By FRANKLIN LAMB
“Palestinian guests in Lebanon are working with total freedom. First of all we do not refer to them as “refugees”. They are our brothers who are suffering and in a very difficult situation that they did not cause and they have lost their country. They sought our help in Lebanon as brothers. You Americans really need to understand that in our Arab, Muslim, and Christian culture, you help your brother. You share with him your loaf of bread. You split it in half and give half to your brother. So out of this sacred tradition, out of the long history that binds us with our Palestinian brothers we host them in Lebanon temporarily until they can go back to their country. But while they are here, of course Lebanon is living through a difficult situation ourselves but our Palestinian brothers are enjoying everything.”
At 3:02 p.m. on August 17 Lebanon’s Parliament began its deliberation on granting basic civil rights to its Palestinian refugees and within four minutes agreed to alter article 50 of Lebanon’s 1964 labor law to theoretically make it easier for Palestinian refugees to obtain a work permit and a job. There was no discussion of other draft bills to grant Palestinian refugees elementary civil rights, and fifteen minutes later, by 3:17 p.m. Parliament had agreed on the next bill involving excavating for oil, which may bring millions to some well placed members. Many MP’s hadn’t studied either bill.
Thus did the bell ring on Round One of the fight in Lebanon for elementary civil rights for Palestinians refugees.
The members of Parliament decided to do essentially nothing to meet Lebanon’s legal, moral, religious, social and political obligations to her unwanted refugees. Parliaments gesture will likely not improve the lives of many, if even a handful, of the hundreds of thousands of refugees, 62 years after their expulsion from their homes and lands in Palestine.
The morning after Parliament amended the Labor law and cancelled the work permit fee for Palestinian refugees, the mainstream media including CNN, AP, Reuters, AFP among others appeared to misunderstand what had occurred. CNN: “In Lebanon, new legislation will give Palestinians full employment rights. By the CNN Wire Staff.” CNN broadcast: “The body OK’d legislation giving the refugees full employment rights and social security and will allow them to work in any job.”
The NYT is reported that “Lebanon passed a law on Tuesday granting Palestinian refugees here the same rights to work as other foreigners.”
Some leading politicians also got it wrong. Fares Soueid, the General Coordinator for the March 14 coalition declared at his news conference:
“We gave to Palestinians the right to work in Lebanon, like all Arabic workers have the right to work in Lebanon.”
A huge overstatement.
Unfortunately, Lebanon did not grant its Palestinian refugees meaningful civil rights on August 17 or even significantly improve their work prospects. What it did do was cancel the work permit fee ( which was never a big problem) and allow for the setting up of a private Social Security Fund (not the Lebanese National Security Fund as misreported in much of the media.) The Palestinian Private Fund was a compromise. Hezbollah switched its support from using the State Fund which it had earlier proposed , to the Private Fund idea, under pressure from Christian ally Michel Aoun. If the Private Fund is set up it will be paid for by Palestinian workers themselves and hoped-for private donations. Insisting on a shadowy, opaque “consensus vote” rather than a more democratic, simple majority roll call, Parliament decided on the lowest common denominator by which all the MP’s were essentially given a veto. What it produced was a weak, emasculated bill unworthily of the label: Civil rights law.
MP Walid Jumblatt, author of his Druze Progressive Socialist Party June 15, 2010 draft bill, which would have actually granted some substantive civil rights, appeared to throw in the towel without even stepping into the ring. However to his credit, Jumblatt confessed this morning that he will do better next Round and told Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper: “The second, more serious battle is ahead: And it is home ownership rights. I won’t give up, and what has been accomplished today is only the outcome of consensus among everyone but home ownership rights remains pending, and it is very important.”
The excellent Syrian Socialist National Party bill, which meets international legal standards for treatment of refugees, supported by many human rights organizations including most NGOs as well as the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon and the Sabra Shatila Foundation was not even considered.
Within the Palestinian and NGO community there is widespread disappointment and frustration. Ziad Sayegh, an expert on Palestinian refugee rights in Lebanon said that the new legislation would have little effect in changing the overall social and economic situation on the refugees.
According to scholar Suheil al- Natour, Director of a Palestinian Human Rights Center based in Mar Elias Camp, “They spent a long time on discussions which emptied the law of any real meaning, and I wish they had put it off so we could push for a better version…Those who voted yesterday are suggesting that what they did will alleviate the burdens on the Palestinian community. This is not true. We will not have the full right to work, they law will not apply to the more than 30 syndicated professions, we do not have any rights for property. We do not have free movement. Our camps are surrounded by the army. We will not reduce this catastrophic situation by just some changes to Article 50 of the 1964 Labor law which may not even help many Palestinians get jobs.”
Among the jobs still prohibited to Palestinians are more than 30 professions including medicine, law, dentistry, engineering, nursing, and all technical professions in the construction sector and its derivatives such as tiling, coating, plastering, installation of aluminum, iron, wood or decoration works and the like; teaching at the elementary, intermediate and secondary levels with the exception of foreign language teaching when necessary; hairdressing, ironing and dry-cleaning upholstery; publishing, printing, engineering work in all specialties, smithery and upholstery work; all kinds of work in pharmacies, drug warehouses and medical laboratories. In general all occupations and professions which can be filled by Lebanese nationals and have guild or syndicate memberships, money changer, real estate agent, taxi driver or driver training instructor, registered nurse or assistant nurse, or other jobs in the medical field, that have syndicates;licensed health controller, medical laboratory worker, clinical health industry jobs, prosthetic devices fitter, certified accountants, dental laboratory, science technician, jobs relating to nutrition and meals, topography, physiotherapy, veterinary medicine.
Also, a key factor will be if and how the new law is actually implemented. Changes made in 2005 to the labor law were never implemented and Lebanon has a long history of passing laws and not ever implementing them. The role of the international human rights community is now to monitor and assure that laws regarding refugees in Lebanon are fully implemented without interminable delays.
The winners and the losers
The big winners today are: Israel and the US, the Christian right-wing Kateib (Phalange) party, the Lebanese Forces, the National Party, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, and Hezbollah ally and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Michel Aoun, all of whom opposed meaningful civil rights for Palestinians. Also, the politically fractured pro-Saudi March 14th coalition and even Syria. The latter will be the likely beneficiary from any explosions inside the camps as the refugees exist in the pressure cooker camps and denied the safety value of basic civil rights.
The big losers today are: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, those under occupation in Palestine and those in the Diaspora. A meaningful victory would have given them some hope as their struggles for Justice continue.
Also Lebanon, who will now face mounting international pressure to comply with her international legal obligations plus efforts to cut off US aid based on the requirements of the 1961 US Foreign Assistance Act regarding deprivation of civil rights, and for which purpose a lawsuit in being prepared in Washington DC. In addition, he UN Human Rights Council may sanction Lebanon if its long overdue Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of treatment of Palestinian refugee scheduled to be discussed in Geneva in December is found wanting. Lebanon plans to tell the UN Human Rights Council that its record is ok now since it amended its exclusionary labor law which should now help Palestinians get jobs. One Lebanese official stated off the record that this was one of the main reasons Parliament did anything for the Palestinians on August 17.
It remains to be seen how the Council views Lebanon’s meager accomplishment. Lebanon will also face an internal civil rights movement and calls for BDS as international activists become more aware of the degradation in Lebanon’s camps and Lebanon refusing its international obligations. Plans to picket the Lebanese Embassy in Washington DC until civil rights are granted to Palestinians refugees are underway.
Did Hezbollah doze? Apart from its other current problems, Hezbollah, normally receiving widespread Palestinian support, is being asked by some in the camps what became of the role of the Islamic Resistance to the Zionist occupation of Palestine. One angry resident of Shatila camp criticized the Resistance this morning and explained:
“In 1982 I saw the Israelis watching us from on top on their military administrative building west of the camp and 200 meters away from Rue Sabra, as the slaughter was happening. In 2010 I can see the Resistance in their administrative building 200 meters to the East of the center of the camp and they can see us. When the wind shifts from the sea they can smell the sewage in the camps alleys. Neither in 1982 or 2010 can it be claimed that observers looking down into the camps did not know about conditions inside Shatila. What kind of resistance is Hezbollah leading? Resistance to we Palestinians being allowed some basic civil rights?”
It was probably appropriate that Lebanese Forces leader MP Samir Geagea was the first to the microphones to claim victory after Parliament deliberated for a few minutes to deny Palestinian refugees any meaningful civil rights. Geagea welcomed the parliament’s approval of his proposed amendment to Article 50 of the 1964 Labor Code to “ grant work permits to Palestinian refugees.” The amendment to the 1964 labor law was the least Parliament could have done and still be able to say it did anything at all. It will not, as Geagea assured his followers, “resolve the Palestinian humanitarian issues in Lebanon….” Geagea explained that there is no possibility of granting Palestinian refugees the right to own property. “Lebanon cannot solve the Palestinian issue on its own” the Palestinians nemesis for the past four decades declared.
In fact, Geagea spoke the truth without realizing it. Civil rights for refugees everywhere, including Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, is the responsibility of the international community which has adopted relevant international conventions which have been implemented virtually everywhere but in Lebanon and Israel. The international community, and the NGOs and activists in the West and elsewhere who claim to support justice for Palestine must now act to encourage Lebanon to meet its international obligations by granting meaningful civil rights including the unfettered right to work and to own a home.
The mild gesture Lebanon made on August 17 will not grant Palestinian refugees here their internationally mandated civil rights. Not by a long shot. Perhaps the most that can be said in Lebanon’s favor is that it took a first tentative step. Hopefully, symbolically it will break the stereotype against Palestinians a bit and show the public that the sky did not fall in by yesterday’s gesture and will ease the stress concerning granting some meaningful civil rights.
As the Lebanese like to say, “step by step.” For the quarter million Palestinian refugees stuck in squalor in Lebanon’s 12 camps and the 75,000 in the 42 ‘gatherings’, the cause of civil rights in Lebanon endures and the dream of returning to Palestine is alive.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon.
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