I continue to ask about Palestinian right-to-work. Mr. Ahmed Mustafa, of the DFLP-PLO holds Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze sect and the Progressive Socialist Party, in high regard for recently proposing legislation to give Palestinians the right to work. He does not hold out any hope for such a measure to pass because it might disturb the delicate sectarian balance that Lebanese Christians especially try to maintain.
The rights of foreign workers in Lebanon mirror the rights of Lebanese workers in foreign countries – as an American I would be extended the same rights here that a Lebanese person seeking employment in the USA would. For the Palestinians this is a serious problem – having no state, they have no rights. No rights to employment. No rights to social security. No rights to own or rent property.
When Mr. Mustafa and others went to the Labor Minister, a Mr. Boutros Harb, they were told that the Lebanese economy could accommodate a small number of engineers, doctors and other professionals, but that in the future the Palestinians would steer all their children into those lines of work and take Lebanese jobs away. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Still some find work in the Lebanese market under the table as day laborers in construction and farm labor. Local social parties within the camps employ Palestinians in developing and opening projects within the camps – schools, sewers, new infrastructure. Palestinians have also taken their fortunes into their own hands by opening iron and aluminum shops, electronics stores, groceries and bakeries. There is still room to grow, the services offered within the camp are not enough for its 22,000 residents.
In other Arab countries like Syria and Jordan, Palestinians have full rights as citizens. In Lebanon they have no rights at all.
Mr. Mustafa believes that eventually the Lebanese parliament will provide some reparations and limited rights to the Palestinians living within their borders, if only to say that they did something to address the problem. However, he does not think it will happen.
“Until we have the right to go back, we need conditions to improve on the ground so we can live like human beings,” said Mr. Mustafa.
“We want to live in dignity.”
Muhammad abu Sayn is our guide Adel’s cousin living near a back gate of Bourj al-Barajneh. He has spent all but 4 months of his 62 years living in Lebanon, but not always in the camps. Since he came to the country in 1948 special exception was made for him to rent property, however he still did not have the right to work and was unable to pay the high rent for his family to live in a 1 bedroom apartment, so he moved into the camp.
If Mr. abu Sayd wanted to buy property now, he would be doing so illegally. If he wished to work outside the camp, he would not be allowed to work as a licensed professional by Lebanese law.
After some parliamentary maneuvering and a united opposition from the right-wing Christian parties in the Lebanese parliament, Mr. Jumblatt was forced to withdraw his proposal from consideration and the matter was referred to a committee. Neither Jumblatt nor any Palestinian I have spoken with believes that reform will come this summer.
“I put forth the measure because there had been serious talk about it,” said Mr. Jumblatt. “But when it came up for debate all the old devils came out.”
Despite his frustration, Mr. Jumblatt believes that something must be done to extend more rights to Palestinians living in Lebanon.
“They’ve been here 63 years and unless there is a Palestinian state they will continue to be here,” said Mr. Jumblatt. He added that he does not believe that there will be a Palestinian state in the coming years.
Badoor Muhammad Habit is a 70-year old woman in a simple white hijab living near the center of the Bourj al-Barajneh camp. Her husband operates a small market here, she offers me water and bread as I sit on a comfortable couch in their home.
“Our situation is very bad,” says Mrs. Habit. “We have no civil rights here. Our children are not allowed to work with Palestinian IDs, and we have no hope for reform because Christians are rejecting this case.”
“We are dying slowly.”