By Christopher Robbins
On Tuesday the Lebanese parliament passed a compromise measure easing restrictions on Palestinian refugees seeking employment.
The bill eliminated the work permit fee and established a private social security fund for Palestinian workers in Lebanon. It did not give Palestinians access to the professional licensing organizations many need in order to practice their trades.
The 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon’s refugee camps, denied the right to work, buy land or establish businesses, have again encountered the hostility of their hosts, many of whom blame them for the country’s 16-year civil war and do not want them to settle “permanently,” despite over 60 years of residence.
Earlier, on June 15 Progressive Socialist Party MP Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze, proposed a bill extending comprehensive rights to work and to own of land to the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.
A united opposition within the Lebanese parliament frustrated the attempt to
pass the measure.
“I put forth the measure because (Prime Minister) Hariri and (Speaker of Parliament) Berri had been talking about it,” said Jumblatt. “But when it was proposed all the old devils came out.”
Jumblatt was forced to withdraw his bill as negotiations on the recently-passed measure began.
The opposition to Jumblatt’s proposal came from Lebanon’s right-wing Christian community. The Phalange, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces all voiced their disapproval at any possibility of extending civil rights to Palestinians.
“This is an issue we reject and we will not be subject to any foreign policy interference,” said MP Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement. Aoun accused Israel and the United states of being behind the push to extend rights to Palestinians living in Lebanon.
Aoun and other Christian leaders in Lebanon fear that extending the right to work to Palestinians will lead to naturalization as full Lebanese citizens. This would disrupt the delicate balance of Lebanon’s confessional system of governance.
This may be because the influence of Christian parties is already waning due to decreasing birthrates among Lebanese Christians and increasing numbers of Shi’ite Muslims. The average birthrate among Palestinians worldwide is twice the average of Lebanese citizens.
Palestinian refugees have been living in Lebanon since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The Lebanese government set aside small enclaves of land for them, but has never extended the right to work or own property in Lebanon.
The rights of foreign workers in Lebanon mirror the rights of Lebanese workers in their country of origin. An American would be extended the same rights in Lebanon that a Lebanese person seeking employment in the USA would enjoy. Since Palestinians have no state, they have no rights to employment, to social security, and to own or rent property. As a result, Palestinians in Lebanon have little social mobility.
“Having nothing, it is very difficult to grow up in the Palestinian community (in Lebanon),” said Ahmed Mustafa, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and administrator for the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp.
According to Mustafa, Palestinians have few options when seeking work in Lebanon. The refugees are granted permission to work certain low-level jobs in construction and sanitation. Another option open to Palestinians is to work within UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for overseeing the refugee camps. Others have opened businesses within the camps, operating groceries or electrical shops.
“A Palestinian who is professionally educated cannot legally find work in Lebanon,” said Mustafa. “In the camp we have doctors and engineers selling groceries.”
Abdallah Shahadhi lives in Bourj al-Barajneh and operates a small grocery there. Before being forced to leave Palestine he was trained as a diesel mechanic. Lebanese law does not allow him to find work outside of the camp.
“I would leave (the camp) and do anything else,” Shahadhi said.
Shahadhi has sent his sons and daughters overseas for education and employment.
“My children were not allowed to work in Lebanon with Palestinian identification,” said Shahadi. His children send him money every month to make ends meet because his store does not make much money.
“It isn’t enough,” said Shahadhi. “Only the children who come here to buy ice cream make it worthwhile.”
Most Palestinian refugees are forced to live in mazes of narrow passages beset by three story tenements. In the camps, dirt and garbage line single-file wide corridors that twist and turn seemingly at random. Wires and water pipes comingle hazardously everywhere with little sense of planning or order. Until recently sewage ran open down the passageways, but now a faint acrid odor is a reminder that it seeps up from the ground during rainy months.
One can see graffiti depicting the al-Aqsa mosque and other scenes of Palestine. Caricatures of Israelis are plastered over by posters of martyrs killed in decades of conflict. From a few houses hang flags of the Fatah and Hammas factions, but most proudly fly the green, white, red and black flag of Palestine, and pictures of the late Yassir Arafat, former chairman of the PLO hang everywhere.
It is no wonder that Palestinians are eager to leave.
A glance around Lebanon this summer shows why Palestinians want to be a part of the economy. Luxury high-rise apartments are being erected throughout the city. The marina is filled with yachts. On every street one may encounter wealthy tourists from throughout the world eager to cash in on Lebanon’s tolerance towards alcohol, women and gambling.
Some Lebanese fear that there is no room for the Palestinian people within their economy.
“Lebanon is 4 million people and there are half a million Palestinians here,” said Sejaan Azzi, a member of the Phalange politburo and advisor to former Lebanese President Amine Gemayel.
“Do you think our economy has room for all of those Palestinians?”
Azzi explained that when the Lebanese government originally accepted Palestinian refugees, it envisioned them remaining for only a few weeks. The refugees still have not received the right of return to their homes.
“The international community has ceased talking about the right of return,” said Azzi. He believes that
Israel, the US and the EU want the Palestinian refugees to remain where they are. If true, the plan would remove an obstacle to the establishment of a Palestinian state and ultimately peace with Israel.
“Ideally, Palestinians would be allowed to go back to Palestine,” said Azzi. “But if not, then they should ask the UN, the US or Israel for their rights. Those are the countries who put them here.”
Azzi also suggested that the Palestinians in Lebanon could seek citizenship in Egypt or Syria, two countries that have extended the right to work and own property to the Palestinians living there.
Jumblatt, the MP who proposed the legislation, doesn’t believe that any right-to-work legislation will pass and does not hold out hope that there will be a Palestinian state any time soon.
“They have been here for 63 years,” said Jumblatt, “and unless there is a Palestinian state they will continue to be here.”
In the camps the refugees continue their long wait, clinging to the distant hope of regaining their homeland and have little hope that the government will give them full civil rights.
“We do not hope for reform because the Christians are united against us,” said Shahadhi in Bourj al- Barajneh. “There is no other solution. We need to go back to Palestine.”
Ahmed Mustafa, the camp administrator, agrees.
“Palestinians want to go back to their original state,” said Mustafa. “Until we have the right to go back we need conditions to improve on the ground so we can live like human beings. We want to live in dignity.”