The explosive issue of Palestinian civil rights for Lebanon’s refugees will move to center stage under the Lebanese Parliamentary spotlight this week, with meetings of parliamentary committees and a legislative session now scheduled to consider late breaking proposals by the March 14 alliance, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The main holdouts, as predicted, will be the right wing Christian Phalange party and its allies and former Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has been tasked this week with getting them on board.
The Washington DC-Beirut based Palestine Civil Rights Campaign, not heeding the admonition of the late Mahatma Gandhi, who when following various pre-Independence reports of ‘progress’ with representatives of Her Majesty the Queen, Bapu told the assembled media: “Promises are made and fools rejoice!.”
The PCRC, admittedly with temerity, is predicting progress in the Palestinians struggle for the right to work and just maybe some progress with home ownership. What will likely be achieved is at least an ‘adjustment’ to the current Kafkaesque administrative process so that Palestinian refugees can more easily apply for a work permit.
According to a PCRC Board Member, Lebanese Human Rights Ambassador Ali Khalil: “ We expect at least the loosening of the current impossible-to-fulfill work permit requirements for Palestinians. It won’t be enough, but it will be a significant first step on a long March for justice. This campaign must and will continue until full civil rights are achieved for Palestinians including the right to own a home, obtain an ID card that allows travel, and access to some social services pending their return to Palestine.”
Were one to contrast the vitriol spewing from certain political/religious quarters in Lebanon and refracted into Parliament resulting from the proposal to grant Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees the right to work with the invective resulting from the additional Parliamentary proposal to allow the refugees the elementary right to own a home, the latter might just white out the former in a blinding light of fury.
Over the past decade arguments have not changed significantly since the March 2001 law forbidding Palestinian home ownership was enacted. But the political alignment n Parliament has. In favor of granting Palestinian refugees the right to purchase a home, are the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), the Loyalty to the Resistance grouping (Hezbollah+Amal), the Nationalist Syrian Social Party, the Arab Socialist Baath Party, and the Hariri group, now called the Future Movement. Those opposed to Palestinians owning a home are the right-wing Christian parties, the Phalange (the Gemayals), Lebanese Forces (Samir Geagea), National Liberal Party (Dori Chamouns) and their allies.
Pro March 14 (US and Saudi backed) Minister of Labor Boutro Harb has declared Palestinian home ownership out of the question and even expressed his concern this week about using the “civil rights” label that could connote rights close to those Lebanese citizen possess and as mandated by international and Lebanese law. According to Harb: “Among the major principles that should be adopted when it comes to addressing the Palestinian refugees’ “rights” (emphasis his) is to put an end even to the use of the term “civil rights”, given its political connotation which is linked to the concept of citizenship, to which only the Lebanese are entitled.”
Minister Harb’s position is seen by many as a ‘red herring’ since the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have no interest, as some here seem worried about, in citizenship, naturalization, settlement, tawtin, integration, implantation, voting rights, seeking political office, normalcy, nationality, permanent residency, setting down roots, normalization, ‘staying in Lebanon all their lives’ or even, ‘hanging around’ an hour longer than necessary. As ‘Mona’, a Palestinian nurse would works at the rehabilitating clinic in Beirut’s Mai Elias refugee camp put it the other day: “ While we are grateful for Lebanon allowing us to stay here as refugees, we just seek some dignity and the right to own a home while we wage our struggle to return to Palestine.
Lebanese law historically has imposed relatively modest restrictions on foreign ownership of real estate beginning with the 1956 (Decree 15740), Law 59 of 9/1/69, Decree 16614 of 6/4/69/ and on 1/4/69 when the cabinet adopted Decree 11614. The result made foreign ownership of land conditional upon the acquisition of a license if the size exceeded 5,000 square meters (10,000 square meters for foreign companies).
But on March 20, 2001, a blatantly discriminatory home ownership law came into force designed specifically to target Palestinian refugees as part of a wave of an anti Palestinian measures following the expulsion of the PLO and the 1989 Taif Accords. This blatantly discriminatory and internationally illegal action outlawed the refugees’ right to own a home or purchase any kind of real estate in fee simple. Law 296 of 2001 abolished the right of any Palestinian refugees to own real estate in Lebanon period. Never mind if refugees had purchased the home before the law was enacted, had registered the property with the Ministry of Interior or that they had inherited the home from their parents. The draconian law prohibits “the acquisition of any real estate property, by any person who is not carrying a nationality from a recognized state or by any person if the property is contradictory with the constitutional precepts concerning the rejection of (Palestinian) (Tawteen)”. This law means in practice that no home ownership is allowed to Palestinians. Tawteen (naturalization) being an oft-employed scare tactic and catch-all political/legal black hole designed to prevent Palestinian refugees from obtaining civil rights.
The law was claimed by its supporters to be necessary to encourage foreign investment. It has never been convincingly articulated how in any way it achieves that and in fact the opposite proposition could be much more convincingly argued.
Another argument against allowing Palestinians refugees the right to own a home, as Phalange Party MP Sami Gemayel warned during an interview with LBC TV on 7/3/10, is that “allowing Palestinian refugees the right to own a home risks keeping them in Lebanon rather than helping their return home.” Gemayel, with a straight face, advised the Palestinians refugees “to be aware that giving them civil rights in Lebanese society is an Israeli and U.S. plot to prevent their return to their homeland.”
On the question of Palestinian home ownership, Gemayel argues that it is out of the question since many Lebanese don’t own a home and Lebanon is one of the countries with the highest number of Palestinian land ownership relatively to its size. Academic and NGO studies suggest otherwise. So do statistics supplied by the Lebanese Ministry for Finance, dating back to 1993, which reveal that combined Palestinian ownership of real estate in Lebanon is less than one quarter of what foreigners own in Lebanon, or 0.00001 percent of Lebanon’s total area.
Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun, allied with Hezbollah but playing to his political base of Maronite Christians, which the Gemayels are trying to cut into these days, told his followers on 7.7.10 that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon cannot ever be granted the right to own property.
Democratic Gathering bloc leader MP Walid Jumblatt questioned recently how public figures could be against granting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon the right to own a home while foreigners from Arab countries have the right to own three percent of the properties in every district in Lebanon. “We allow other Arabs to own properties saying this would encourage investment, yet we deprive poor Palestinians from this right,” Jumblatt said.
The 2001 law also forbids Palestinian refugees from bequeathing real estate, even if the property was acquired and legally registered before the law took effect. The draconian law shocked not just the Palestinian refugees but many others in Lebanon and it was immediately contested when 10 members of Parliament led by Hezbollah, filed an appeal before the Lebanese Constitutional Council. The Appellants quickly lost the case when the Council ruled, without oral argument or presenting in their finding any rational nexus between their ruling and the fact of Palestinian home ownership. The CC simply concluded that “ preventing the permanent settlement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is of higher national interest.”
The effect of the 2001 law meant that thousands of Palestinian refugees who had purchased apartments on installments, even if they had one payment left to make or had made all their payments were not able to register and legally own them. The ruling also means that even if Palestinians had registered property they had purchased or their parents had purchased and bequeathed to them before the 2001 law, their title is still null and void. It was widely alleged that two weeks before the 2001 law came into effect, the relevant Ministries instructed Lebanon’s Notaries Public not to register Palestinian property in order that they could not possibly escape its provisions. This practice has been viewed by some as simply a governmental effort to ‘loot’ Palestinian property.
Other problems the 2001 law created:
If a Palestinian rented a property she/he inherited or purchased before the 2001 law, the Tenant, learning about the 2001 law sometimes stopped paying rent with the explanation: “Show me that your property is legally yours and is registered and I will pay rent. Otherwise this is my property!” No court in Lebanon would find for the Palestinian in a case like this according to legal experts here.
Children who inherited the family home and continue to live in it become ‘occupiers’ after their parents’ death and gain no legal title, with each succeeding generation having even less of a right to live in the family irrespective of any testamentary devise document or Will from their parents.
One Palestinian academic, at a Palestinian research center who has studied this dilemma thoroughly told this observer, “About the only thing that keeps some in the government from trying to physically confiscate Palestinian real estate like they do in occupied Palestine is their sure knowledge that someone like Ahmad Jabril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) would resist on behalf of the refugees. So we don’t expect the government to move for Israeli style evictions no matter that some would like to, but the 2001 law must be changed.”
The simple, sisterly, moral, and internationally mandated Parliamentary solution is to amend the 2001 law to correct the pre 200l law registration problems and to allow Palestinians to own at least one home if they are able to afford it.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon. He is reachable at email@example.com.