The Case for Palestinian Rights in Lebanon

Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut

As of mid-April 2010 there are no fewer than six draft laws, half of them ‘embargoed for now’ being circulated and debated in Lebanon, any one of which if adopted by Parliament, would grant Lebanon’s Palestinians, for the first time since their 1948 expulsion from Palestine, some elementary civil rights including the right to work, to have an ID, and to own a home.

In a future report I will reveal publicly for the first time, with the permission of the various drafting committees, the changes in Lebanon’s laws each one advocates.Despite the fact that bookies and odd makers at Lebanon’s main Casino in Jounieh decline to give odds on any of the drafts actually being enacted by Parliament, Lebanon’s political leaders are talking sweet.“If it were up to me, I would give the Palestinians the right to work tomorrow!” Prime Minister Saad Hariri exclaimed during a Future TV channel interview recently and to various visiting delegations who are increasingly inquiring about the subject of basic civil rights for Palestine refugees as awareness spreads in Lebanon and internationally about camp conditions in Lebanon. The PM’s polite interviewer demurred from asking him why the Prime Minister thought it was not up to him and indeed not up to all members of Parliament to correct this shameful and dangerous injustice.

Hezbollah’s leadership, including Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy, former chemistry professor, Naim Qasim, and Hezbollah’s Parliamentary delegation, among other party leaders, have repeatedly endorsed civil rights for Palestinians in Lebanon as obligatory given the Resistance movement’s “religious, moral, national and humanitarian duty”.

No Lebanese political leader has been more consistently out front in support of Palestinian civil rights than Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. He advocates ‘civil rights now’ and organized and funded a Progressive Socialist Party conference last January which brought together scores of leaders to push for Parliamentary passage of the right to work, to own a home and social security entitlements.

Other leaders have also expressed their views that granting Palestinians civil rights is needed for many reasons including lifting Lebanon’s shame.

So why are the odd makers at Casino in Beirut so skittish about giving some friendly odds on passage of civil rights for Palestinian refugees?“ You foreigners are so naïve with short memories also!” Saddam (not his real name), an “entrepreneur” and bon vivant explained from the Casino parking lot last week, as he surveyed his domain which includes ‘comfort vans’ in dark corners of the adjacent parking structure.

“Nobody should bet one Lira on the word of a Lebanese politician!”, he explains.“Consider just the past year. Remember all those young people who worked so hard during the last election for candidates all over Lebanon who swore on the heads of their children that the youth would get to vote next time and the voting age would absolutely be lowered from 21 years to 18? And then refused to change the law and betrayed the youth and now ask why the young are so cynical about politics? And women. Don’t get me started on the subject of women’s rights! Women in Lebanon were promised all during the 2009 election that they would finally be granted civil rights so at least they could bestow Lebanese nationality on their children. They were also ‘guaranteed’ a fair share of slots on the municipal elections ballots. They were betrayed and got no civil rights and were limited to a mere 20 per cent of the municipal election slots although they number more than 50 per cent of the voters. Four women out of 128 members in Parliament? What kind of a democracy is this? Politicians have promised Lebanese women civil rights for more than 100 years and they got nothing.

“I am from Saida and every election the local politicians say the Saida Trash Mountain, which pollutes the sea and everything else around Saida and up the coast of Lebanon, will be removed and cleaned up. Last election my MP Fuad Sinioria, a guy I like, promised it ‘for sure’ this time. As usual, nothing was done. Then just last week, with an eye on the coming municipal election my MP Sinioria again announced–here look at this. Do you read Arabic?” Saddam shows me a newspaper with Sinioria’s photo on the front page next to a photo of Saida’s huge Trash Mountain, which has been growing higher and wider for 37 years—since the start of the Lebanese civil war. “Here’s what it says: ‘Local political leaders announce that solutions to Sidon’s collapsing waste dump are on the horizon’ What does this mean, ‘on the horizon’? Well, so is judgment day!’’ Saddam fumes, as he continues, “In short, that is why no one should hold his breath waiting for Parliament to do what should have been done as soon as the refugees came from Palestine.”“Excuse me, I have to look after business.”

Saddam mumbles as he approaches one of his vans, looking at his watch and shaking his head while muttering, “Time’s up! Ya Allah! (Let’s go!) She rents by the hour, not the week!” In addition to general skepticism about Lebanese politicians “sweet words” there are plenty of doubts being expressed about granting civil rights to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Among them is the following sampling with rebuttals from the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon: “If we grant civil rights to Palestinian Refugees it would interfere with their Right of Return!” The spurious “would interfere with the Right of Return” argument has been used by some in Lebanon to justify all manner of discriminations against Palestine refugees. For example, in relation to the prohibitions against improving or renovation of existing refugee camps, some politicians have claimed that the renovation ban is to prevent the consolidation of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and prevent the US-Israel backed resettlement hence destroying the principle behind the right of return.

In point of fact, the granting of civil rights to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees, including the economic, social, and cultural rights in no way prejudices their Right of Return. The right to return to one’s own country is based in international law and is the most obvious way to redress the situation of those who were forced to live in exile. The internationally mandated Right to Return applies not just to those who were directly expelled and their immediate families, but also to those of their descendants who have maintained what the United Nations has declared are “close and enduring connections” with the area.

Anyone who has visited Palestinians in Lebanon, including youngsters in Lebanon’s camps and gatherings knows of their “close and enduring connections” to Palestine. This observer will never forget young Mr. Hamid, a nine year old who last year in Al-Buss Refugee Camp near Tyre proudly recited to a delegation of visiting Americans the names of “214 of the more than 500 villages in my country that the Zionists destroyed during the Nakba. They must all be rebuilt so we must hurry up and go home to do it” Hamid articulately explained to his astonished visitors.

Palestinians who were expelled from any part of Palestine including the West Bank or Gaza Strip, along with those of their descendants who have maintained links with the area, can exercise their right to return. Meanwhile, granting interim basic civil rights to help them live in dignity in Lebanon will in no way interfere with their Return, but will likely expedite it as the refugees in Lebanon gain the wherewithal to press their claim more effectively in the international arena.

“If Lebanon grants civil rights to the Palestinian Refugees, they may become too comfortable and seek permanency in Lebanon and Naturalization.”This argument is one of the most flimsy being raised by a few in Lebanon on the issue of granting some civil rights to Palestine refugees. Virtually the whole of the Palestine refugee community as well as all Lebanon’s confessions and political parties are in agreement that despite the history of Washington and Tel Aviv floating of ‘trial balloons”, naturalization (Tawtin) is out of the question and will not happen. The refugees insist that their home is south of the border and nowhere else. Virtually all of Lebanon agrees with the Palestinian position on this. Yet this tired bromide still surfaces in the media from time to time. On March 3, 2010 even the hold-out American Embassy in Beirut, on instructions from the State Department and after years of waffling, announced that Washington no longer favors Tawtin for Palestine refugees in Lebanon, abandoning Israel as this chimeras only advocate.

“The Palestinian refugee population poses a security risk for Lebanon and before any civil rights are granted this danger must be resolved.” The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and Lebanon have held the consistent position that Camp arms are for camp security and would never be turned against Lebanon. The arms and fighters that turned up in Nahr al Bared Camp near Akkar in 2007 came from outside Lebanon and had nothing to do with the Camp inhabitants.Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently expressed in Lebanon the communities’ view that the national Palestinian leadership ”supports the Lebanese Government decisions on Palestinian arms inside and outside refugee camps. We are with Lebanese authorities, with the Lebanese government and with Lebanese sovereignty. We as Palestinians are not above the law,” Abbas explained in meetings with Lebanese leaders including President Michel Suleiman, President Obama, his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell as well as during a press conference on 2/22/10 with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris.

Palestinian leaders in Lebanon regularly state the unified Palestinian position: “We are with everything that the Lebanese government says on weapons outside camps. Our stance is clear and won’t change,” Mahmoud Abbas stated. Palestinian leaders in each of the 12 Refugee camps and 27 ‘settlements’ in Lebanon express the same assurance and a real, imagined or potential ‘security risk’ does not justify the continuing deprivation of elementary civil rights for hundreds of thousands of Palestine refugees in Lebanon.

On the subject of Palestinian arms outside refugee camps, Druze leader Walid Jumblat on 4/20/10 called for “treating this dossier, which gained the consensus of the previous dialogue committee separately , without associating it with the issue of civil rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. These civil rights are urgent from the humanitarian point of view, and they must be acknowledged and implemented through legislative measures in Parliament,” he wrote in an editorial in the Progressive Socialist Party weekly journal, al-Anbaa.

“How are Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon deprived of the civil right to work since some do manage to find a job ‘illegally’?”In principle, the Lebanese Labor Law and Social Security Law are applicable to both Lebanese and foreigners. Where Lebanese law treats Palestinians differently is firstly by restricting access to certain professions, and secondly where it concerns employment injury compensation, social security benefits including end of service compensation. Availability of these entitlements for Palestinian workers is strictly conditional on possessing a government Kafkaesque-issued work permit and again on the poisonous principle of reciprocity. Palestinian workers who find work pay social security contributions, but are barred from any benefits.The fact that some resourceful Palestinians have indeed found make-shift ‘illegal’ jobs often at a much lower wage and without any employment benefits from an unscrupulous or even sympathetic employer is no solution or acceptable excuse not to grant morally and legally mandated elementary civil rights.

“Lebanese women also are deprived of civil rights. They must get theirs before Palestinian refugees are given any.” The two problems have become politically related and among the most ardent supporters of women’s rights are the Palestine refugees. Among the strongest supporters of Palestinian civil rights in Lebanon are women. Both are illegally and immorally denied basic civil rights. It often requires International Women’s Day and Land Day for Palestinians to generate some hand wringing in Lebanon about the need for civil rights for both.

Those opposed to amending the draconian 1962 and 1969 laws (Presidential Decree) restricting the right of Palestine refugees to work, often but not always, reject woman’s rights and oppose changing the archaic 1925 law that bars Lebanese women from giving citizenship to their child and husband. To the chagrin of most Christians, strident opponents of civil rights for both groups are often from the minority extremist Christian camp. Lebanese holding this view argue that granting women the right to pass on their citizenship would upset the country’s delicate demographic balance and the same would happen if Palestinians are granted civil rights.

Since Palestine refugees and women in Lebanon share a legal limbo quite naturally they commiserate to some extent. Given the key role of women in resistance movements, from heroines represented by the likes of Mairead Farrell and Martina Anderson in Ireland, and Albertina Sisulu and Helen Sussman in South Africa to Leila Khaled and Dalal al Moughabi for Palestine and Laure Moghayzel, a founder of leading women’s groups in Lebanon, it can be expected that the support of women may be the best hope for their Palestinian sisters and brothers to achieve civil rights in Lebanon.

“Lebanon needs more time to straighten out the ‘situation’ with the Palestinians. Also, it should be remembered that Lebanon did issue Identification Cards to the 5000 plus Palestinian refugees who have never had either UNRWA or Interior Ministry registrations subjecting them to arrest at any time. So Lebanon is making solid progress.”It is true that in August of 2008 the Ministry of Interior began issuing ID cards as part of a plan to improve the legal status of the non-ID Palestinians. On more than one occasion this observer witnessed the hot crowded yard and garden in front of the Palestinian Embassy in Beirut as well as the hallways and waiting rooms as hundreds of Palestinian refugees waited to apply.

Their spirits were soaring as they expressed the hope that could no longer be arbitrarily arrested and jailed for not having ID. It also would mean that for some of them they could now exit the Camp without fear.

Unfortunately, the euphoria was short lived as the Lebanese government stopped issuing temporary identification papers to Palestinians five months later, which meant that fewer than 750 cards were distributed before it stopped the process, citing ‘security concerns.” In October 2009 the minister of interior announced that the process would soon resume, and indeed, the process has resumed. It remains to be seen when the “non-ID’s” Palestine refugees will obtain.

“Lebanon is a very small country and we cannot afford to allow refugees to own a home, given our limited available housing space.”There has been no probative evidence offered from any quarter in support of this proposition. Approximately 1/3 of Lebanon’s residential building are empty, with many owners seeking tenants or buyers and would be happy to rent or sell a home to Palestinians, either without conditions or the condition that once they are able to return to Palestine the lease would end at the beginning of the next year and a reversionary future interest in real estate might be considered assuring that the mandatory vacation of the residential dwelling would be available for Lebanese if they are interested in living in it.

“If Sunni and Christian Palestinian refugees are granted civil rights, including the right to work and to own a home, this will ‘upset Lebanon’s delicate confessional balance’ among Christians, Sunni, Shia, and Druze and plunge Lebanon into dangerous internal sectarian conflicts.”Frankly, more than civil rights for Palestine refugees regularly “upsets the delicate confessional balance” in Lebanon and this may ever be the case.One recent example. On April 13, 2010 the 35th anniversary of the start of the Lebanese Civil War, the two opposing political camps in Lebanon – March 8 and March 14 — chose to remember this day in a friendly football game in a show of solidarity at Beirut’s Damil Chamoun Stadium. Thanks to 29 year old Phalange party member Sami Gemayel ‘s two goals late in the ‘unity’ match the result was a victory for the Saad Hariri-led March 14 team.

Savoring his teams win, Sami gloated that his opponent, Hezbollah’s MP Ali Ammar’s “defense strategy was very weak’. While his comment may have been meant as a joke it caused raised eyebrows among some confessions, such is sectarian sensitiveness these days.Wearing the wrong clothes, forgetting to observe one of the other confessions holidays, celebratory gunfire during or after a favored confessional leader’s speech, violations of employment shares inside ministries (in Lebanon each confessions gets a share of government jobs and one can be sure that each confessions staff “nose counts” in ministerial offices to be sure the list is what it should be.

Drawing moustaches on posters of rival confessions (and most confessions appear to be serious rivals) can lead to violence. The point is that allowing Palestinians to work will be objected to in some quarters, but not much more than other issues and the is no evidence that it will not bring down or even alter the confessional system “balance.” Moreover, the refugees from Palestine have never sought to vote, do not now seek the right to vote, and have no intention to do so according to their community leaders and polling data. Consequently, allowing them some civil rights would not add or distract from any Lebanese sect when forming a Cabinet, voting for Legislative candidates or advancing or retarding sensitive sectarian legislation in Parliament.

“Palestinian refugees don’t contribute to Lebanon’s economy so why should Lebanon allow them the right to work?”Actually, despite facing severe work restriction most Palestinian refugee households have at least one family member who is employed (often illegally and at a lower exploitive wage than Lebanese citizens) constitute 10 per cent of all private consumption in Lebanon, and do not burden the Lebanese welfare system, according to a recent report by The Najdeh (Welfare) Association, funded by aid agencies Diakonia and Christian aid.The study is the result of a survey of 1,500 households in eight refugee camps across Lebanon and a number of focus group discussions, and assesses the income of Palestinian refugees, challenges to and perceptions of work, and their contribution to the Lebanese economy.

According to Najdeh, the study was designed “to examine the contribution to the economy of the host country Lebanon.”, the report found one third of the individuals sampled works, and roughly 40 per cent were searching for work. Only 1.7 per cent of those surveyed had work permits, a fact the report said “renders the Palestinian refugee labor force invisible in official statistics” and exacerbates their socioeconomic marginalization. Far below a livable wage, median monthly wages for Palestinian Refugees has declined from $260-266 in 2007 to $108-112 “during the first half of 2008.” An overwhelming majority (84 per cent) of Palestinian households believe there are no work prospects for their children in Lebanon.

Although Palestinian refugees on a per capita basis cannot legally contribute much to the Lebanese economy through employment, their large numbers means they count for 10 per cent (approximately $352 million) of all private consumption in Lebanon. Food, healthcare and rent constitute their top spending priorities.
Consistent studies over the six decades have shown that Palestinians have aided Lebanon’s economy and do much more if allowed to work and open businesses. An early study dated 12/18/59 by the Arab Supreme Committee showed that the total monetary balance transferred by Palestinians from assets in Palestine, the sale of family jewelry to buy food etc. was more than three times the annual budget of the Lebanese state in the early 1950s as has the UNRWA relief, education and health and salary budgets mainly spent in Lebanon. This propelled the Lebanese. However by not allowing the Palestinians to work Lebanon has stunted its economy.

Before the PLO administration left Lebanon in August of 1982, it created directly or indirectly more than 40,000 jobs or approximately 18 per cent of Lebanon’s GNP. The PLO budget may have been larger than that of the Lebanese state itself. Palestinians also contributed to “invigorating” the areas surrounding their camps by creating low-cost markets for low-income and other marginalized communities in Lebanon. The “Sabra, Ein el-Hilweh and Nahr al-Bared camp markets are recognized as major informal economic hubs for the poor,” said the report, adding that the destruction of Nahr al-Bared during the battles of 2007 had “resulted in a gap in the Akkar” region in northern Lebanon for such communities.
The debate continues…the cause endures…….

Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon “Failure is not an option for the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign, our only choice is success,” says 15 year old Hiba Hajj, a PCRC volunteer at the Ein el Helwe Palestinian Camp in Saida, Lebanon.If you haven’t already, please sign here (you don’t have to be Lebanese!):

FRANKLIN LAMB volunteers with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign in Lebanon. He is reachable at



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. He is reachable c/o