Palestinian refugees in Lebanon will march in cities throughout the country to demand more rights Sunday. The demonstrations come as draft laws to expand the labor rights of Palestinians and restore their right to own property divided parliament largely along sectarian lines and sparked an at times acrimonious debate.
While one of the Palestinian organizers of Sunday’s marches told NOW Lebanon he is hopeful the laws will pass, representatives from several of the country’s political parties think otherwise. Lebanon’s largest Christian parties are united – for the first time in years – in opposition to the draft laws as they are written and refuse to grant some of the rights being proposed.
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt submitted the drafts as emergency laws (meaning parliament must approve them more quickly than normal) for lawmakers to consider during a June 15 plenary session. The drafts call for changes to the Lebanese labor law that would allow Palestinian refugees born in Lebanon and registered with the Ministry of Interior easier access to work and social services as well as the ability to file cases before the labor court.
The drafts would also amend a 2001 law that bans Palestinians from owning or inheriting property, restoring a right they had up until the law was passed less than a decade ago. The text of these draft laws repeatedly rejects the naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon and recognizes their “right of return” to their ancestral homeland.
Many Christian politicians immediately rejected the proposals – citing fears they would be a first step to granting the refugees Lebanese citizenship and re-settling them in Lebanon. Parliament postponed a vote on the drafts for one month, sending them to a committee for further review, while Jumblatt lashed out at what he called the “stupid” and “rightwing” Christians.
Palestinian refugees have long been locked out of most of the Lebanese labor market as provisions of the labor code say foreigners in Lebanon can only have certain jobs if Lebanese can work the same job in the foreigners’ country of residence. This “reciprocity” provision – impossible for the stateless Palestinian refugees to fulfill – would be abolished by the draft laws.
The drafts would also remove requirements demanding Palestinian refugees obtain work permits to get jobs at Lebanese companies, and they would allow Palestinian refugees access to social services – such as pensions and medical benefits – and the ability to file labor dispute claims with the Labor Court.
It is unclear what, if any, progress will be made in changing the draft laws before the next vote in mid-July to attract support from the Kataeb Party, the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement, the drafts’ loudest critics, who together can block their passage.
Representatives from each party told NOW Lebanon that first and foremost, the laws were presented to parliament for a vote without a chance to debate them. Rami Rayess, the PSP’s spokesman, dismissed this objection, noting that expanding Palestinian refugees’ rights was included in the government’s ministerial statement, and that the PSP held a meeting in January that discussed what became the contents of the draft laws, which Kataeb, LF and FPM members attended.
Sari Hanafi, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut and a Palestinian activist helping organize Sunday’s demonstrations, also rejected the not-enough-time-to-review argument.
“This subject has been over-researched and over-discussed,” he said. Hanafi said he feels the parties that are with the law – particularly the PSP, the Future Movement, Amal, Hezbollah and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party – are serious about passing it and that Lebanon is coming under increased international pressure to improve the lot of the largely poor and unemployed Palestinian refugees.
The Christians, however, seem entrenched in their positions. Serge Dagher, the Kataeb’s spokesman, told NOW Lebanon that these draft laws could lead to tawteen (the Arabic term used to refer to naturalizing the refugees). His comments echoed those of LF and FPM members NOW Lebanon interviewed, and all three insisted that ratifying the drafts would lead to tawteen, even though the drafts specifically rule out this possibility.
Each party also took issue with the property ownership change. Alain Aoun, an FPM parliamentarian, told NOW Lebanon that if the Palestinian refugees were again allowed to buy, “interested parties” would help the mostly-impoverished community scrape together funds to afford Lebanon’s ever-increasing real estate prices.
These “interested parties” both he and Fadi Zarife of the LF said, would fund Palestinian property purchasing to resettle the refugees in Lebanon. Both also oppose opening the Lebanese labor market to more Palestinian workers for fear that they will take jobs from Lebanese.
Zarife also questioned the timing of Jumblatt’s proposals, hinting at the possibility that the drafts are an attempt to isolate the Christians.
“Why didn’t the Palestinians’ allies give them more rights between 1990 and 2005,” when Syria all but controlled politics in Lebanon, he said.
Aoun said that instead of only Lebanon allowing Palestinians increased job opportunities, the entire Arab world should open borders and give visas to improve the refugees’ plight.
While saying they do not oppose giving the refugees more of their human rights, Zarife and Aoun dismissed the one-month deadline for discussing these drafts and seemed dead-set against their provisions.
Rayess, when asked if he thinks the drafts will pass in July, said, “I don’t think so. Perhaps we’ll have to wait another 60 years.”