Granting Palestinians the Right to Work can Salvage Lebanon’s Economy


Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the offspring of nearly 800,000 ethnically cleansed from their homes in Palestine during the 1948-50 Nakba, are today variously labeled by their Lebanese hosts as refugees or sometimes described as a particular category of “quasi-residents.” Or as “foreigners” or sometimes during Arab emotional nationalist events or rising national sentiments or Israeli attacks, Palestinians have been described more congenially as “Arab residents” or “Arab brothers.” Or at other times they are claimed by‘Resistance” factions as “Our religious, moral and political duty to liberate and return to Palestine.” And sometimes Palestinians in Lebanon are labeled by yet other “Resistance Brand” elements as “Sunni Terrorists” and “Takfires”who support other ‘terrorists’(rebels and civilians) in the Syrian Civil war next door. Consequently they must be eradicated per certain questionable Hadith offerings weakly attributed to Mohammad the Prophet (PBUH).

But whatever the label pasted on Palestinian refugees in sectarianized and Shia-Sunni split Lebanon, they are today often thought of by certain sects with power in Parliament as some kind of parasitic outlaws. Nothing could be further from the truth and this assertion is repudiated beyond cavil once Lebanon understands the benefits that will accrue to their economy if Palestinians are granted their internationally mandated civil right to work.

As noted in Part I of this report, Lebanon’s economy continues to weaken as foreign investors pull back, internal sectarian turmoil swells and World Bank and IMF indexes of Lebanon’s economic future increasingly reminds one of the 2009 economic shut-down in Greece.

Politicizing Palestinian access to Lebanon’s economy

Today, approximately 230.000 Palestinian refugees are housed in 12 camps and 42 gatherings across Lebanon. The vast majority live under harsh deteriorating conditions with high poverty rates, and collapsing infrastructure and housing conditions. They have very limited access to quality services and social protection. In addition they are subjected to discriminatory laws and regulations including being denied by Lebanon’s Parliament the internationally mandated civil right to work or own a home outside of their squalid camps.

Historically the Palestinians and the Lebanese have had deep economic relationseven prior to the exodus of Palestinians from their sacred homeland. Thousands of Lebanese sought employment opportunities in Palestine. And because they were granted the same civil right to work that today Lebanon is legally obliged to grant Palestinians, the Lebanese were well integrated within Palestine’s economy and many prospered. Allowing Palestinians in Lebanon the right to work is viewed by most people of goodwill and virtually all tenets of international humanity law, as simply fair based on this fact alone.

Expulsion from their lands and homes forced the entry of Palestinians into Lebanon which began five years after Lebanon had proclaimed its independence from France. As argued by many who have studied the subject including scholar and this observer’s student, JaberSuileman, the arriving Palestinians provided capital and labor which in large part helped build the Lebanese economy. In addition to augmenting the labor force, Palestinian refugees had been owners of banks, companies, heavily involved in trade, and known for their business acumen. During 72 months of their ethnic cleansing by occupying Zionist gangs, Palestinians transferred more than 200,000,000 sterling pounds into Lebanon. This cash infusion was vital to the new state of Lebanon and exceeded by four times the then value of the Lebanese economy.

Roughly two decades later, the PLO fueled economy in Lebanon had grown massively with scores of thousands of job creations and its budget exceeded that of the Lebanese state itself. However, given other exigencies, the PLO leadership was not much involved with long term investments but rather focused on providing for the short-term needs of the camp residents. And since the PLO was the major employer they did not feel particular urgency about developing a long term plan to guarantee, by Parliamentary decree, the enactment of the civil right to work for Palestinians in Lebanon. Frankly it was not a big issue at the time given the political and economic power of the PLO and the reality of the Lebanese job market being fully open to Palestinians.

Yet, as all dear readers know, times change. With the withdrawal of the PLO from Lebanon in August of 1982, (with this observer on one of their boats headed to Tunis), as a consequence of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and Israel’s local and international allies which included certain Lebanese sects, a reign of terror was organized by Lebanon’s Deuxiume Bureau (Military Intelligence). It was during this period that the Amal Militia under the leadership of Lebanon’s current Speaker of Parliament now in his 25th year sinecure commanded the 1985-88 Palestinian Camp Massacres, on instructions emanating from elements in Syria. The tradeoff was cover for Nabeh Berri’s knowledge of the Imam Musa Sadr murder in Libya a few years earlier. Berri profited financially and politically from pleading ignorance about “the vanished Imam” during the subsequent four decades about who ordered Libya’s Gadhafi to ‘disappear Imam Sadr.” Consequently Berri was green-lighted to assume the leadership of Musa Sadr’s Amal organization and the post of Speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament. Imam Musa Sadr’s murder changed the course of Middle East history for the worst, given his ability and commitment to bridge building among Sunni, Shia and Christians and his general moderation and rejection of Political Theocracy which is so rampant today. Sadr was a supporter of Palestinians refugees having the right to work.

A reign of terror in post PLO power targets Lebanon’s Palestinians

As the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were increasingly targeted after the PLO leadership withdrew, a decision was taken to exclude them from internally mandated civil rights that every refugee on the planet is accorded. Among the employment doors shut for Palestinians, which would substantially block they from growing Lebanon’s economy via employment and job expansion,isthe right to work in 20 professions. In order to exclude Palestinians, all main professions require that applicants have Lebanese nationality.Professional Associations now barred to Palestinians in Lebanon include those in which they have historically excelled. The professions in Lebanon which by political design excludes Palestinians are Lebanon’s Bar Association, Association of Doctors, Pharmacists, Dentists, Engineers, Media, Association of Editors, Banks, Association of Manufacturers, Accounting, Associations of Hospitals, Tourism Agencies in Lebanon (ATTA1), Association of Printing, Syndicate of Hotels Owners in Lebanon , Syndicate of Pilots in Lebanon, Association of Insurance Companies, Syndicate of the Manufacture of Gold and Jewelry, Syndicate of Public Works and Constructing Contractors in Lebanon, Association of Licensed Topographers in Lebanon, and Association of the Union of Publishers.

Palestinian refugees being allowed to work in these professions would, according to several studies grow Lebanon’s economy quickly and significantly create quality of life improvements including infrastructure revamping and economic and political stability for all in Lebanon. Moreover, were Lebanon’s Parliament to comply with International law, its own Constitution and US law, Lebanon’s economy could be salvaged and grow significantly according to various ILO and World Bank analyses.

Over worked and poorly paid–but still contributing

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are overworked and poorly paid. The average monthly income of Palestinian workers is below the Lebanese minimum wage and based on 2007 data represents less than 80% of the average monthly income of Lebanese. Participation of Palestinian women in the labor force is also very limited and as in a majority of countries women are paid less than their male co-workers, receiving approximately 82% of men’s income.

Sadly, but correctable, Lebanon’s Palestinian workforce has become less educated and lacking in previous skills. Most are engaged in fairly menial jobs concentrated in commerce and construction. When a Palestinian can find work it is often on a daily, weekly, or productivity basis. Job security is unknown. The blocking of fair job opportunities and decent work is exacerbating and accelerating the cycle of impoverishment and vulnerable existence that Palestinians endure all across Lebanon.

Despite some optimism about improvements from the 2010 Parliamentary amendments related to improving the conditions of Palestinian refugees, no significant benefit resulted on their right to work or quality of life status. Work permits are still very difficult to secure despite the cancellation by Lebanon’s Parliament of work permit fees. Work permits are not required by most menial occupations performed by Palestinian refugees and fewer than 2% of refugees have acquired one. Half of the Palestinian refugees are employed by another Palestinian and approximately 30% work only inside the camps. Roughly 50% of Lebanon’s employed Palestinians work in construction and commerce activities such as wholesale and retail trade, repair of motor vehicles of repairing household appliances, often longer than ten hour days and where the majority earn less than the daily Lebanese minimum wage or about 20,000 LL which equals $14 USD per day or $ 1.20+ per hour.

The above noted weak 2010 refinement of Lebanese law makes plain that Lebanon’s Parliament was not willing to fulfill Lebanon’s duties toward Palestinian refugees. But to its limited credit it did decide on cancelling the principle of Reciprocity since it is not applicable to Palestinians because they are refugees. It kept the discriminatory work permit but cancelled the fee to obtain one. It also allowed the right to work in a few parts of the private sector including the right to end of service and work emergency compensations. However, this responsibility must be held by the employer most of whom indicate they will avoid it. Parliament also blocked Palestinian employees from any benefit from the social security fund and sending the matter to UNRWA arguing that it alone is responsible for Palestinian health, educational, and social condition.

Consequently, the informal economy is currently the only viable option for Palestinians to obtain jobs in Lebanon. The majority of Palestinians are employed in the informal sector due to being both socially and economically confined. But working in the informal economy is not a solution. Most Palestinians working in the informal economy are denied many rights, including social security or receiving a guarantee on pensions and as noted above are being much underpaid. In addition this employment is not included in Lebanon’s national economic assessments. Notwithstanding that Palestinians already constitute an important part of the Lebanese work force their contribution is not currently included in any formal economic assessment.


For too long, the debate surrounding the right of Palestinians to work in Lebanon has been perverted by domestic politics and the tendency to conflate employment rights with a right to naturalization, or tawteen. Those who have lived in Palestinian camps and followed this issue know the absurdity of this proposition. With every Palestinian birth in Lebanon the resolve for Full Return deepens. Wishfully thinking were the occupiers of Palestine’s prediction that “the old will die and the young will forget.” Let them come to the camps of Lebanon and Syria and interview the youth about this prediction.

Lebanon’s ailing economy is in no small measure the result of discriminatory laws and practices that have hindered Palestinians from legally joining the Lebanese labor market and growing Lebanon’s economy. As a result leaving major economic contributions to Lebanon’s economy by Palestinians underutilized.

Palestinians have not been and are not today an economic burden to Lebanon. They are a potential major boon. Several economic growth periods benefiting the country were primarily due to Palestinian entrepreneurial capital being invested across Lebanon. Part of which is the fact that in contrast to other foreign workers in Lebanon, Palestinian labor constitutes the only group which spends essentially their entire earnings in Lebanon without sending them as remittances abroad.

As noted in a recent International Labor Organization (ILO) study, achieving fair treatment for Palestinian workers in Lebanon by Lebanon’s Parliament removing flagrantly discriminatory legal and administrative obstacles that block Palestinians from working will reap major economic benefits. At the same time Lebanon’s government must engage in constructive dialogue with all concerned stakeholders and sectarian interests across Lebanon on granting Palestiniansthe full right to work. The benefits that will result toward rebuilding Lebanon’s economy can resolve many of Lebanon’s economic, social and sectarian problems, while bringing Lebanon into compliance with international humanitarian law required for the treatment of refugees.

Several current sectarian political leaders in Lebanon ignore the difference between the two sets of rights which Palestinians seek and are entitled to. In point of fact on the one hand, the rights of Palestinians as refugees focus on their Human Right of Return to their homes and the right to receive compensation for their losses. These rights are absolute and cannot be either abrogated or negotiated away on their behalf.

The second sets of rights are their Civil Rights within Lebanon or any country where they currently reside. The belief that extending elementary civil rights to Palestinians will in some way block Lebanese nationals from their economic rights is a mistaken one. Palestinian refugees also possess, whether citizens or non-citizens, Human Rights, both as refugees and as human beings and the enjoyment of both sets of rights is in no way mutually exclusive.

Enshallah, Lebanon’s deeply polarized and politicized sects will come to a decision to put their country and its economy first and allow their Palestinian sisters and brothers to help make it happen.

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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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