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Matt Nash

The fight over Palestinians’ rights

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.”

  • misaac

    After 1948, and 1967, Palestinian refugees came to the US, we have a name for them; US citizens. The same goes for the refugees from our lost wars in Indochina and central America and Cuba. They come to the US, they become US citizens. What kind of people lock up the refugees caused by your failed wars against the Israelis into camps for 60 years? Can you imagine the US locking up Cubans for 50 years until the US "liberated" Cuba? The war against Israel is over, deal with it and give these poor people citizenship and equal rights already.

    June 28, 2010

  • Mariama Abdalla

    Jenna, you accept the Arabs from the Gulf because they are wealthy. It doesn’t bother you that they « are buying Lebanon », even though they will flee at the first bullet. The biggest cowards are the wealthy. But we refuse the slightest civil rights to Palestinians because they have been kicked out of their country ; because they have no state to adhere to. The core of the conflict lies not between the Palestinians and Israel, but between the Arabs and Israel ; that includes Lebanon. Another question: when the Lebanese have fled their country to take refuge in other countries, from Syria, to the Gulf, to Europe, to the US, did anybody refuse to them their civil rights ? I agree that Lebanon has enough issues to solve, but if you don’t know that, I will inform you. When the Palestinians were kicked out of Palestine, Lebanon was compensated heavily. Now who is the culprit in all that ?

    June 28, 2010

  • CEDAR REVOLUTION / GEBRAN SONS

    Christian leaders are committing a big mistake by opposing giving Palestinian refugees their civil rights. The only valid answer: civil rights in exchange of removing all arms and extending sovereignty over all camps. It is to our advantage to insure Palestinians live in dignity and their kids receive best education. Instead of camps being a breading place for extremism they should be infused by our spirit of freedom and democracy. Christians’ survival depends not on numbers but on upholding the values of liberty, freedom and civil rights and being an oasis for those persecuted for their ideas. It is sad to see Christian leadership split between outdated civil war leaders and useful ......selling their soul to the power du jour. A police state modeled along Iran is in the making. An Iron Curtain of oppression and intimidation is gradually engulfing Lebanon. A dark cloud of hate and destruction is covering the land facilitated by these useful .... Freedom is being crucified!

    June 28, 2010

  • jenna

    I know about their history,but by giving them the slightest of rights ,the least lets say property ownership jeopardizes the country ,already we have Arabs from Gulf countries who are buying Lebanon, would you want an additional 400 000 people to own your lands?If they want to continue to be in state of war with Israel ,let them fight in their land and not cause more trouble .The core of the conflict lies between and them and Israelis ,that's not our problem ,Lebanon has enough issues to solve ,so let tham have civil rights in their land ,not here.And anyway what can they offer to this country by having their civil rights?We will lose ,and they will gain.

    June 27, 2010

  • .Hetty

    @Jenna: Very harsh words..How could they ever offered your country anything when they had NO rights for more than 60 years in YOUR country! Did you ever visit Shatila camp in Beirut? You should. And read about the history of the Palestinan people. You would speak in a differnt tone then. And go back where they came from? Thats the crux of the problem or have you no idea? I wish you wisdom in the future...

    June 27, 2010

  • jenna

    NO rights should be given to the Palestenians ,especially property ownership,they shouldn't own Lebanon,it's not their country.Second ,by giving civil rights and offering jobs in the market means they will be able to compete with the Lebanese in the job market which already lacks a wide range of possibilities for the qualified Lebanese who seek jobs abroad ,and what have them offered this country to provide them such civil rights?On the contrary ,they have driven this country to war several years ago,so NO CIVIL RIGHTS TO PALESTENIANS,GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM.

    June 25, 2010