By Tom Perry and Laila Bassam
BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s vision for Mideast peace has hit a raw nerve in Lebanon, reviving fears of any plan that would permanently settle Palestinian refugees in the country and shift its Christian-Muslim sectarian balance.
The first part of the White House plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians focuses on encouraging $50 billion (39.24 billion pounds) of investment in the Palestinian territories and three neighbouring Arab states, one of them Lebanon.
Lebanese of all sects are objecting to ideas that have surfaced so far, seeing $6 billion for Lebanon as an inducement to accept the settlement of Palestinians who have lived as refugees in the country since Israel’s creation in 1948.
Rejecting the naturalisation of Palestinians has been a rare point of agreement among Lebanese through a troubled history including the 1975-90 civil war in which Palestinian groups played a major role.
The first part of the plan is set to be unveiled by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, at a Bahrain conference on Tuesday. The Lebanese government was invited but is not attending.
The prospects of the plan getting anywhere do not look good: the Palestinian Authority is itself staying away from the conference and has refused to deal with the Trump administration for 18 months, accusing it of bias towards Israel.
“As a Lebanese and an Arab, I reject the entire American project, and with regards to the Lebanese part, of course I am against Palestinian naturalisation, not because we are against Palestinians, but so they return to their country,” said Hussam Mneimneh, a 43-year-old taxi driver.
“It doesn’t suit us for there to be naturalisation of any nationality because it creates a demographic, geographic imbalance, and this is something we do not accept.”
The ideas unveiled so far make no mention of the big political issues at the heart of the conflict such as Palestinian statehood or the fate of refugees.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite Muslim, came out strongly against Kushner’s plan on Sunday.
“Those who think that waving billions of dollars can lure Lebanon, which is under the weight of a suffocating economic crisis, into succumbing or bartering over its principles are mistaken,” he said.
“The only investment that will not find fertile ground in Lebanon is any investment that comes at the expense of the Palestinian cause and the right of return.”
The heavily armed, Iran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah has declared the plan a “historic crime” that must be stopped.
Fears over changes to Lebanon’s demography are most acutely felt by Lebanese Christians who are allotted half the seats in parliament and top state positions including the presidency under a sectarian power-sharing system.
The presence of more than 1 million refugees from neighbouring Syria who, like the Palestinians, are predominantly Sunni Muslim has led President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, to warn of an existential threat to Lebanon.
Maronite Christian MP Nadim Gemayel, whose father Bashir Gemayel battled Palestinian groups during the civil war, cited blood spilt in the conflict as he warned Kushner against offering cash for the permanent settlement of Palestinians.
“Lebanon is not a real estate firm,” he wrote on Twitter.
Edmond Chammas, a 55-year-old Christian, said any permanent settlement of Palestinians would destabilise Lebanon.
“Certainly, with all my love for the Palestinian people, I hope they return to their country,” he said. “We have enough problems and we wish them luck but I am certainly against naturalisation,” he said.
There are some 470,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon though an official 2017 census found the number living here to be less than half that at some 175,000.
Lebanon tightly restricts their right to work and bans them from owning property.
At the Shatila camp in Beirut, where Christian militiamen massacred hundreds of Palestinians during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, a banner echoes Palestinian rejection of the U.S. plan: “Our right of return will defeat the deal of the century”.
Maps of historic Palestine and posters of Palestinian leaders are pasted to the walls of the camp’s narrow alleyways. “Nobody can accept an alternative to his homeland. Our stay is temporary,” said Hassan Ali Abdel Rahman, a refugee in his 50s.
Though Lebanese leaders would in all circumstances reject the naturalisation of Palestinians, they would have been shocked by the relatively small amount of money floated in the Kushner plan, said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“Within the political debates in Lebanon there has always been the belief that the international community and Israel would pay off all of Lebanon’s debt in return for the naturalisation of Palestinian refugees,” he said.
“So it’s actually a joke.”
(Additional reporting by Alaa Kanaan and Imad Creidi; Editing by Toby Chopra)