Lebanese Patriarch’s historic visit to Israel prompts mixed sentiments
Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi, the highest ranking Christian religious figure in Lebanon, set out on a week-long visit to occupied Palestine and Israel
The Palestinian camp of Dbayyeh lies in the hills just north of Beirut. It’s view of the Mediterranean blocked by a 5-star hotel. Many Lebanese are unaware of its existence despite its status as the only majority Christian Palestinian camp in the Middle East. Dbayyeh is palpably different to Lebanon’s other Palestinian camps.
There are no checkpoints, and no Palestinian political iconography in its bougainvillea lined streets – products of the fact that any Palestinian Liberation Organization presence was eradicated during its occupation by various Christian militias during Lebanon’s civil war. The some 4,000 residents of the camp express a sense of isolation from both other Palestinian camps in Lebanon and the Lebanese population at large. In the last couple of weeks such emotions have been heightened.
On Saturday 24th May Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi, the highest ranking Christian religious figure in Lebanon, set out on a week-long visit to occupied Palestine and Israel in the process becoming the first Lebanese religious leader to enter the Jewish state since its foundation in 1948.
Rai’s trip was met with strong domestic opposition principally from Hezbollah, the Shia party-cum-militia currently fighting in support of the Assad regime in Syria, who described it as a normalization of ties with the enemy. Israel has invaded Lebanon a number of times, the last of which was in 2006, and the two countries remain technically at war. However residents of Dbayyeh, the majority of who are Maronite, and Melkite Greek Catholic supported Rahi’s visit.
Christian solidarity in the Middle East
Elias Ghorayeb, a project coordinator at the camp’s Joint Christian Council centre, described the trip as an important display of Christian solidarity in the Middle East at a time of heightened vulnerability with war threatening the vitality of the Christian community in Syria and Lebanon experiencing a worrying vacuum in the presidency, the highest ranking Christian post in the country’s state apparatus.
“I am fully behind the mission. There are around 11,000 Maronites in Palestine. It is Rahi’s right to visit his flock, and their right to welcome his presence,” said Ghorayeb.
“However it also serves as a reminder of our own isolation from our ancestral and spiritual homeland.”
Across the Israeli border some Lebanese citizens face a similar sense of alienation from home. An estimated 3,000 Lebanese Maronites, former members of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) and their families currently reside in the Jewish state. The SLA was a militia that worked under Israel’s payroll during the country’s twenty year occupation of south Lebanon and many members, fearful of retribution, sought safe-haven across Lebanon’s southern border when the occupation ended in 2000.
On Wednesday 28th May Rahi met with former SLA members in the village of Capernaum, pledging that he would work with Lebanese authorities to facilitate their return to Lebanon. Rahi’s stance drew sharp criticism from Hezbollah with one MP loyal to the Shia party stating such “Israeli agents” were a source of shame to Lebanon. Rumors even spread in local media that Rahi could be targeted in an assassination attempt.
Ghorayeb supported Rahi’s initiative expressing sadness that Lebanese citizens were unable to return home.
“They were living under Israeli occupation. Many were forced by circumstances to collaborate,” said Ghorayeb. “Of course people made mistakes. But they have become estranged from family members across borders. Children have also been forced to bear the burden of their parents.”
However Ghorayeb was not optimistic that Rahi’s endeavors would be successful due to political opposition. In Capernaum some of the Lebanese citizens Rahi met expressed similar sentiments. Others simply stated that they were happy to remain where they were, rather than return to a homeland where they could be subject to persecution.
Residents of Dbayyeh, most of whose families fled to Lebanon from al-Bassa, Haifa, and Jaffa in 1948, dream of returning. However Lebanon bans its citizens from travelling to Israel making even a visit impossible. The policy is unlikely to change anytime soon given ongoing animosity between the two states. Last month Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil filed a complaint to the U.N. Security Council accusing Israel of ongoing violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
“When I was a child growing up every night before bed my grandmother used to recall stories of growing up in Palestine before we were forced to leave. From generation to generation we repeat these stories,” said Nabila Habib.
“Sometimes Muslims ask me if I as a Christian have an equivalent to the Hajj to Mecca. I tell them I do but I am unable to complete it. We cannot go on our Hajj.”
Some residents of Dbayyeh have however ventured across the border. During Lebanon’s Civil War following Israel’s invasion in 1982 Abbas (a pseudonym), visited relatives in Jaffa on four occasions before the occupation came to an end in 1990. At the time the SLA, many of whose members now reside in Israel, held sway over southern Lebanon.
“I never had any problems in the south of Lebanon when I crossed the border back and forth,” said Abbas.
“The Civil War here in Lebanon was terrible. Here in Dbayyeh and even more in other camps Palestinians suffered greatly. But at that time it was possible to visit my country,” continued Abbas.
“Others have not had this opportunity. I can’t see this changing.”
Martin Armstrong is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. His work has been featured in publications including VICE, Al-Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune, and Lebanon’s Daily Star. You can follow him on Twitter @scotinbeirut