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Hope and Despair for Lebanon’s Palestinians

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Beirut.

Remarkably, this Ramadan holiday season in Lebanon designees from both the Shia Higher Islamic Shiites Council and the Sunni Dar el Fatwa, figuratively speaking, pointed their binoculars deep into the eastern sky and in almost unheard of unison, proclaimed that Eid al Fitr this year was to be August 19th.  It was a good omen for many in Lebanon that Shia and Sunni religious leaders agreed of this important event given the internal and external forces at work to further divide the two main denominations of Islam as well as all of Lebanon by sect, confession, geography, region, tribe, clan and neighborhood.

It was also good news for Palestinians living in places like Finland which these days have approximately 20 hours per day of sunlight and many devout Muslims have very long fasts. Mercifully, a majority of Muslims far up North tend to adopt the mere sixteen hours of daylight for seyam (fasting) using Mecca hours for dawn to dusk days without, food, water, sex, or smoking as well as avoiding bad thoughts or acts of incivility as they test and renew their devotion to Islam while engaging in introspective struggle self-criticism.

During the three day Al Fitr holiday, much of Muslim Lebanon becomes less active and many businesses close including Lebanon’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market which borders Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. Just before closing time on Eid eve, this observer entered the vast produce market now run mainly by Shia who buy agriculture products from Bekaa Valley and southern farmers (minus one of Lebanon’s oldest and most important crops, Hashish or “ Lebanese Red Bud” as it’s known in Amsterdam smoke cafes and elsewhere). With little refrigeration, many of the wholesalers next to Shatila dumped, in time for Iftar and Eid feasts, large quantities of really fine produce at a designated corner of the ten acre market. They have been doing this for more than three years ever since the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign was lucky enough to convince the owners to dump their leftovers or soon to spoil fruit and vegetables in the southeast corner bordering Shatila camp. As a result of this charitable cross-denomination act, rather than disposing of the extra produce in dumpsters, Palestinian refugee families are given the much appreciated chance to collect free produce for their families.  Every day, men women and children from Shatila camp, as well as poor Lebanese and Syrian workers can be seen climbing over and thru hewn holes in the cinderblock wall bordering Shatila and gathering really excellent produce.  This basic humanitarian gesture is an example of how the Shia can, and do, reach out to the largely Sunni Palestinian community. Cross-confessional gestures such as this are among the reasons Palestinians in Lebanon support Hezbollah and the growing regional and international Resistance it leads.

Eid al Fita also coincides  this year with International Quds Day which was introduced from Iran in 1979  by Ayatollah Khomeini  and  which is commemorated on the last Friday of Ramadan,expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people and opposing Zionism and Israel’s control of Jerusalem.

In Lebanon’s refugee camps this Eid Al Fitr holiday season there is intense heat, little electricity or drinking water, and a paucity of fresh air or breeze available to the jammed populations.  Ein el Helwe, the largest of Lebanon’s 12 camps which according to the most recent UNWRA statistics houses 47,500 refugees but in reality now is home to more than 100,000. They like their fellow countrymen temporarily in Lebanon, have few reasons to celebrate.  The competition for breathing space has increased as the camps populations have swelled even more with refugees fleeing the violence in Syria.

This year there are fewer sweets for the children, less food, not many gifts or new clothes and few flowers to place on the graves of deceased love ones, a gesture by custom made during traditional Eid Al Fitr cemetery visits.  In the tightly packed Palestinian cemeteries, of which they are only four in Lebanon, sometimes as many as five layers of bodies are buried on top of one another  due to lack of space.

There is another anniversary that coincides in Lebanon this year with Eid al Fitr and with International Al Quds day but it’s no occasion for joy among the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

It is the second anniversary of the August 17, 2010 amendment to article 59 of the Lebanese Labor Law which constituted a betrayal of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese politicians.  Before the vote, across the political spectrum were heard promises to enact legislation granting the elementary civil rights to work and to own a home in Lebanon. This country is the only one on earth that denies Palestinian refugees the basic right to work or even to own a home.

The legislation passed was  simply a cruel hoax and has not facilitated  one Palestinian refugee obtaining a job over the past 24 months. The amendment, while waiving work permit fees which were never a serious problem in obtaining a work permit, left in place numerous restrictions and catch-22 Kafqesque barriers that previously blocked Palestinians from being able to work. Parliament also left in place the racist 2001 law which outlawed any Palestinian from owning a home.

Ministers of Labor over the past two years have willfully failed to implement the new law, such as it is, by refusing the simple act of signing implementation papers. Less than two months ago a Palestinian delegation was promised yet again that a majority party in Parliament would see to it that the Minister of Labor did his job as mandated by the Lebanese constitution. Once more nothing was done.  On this second anniversary of the fake “Palestinian work permit legislation”  most Lebanese politicians who made so many promises to this observer and others  over the past four years to comply with international and Lebanese law and grant basic civil rights to Palestinians in Lebanon remain asleep on this issue.

Nevertheless, the hope of Palestinian refugees to achieve the basic civil right to work and to own a home is not extinguished in the camps this holiday season by the impotence of Lebanon’s big talk but do nothing Parliament. One reason for hope comes from the voices of people like Miss Hiba Hajj, a Palestinian princess living in Ein el Helwe camp.  This observer visited with her recently after sneaking into Ein el Helwe camp thru that smelly claustrophobic 30 inch, heavily trafficked sewer conduit at the eastern edge of the camp. The US Embassy here made crawling through the sewer line sort of obligatory for Americans wanting to visit Ein el Helwe camp ever since it directed the Lebanese Armed Force (LAF) not to grant Americans permission to enter the camp out of presumed, but misplaced, concern for their wellbeing.  It was Hiba (“gift from God” in Arabic), then a youngster of 14 years, who proclaimed three years ago when she volunteered to help achieve the right to work and home ownership for “my people” as she referred to them, stated to this observer and friends: “Failure is not an option for the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign, our only choice is success.”  And so it remains.

While the most elementary civil rights still have not been granted, Hiba continues to inspire us all with her rapid, charismatic and at times mesmerizing speech outlining what needs to be done and how to do it to achieve dignity for her fellow refugees.  This blooming seventeen year old Jean d’Arc, has zero problem smacking around, verbally at least, some of the toughest looking unkempt wannebe  salafists and jahadists from the eight Islamist groups who periodically show up in Ein el Helwe.  Hiba explains that she definitely wants the help of Usbat al-Ansar, who earlier this month helped resolve the traffic blocking sit-in by the controversial preacher, Sheikh Ahmad Assir in nearby Saida, but she demurs from the fictitious Jund al-Sham, or gangs who claim a spot under the imaginary loose cloak of al-Qaeda.

“I want you to do something worthwhile with your lives so we can get back to Palestine without more delay! Do you want to spend your lives in Lebanon? It’s not and will never be our country!” she scolds them as she asks for help to organize a major intifada here in Lebanon to prevent another anniversary from passing without Palestinian refugees attaining the civil rights to work and to own a home.

Hiba is encouraged this holiday season despite the failures of  Lebanon’s political parties, international activists, the international community “so very concerned with humanitarian values!” as she lectures her mates, and most especially the failure to date of groups here in Lebanon including the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign to achieve our goals.

This remarkable youngster idealistically reminds her coterie of likeminded teens of last week’s words of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General who she and her friends admire, trust, and believe.

During his International Al-Quds Day speech, Hassan Nasrallah stated that Imam Khomeini`s declaration of  Al-Quds Day falls within the context of a long continuum of religious and political commitment to “the sacred cause of Palestine” and  that Al-Quds Day  should not be simply a seasonal occasion  to support  the Palestinian people.

Hezbollah’s Secretary-General added,

“Unfortunately, today the suffering of the Palestinian people (Hiba thinks he also means within Lebanon’s camps)  has become secondary and just ordinary news items in the Arab and Islamic world, even in the entire world which claims to be civilized, the news has become second row even late news. Today, the nation can do much for Palestine and its people. At the very least, the rulers can themselves stop blockading the Palestinians before asking them to assist in lifting the siege off the Palestinians. A Part of the blockade suffered by the Palestinian people is practiced by some Arab regimes. This embargo must be lifted and support must be submitted”.

Hiba and her friends interpreted these words to mean Hezbollah will use its power in Parliament and finally grant them the right to work in Lebanon thus delivering to them a less bleak future.  Palestinians in Lebanon, and their international supporters, are acutely aware that Hezbollah still holds majority power in Parliament and will do so at least until next year’s Parliamentary elections if they are even held which to this observer appears doubtful.

Hiba particularly liked Hezbollah’s Secretary-General’s  words which she quoted: “We must help the Palestinians towards this cause to uphold the right of return and to refuse any resettlement as well as to reject assimilation in any country as is happening through their forced migration to countries in Latin America, Europe, Australia and others.”

Members of Parliament who support this country granting the right to work and to own a home to Palestinians insist that if the political decision is made by the Parliamentary majority led by Hezbollah, the necessary legislation, still in the legislative hopper from two years ago, can be enacted in an afternoon.

Hiba and Hezbollah’s other supporters who share Sayed Hassan Nasrallah’s oft expressed views demanding basic human rights for Palestinians in Lebanon believe that the Resistance block will, on this 30th anniversary of the massacre at Sabra-Shatila, finally act on what the late Imam Khomeini declared was  a central “moral, religious, and political” obligation of all people of good will.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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