA repatriation flight from Dubai

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A Palestinian refugee from Lebanon was booted off a flight returning from Dubai to Lebanon, igniting controversy over a decision that banned Palestinian residents of Lebanon and foreign domestic workers from boarding repatriation flights.

Tarek Abu Taha, a Palestinian refugee who has lived all his life in Lebanon, wrote on Facebook Sunday that he had traveled to Dubai in search of work and had then gotten stuck there due to the coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

Beirut’s airport has been closed to commercial flights since March 18 as part of the countrywide lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus, but over the past month, Lebanese citizens who had been stuck outside the country have been returning on special repatriation flights.

Read more: Photos, videos show empty Beirut Rafic Hariri airport

Abu Taha said he had registered with the Lebanese embassy in Dubai to return and was booked on a repatriation flight departing Sunday. At the last minute, he said, he was pulled from the flight and forced to return to Dubai after presenting Lebanese General Security officers who boarded the plane with his identification documents showing that he was a Palestinian from Lebanon. Abu Taha said that during the ordeal, a General Security officer described Palestinians as “thugs” and implied that he might be a terrorist.

Abu Taha, whose wife and young son are in Lebanon, noted that he and his father were both born in Lebanon and that his grandfather had come to the country at age 14 and had married a Lebanese woman.

“I know that 99 percent of Lebanese people are not like this, but my dignity was insulted and I cried with anguish, not because I didn’t return...but because why do I have to feel so small in the eyes of some people who judge me based on my nationality?” he wrote.

Abu Taha noted that Dubai authorities had been cooperative, allowing him to reenter the country and remain there until his situation could be sorted out.

In an interview with Al Arabiya English, Abu Taha said he considered the incident a matter of “individual behavior” and not a reflection on all the Lebanese.

“I’ve lived in Lebanon since I was born, and in my whole life, I never experienced a humiliation like this, I’ve never heard something like this,” he said. “…The Lebanese are not racist. In every country there are racist people, but it doesn’t mean that all the people are racist.”

After Abu Taha posted about the case, it came to light that a circular had been issued by General Security to Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, specifying that Palestinians and non-Lebanese domestic workers would not be allowed on the repatriation flights.

A General Security spokesman told Al Arabiya English that the agency was enforcing a policy set by the Cabinet.

“This decision was from the Cabinet that repatriation at this stage is only for the Lebanese,” he said. “When the Cabinet decides to allow non-Lebanese who are entitled to enter Lebanon to return, they can do so.”

In a similar statement posted on Twitter, General Security added that while the agency was following the Cabinet’s decision to allow only Lebanese citizens to return, the directorate had opened an investigation into the officer who dealt with Abu Taha based on “information received regarding his inappropriate handling of the person in question.”

The decision not to allow Palestinians to return has generated an outcry, with many calling it racist. Officials with the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, a body formed by the Lebanese government to oversee relations between the communities, said they would follow up “at the highest levels” to attempt to amend the decision preventing repatriation of Palestinians holding Lebanese travel documents.

The committee said in a statement that the restriction on Palestinians returning had not been applied to the first batch of repatriation flights and that the restriction put in place on the more recent flights was harmful to Lebanese-Palestinian relations and “contradicts the simplest international and Arab laws and treaties in force in dealing with Palestinian refugees and their cause.”

Lifting the restriction “is in the interest of the two brotherly peoples and ensures that Lebanon does not descend towards racist practices that are outside its character and values,” the committee wrote.

And MP Paula Yacoubian called the treatment of Abu Taha “shameful” noting that while many Lebanese have family members living outside the country as expatriates all over the world, “some of us are racists to the point of losing their humanity and any moral sense.” Yacoubian told Al Arabiya English that she had been personally assured by the director general of General Security, Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, that he would follow up on the case.

However, it remains to be seen whether Abu Taha and others like him will be allowed to return before the airport formally reopens, currently tentatively scheduled for June 8.

Abu Taha told Al Arabiya that the Lebanese embassy in Dubai had been trying to help him to get on a flight before then and that he was waiting for approval from the authorities in Lebanon.

“The embassy is trying to work on the matter for me to be able to return to Lebanon,” he said. “They contacted me and told me, ‘We are trying to do this and are trying to put your name on a flight for the 8th of May but of course they can’t make the decision in this matter.’”

When asked what he thought of the Lebanese government decision to allow only Lebanese to return, Abu Taha told Al Arabiya English, “I don’t think they meant to be racist towards the Palestinians but maybe it was just out of their concern for the Lebanese.”

In a follow-up video posted on Facebook, Abu Taha said he did not want to see his case used to create “discord” between the Lebanese and Palestinian communities. He thanked Yacoubian for advocating on his behalf and that a group of Lebanese citizens in Dubai had been helping him since he was forced to return, including paying for him to stay in a hotel until he could go back to Lebanon.

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