This year, the Merry Month of May in Lebanon includes Labor day, the May 15 anniversary of the Nakba, the month-long Lebanese municipal elections and the May 5 elevation of Lebanon to the presidency of the United Nations Security Council.
Yet, for most Palestinians whiling away their lives in Lebanon’s 12 fetid refugee camps and 27 gatherings, May will pass anything but Merry. The festive Labor day and month long elections, held in the 26 municipalities in Lebanon, with the participation of more than 650 glad-handing -vote seeking candidates extolling the Lebanese virtue of working to provide for one’s family, constitute a cruel joke for Palestinian refugees denied the right to work.
The May 15th anniversary of the Nakba reminds the World that Lebanon’s “camp Palestinians” , approximately 15 per cent of the 750,000+ who were ethnically cleansed by Zionist gangs six decades ago, suffer an existence that is demonstrably the most inhumane of any of the 58 camps in the Middle East, including Gaza. Warehoused in open air prisons, their children are among the most discriminated against of this largest and oldest refugee population on earth. With drug use, drop-out rates, violence, health issues rising fast– test scores, school attendance, academic achievements, hope and self-esteem are plummeting.
Despite proudly producing one of the authors of the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its current membership on the governing board of the International Labor Organization, and now holding the Presidency of the UN Security Council, the first time in half a century, is Lebanon up to its international duty? Entrusted by the international community with the work of implementing internationally mandated civil rights, doubts remain whether Lebanon will fulfill its pledge relating to civil rights for refugees, including the right to work and the protection of refugee children.
Last week, introducing an AUB workshop on the subject of securing the right to work for Palestinian refugees, Rami Khouy, Director of the Issam Farris Institute and prolific writer on Middle East affairs, told the participants “ The atmosphere in Lebanon, at least on the level of rhetoric, is changing in favor of civil rights for Palestinian refugees.” And so it is. The question remains whether popular will can generate enough political will for the Cabinet and Parliament to enact an elementary civil right to work into Lebanese law.
‘Illegal’ Palestinian labor as valued subsidy for Lebanese businesses
Lebanese bureaucracy, as in many countries, can make the most pro forma paper work task inordinately complicated. Consequently, for Palestinians in Lebanon, obtaining a work permit remains a major hurdle for a variety of reasons including ‘security considerations’, lack of awareness by the applicant of how to proceed, the economic advantage to Lebanese businessmen and women who prefer cheap illegal Palestinian labor which literally subsidizes the Lebanese economy by millions of dollars annually, to inflate their personal profits. Support for this assertion in found in the recent 2009 Najdeh (Help) survey that found that only 1.2 per cent of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps residents have been granted work permits. The past month a total of 2 work permits have been granted Palestinians, but since the work permit must be renewed annually these two could simply be renewals.
Through sustained and varied efforts, and to their eternal credit, Lebanese civil society organizations, international and local NGOs and even some Lebanese politicians are pushing for enactment of legislation to grant basic civil rights to Palestinian refugees. The initial batch of drafts bills vary significantly. As they are discussed in conferences, meetings and workshops, there is a perceptible trend in the direction of merging the key elements into a sort of ‘unity bill’ that will include the minimal acceptable elements— granting Palestinian refugees the right to work, an identification document, access to public education and lifting the legal prohibition barring home ownership.
The still largely secret legislative drafts includes the “ first one out of the gate” authored by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party last February. It reflects the views of Lebanese Information Minister Tarek Mitri that Lebanon’s estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees suffer from “double discrimination,” as he told one recent gathering, ‘Because Lebanon’s labor laws are based on the principle of reciprocity, Palestinians are viewed as foreigners and yet not afforded the rights granted to other foreigners who belong to recognized states”.
The PSP bill is impressive and amends Labor and Social Security laws to allow the right to work, home ownership (one apartment) by changing the 3/4/2001 law forbidding Palestinians home ownership, and allowing the inheritance of property by Palestinian refugees as well as health, accident, and retirement benefits. Jumblatt’s draft law is being used as a template by others fine tuning their own legislative preferences.
Some civil rights advocates are suggesting a ‘ quiet and soft approach’ so as not to rile g sectarian demagogues from the anti-Palestinian civil war (1975-90) with whispers about a publicity shy “ subtle adjustment of Labor and Interior Ministry regulations as best can be achieved over time.” This approach, it is argued, is designed to make it easier for Palestinian refugees to navigate the work permit forms, the the first step towards an employer contract, and other draconian procedures. Others are quite adamant that mere “ministerial adjustments” or legerdemain without the full force and effect of law to back them up would be flimsy at best and could destruct overnight, given the musical chairs of the undulating and shifting 30 member cabinet.
Few in Lebanon, this observer included, can even name more than 10 of the 30 ministers by name, and a new Labor minister could simply, by the stroke of a pen, publish a new labor regulation eviscerating the previous one along with the civil right it provided, or more likely, just fail to implement it. Evidence of past as prologue on this subject is found in the much ballyhooed June 2, 2005 Ministerial Decree by the Minister of Labor. His enlightened declaration was touted as removing dozens of jobs from the “no Palestinian refugee need apply” list and exempting Palestinians registered with the Ministry of the Interior from certain conditions applying to foreigners. Even though this “Decision” was confirmed on June 26, 2008 it has never been implemented. Today this promising Ministerial Decree lays moribund.
Minister of Labor Boutros Harb, of whom it is said in Lebanon that he is a master of the country’s legislative culture, is viewed with suspicion by some, for hinting just last week that the solution may be to just tamper a bit with the requirements for a work permit, and obfuscate other issues such as the reciprocity requirement. Harb is praised by others for his publicly expressed conviction that “something must finally be done to correct this travesty.” The Minister is privately counseling civil rights advocates, including the Palestinians themselves, to bring him something concrete that all “the stake-holders” can agree upon. Boutros appears to want something specific he can present to his Cabinet colleagues and assure them that its broadly acceptable. This is not easy. He’s only one of 30 in the Cabinet and then there is the 130 member Parliament to convince” one of his staff explained recently.
It appears that the representatives of the Palestinian refugee camps, including Fatah and Hamas who have cooperated on this project, may have achieved some of what the Minister of Labor has in mind, following months of discussions among various PLO groups, NGO’s and importantly, representatives of the new “unity” government.
It is possible that a five point plan, prepared by a hard-working steering committee with quite broad representation, could be seriously considered. It is known to Palestine civil rights campaigners in Lebanon as the “two no’s, two yes’s and one thank you” draft. While still not made public, it can be reliably reported that this draft law says ‘no’ to the work permit, ‘no’ to reciprocity, ‘yes’ to social security benefits, ‘yes’ to the right to work in all professions, and ‘thank you’ but we don’t want naturalization but only to exercise our right of return at the first opportunity. Theoretically, this ‘unity’ proposal could end up in the Cabinet for approval and then be sent to Parliament. But it is just as likely, according to experienced Palestinian insiders and observers who have been around this track a few times, that the Lebanese model of “words over deeds” will prevail at the Grand Serail unless more Lebanese and international support and political will is manifested.
The most comprehensive legislative proposal is the maximalist draft bill, not yet public, offered by the National Syrian Socialist Party, nemesis of the right wing Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea, whose partisans skirmished again on May 2, 2010. The NSSP and the LF have a long history of mutual antagonism going back to 1949 when the Phalange party, reputedly founded following an epiphany experienced by its founder Pierre Gemayel, while a guest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, sent ‘brown shirts’ to trash NSSP offices. The two parties remained bitter rivals during the 1975-90 civil war when the NSSP was a pillar of Palestinian resistance and today, benefiting from strong Palestinian leadership, in gaining strength and has allied with Hezbollah and Amal.
Pending a vote of the NSSP Executive Committee concerning the best timing for release of its legislative proposal, an executive summary of the much anticipated NSSP draft might read something like: “ Civil rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon constitute a right not a privilege or charity. These rights cannot be bargained away any more than the Right of Return. As such complete civil rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon must be fully implemented and backed by the State. All civil rights afforded any Lebanese citizen must be equally available to every Palestinian refugee. Included are all social, political and economic rights including the right to vote.”
The NSSP draft is very attractive to many Palestinians and civil right activists. “I support this approach,” one Palestinian student at the Lebanese University explained, “It’s clean. It’s honest. It does not grovel. It tells it like it is.”
Minimalism: ‘My party has killed more Palestinians than my opponents and we have earned your vote’
Many who have labored for years to wrest some Palestinian civil rights from the government of Lebanon fear that the NSSP approach, while ideal, will terrify Lebanese politicians, including some progressive Christian supporters in the Metn. One Christian proponent of granting civil rights explained: “Remember, in the last election, some rival Christian candidates would argue in private gatherings of voters that “ our party killed more Palestinians that our opponents did and we have earned your vote.” Another advised that the language in the by-laws of the right-wing Christian Guardians of the Cedars to the effect that “ it is the duty of every Lebanese to kill at least one Palestinian” has never been expunged.
Lebanon is a country where cynicism runs deep towards politicians-especially their words. But there are exceptions including Samir Geagea leader of the Lebanese Forces. He has a public credibility rating close to Hezbollah’s. People believe him.
“You may not like what Geagea, says, but when he speaks about Palestinians you can believe him. That is very rare in Lebanon,” according to Lebanese Human Rights Ambassador Ali Khalil. The Lebanese Forces has the clearest political party position on the subject of granting the right to work to Palestinian refugees and it has never wavered over the years. During my first ever visit to Lebanon in July of 1981, following the Israeli massacre that killed more than 170 and wounded more than 800, in the Palestinian neighborhood adjacent to Shatila camp called Fakhani, I had lunch with the Lebanese Forces leader Bashir Gemayel. A gracious host and the son of Pierre Gemayel, who along with Camille Chamoun founded the Lebanese Forces in 1976 with the primary objective of killing Palestinians, Bashir invited a couple of his friendly and charming aides, Elie Hobeika ( leader of the LF 1985-86) and Fadi Frem ( leader of the LF 1982-84)-both of whom would participate in the massacre the following fall at Sabra Shatila. The slaughter, which has been planned weeks in advance in Israel according to LF participants, was ordered executed the day after Bashir’s September 14, 1982 assassination.
What Bachir said privately about Palestinians over lunch 29 years ago is virtually identical to what representatives of the Lebanese Forces, which fought Palestinians during the 1975-90 Civil War, are saying today. In public, their language is more restrained and less profane, but equally bigoted. As LF representative Fadi Zarifeh informed a working group on civil rights for Palestinian refugees on February 10, 2010, the Lebanese Forces remain “quite hostile to the whole idea. The Lebanese state should first take care of its own citizens and not others.” Zarifeh added that his party was “the one farthest away from approving greater rights for Palestinian refugees”.
The internationally orientated Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon has proposed draft legislation entitled: The 2010 Employment Act for Palestinian Refugees. This bill , drafted with PCRCcolleagues at Harvard Law School and the London School of Economics, and benefiting from NGO work in Beirut, provides, inter alia:
“ Article 2: Palestinian refugees shall be subject to all provisions of State law relating to the right to work of foreigners in Lebanon, including the obligation to obtain a work permit by paying the same fee that all foreigners pay. Due consideration to be given to the privileges granted by state law to Arab subjects.
Article 3: Palestinian refugees shall be exempt from the application of “reciprocity of treatment” wherever it appears in the State law or in bilateral agreements. Notwithstanding any text in State law, Palestinian refugees are henceforth exempt from the requirement of providing proof of reciprocity.
Article 4: Notwithstanding any text to the contrary, Palestinian refugees shall be exempt from the condition of obtainment of a license for the exercise of any profession in their country, wherever this requirement appears in State law. Professional licenses shall be obtained only from the appropriate State administration.”
On May Day (Labor Day) Lebanon’s new permanent representative to the Security Council and the current President of the Council, Ambassador Nawaf Salam, announced to the World: “Part of Lebanon’s message has arrived by its entry into the Security Council. Lebanon’s voice for Palestine will be heard throughout the world.”
And her deeds will be monitored regarding elementary civil rights including the right to work for her Palestinian refugees.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and volunteers with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.