Middle East International, 10 August 2001
No Space, No Future: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Though insecurity is an outstanding feature of Palestinian life in most places where they live, from the Occupied Territories to the Negev, Australia and Glasgow, yet their situation in Lebanon is unique in degree of political, economic and social exclusion. With 'implantation' (ie. final settlement) formally prohibited by the Lebanese constitution, all Palestinians with refugee ID cards face eventual transfer. And while waiting, their civic rights are constricted by laws and practices aimed - though this is never explicitly stated - at making life so unbearable that many leave. The Intifada has produced change at some levels - for example the media - but not at other more basic ones such as inhumane living conditions in the camps. At the Amman summit in March, President Lahoud vied with other Arab leaders in glorifying the Intifada; yet army siege over the camps in the south remains as tight as ever. It was ex-PLO representative Shafiq al-Hout who summed up Lebanese contradictions best: "With Palestine, against the Palestinians".
Last week Israeli Palestinian poet Samih al-Qassem was invited to a cultural festival in Beirut and decorated by the president, whose personal intervention was required to enable Qassem's entry. This is part of a sea-change still mainly manifested in cultural events and in the Lebanese media, which give full coverage to the Intifada, particularly Al-Safir among newspapers, and Hizbollah's 'Minar' among television stations (Berri's NBN also has a Jerusalem-based correspondent). Palestinian speakers are more often invited to participate in political chat-shows these days. The Intifada has also had the effect of suppressing the campaign against local Palestinians that reached a peak last year. The phrase 'islands of security' used to suggest the lawlessness and danger of the camps has gone out of fashion. Yet this media thaw has had no reflection at the level of policies towards the refugees.
The most damaging constraints are those that prevent refugees from the professions and a wide range of skilled and semi-skilled work as well as public sector employment. Discriminatory labour laws mean that Palestinian workers here experience higher un- and underemployment rates than elsewhere, and more families live in a state of 'ultra-poverty'. A diminished Palestinian professional and trading stratum survives through sharing with a Lebanese 'partner', accepting lower wages, or staying within camp boundaries. Though Lebanese anti-Palestinianism is less violent today than it was in the 1970s or 1980s, the refugees are still more socially excluded than in any other Arab host country: a recent survey by political scientist Simon Haddad found that 65% had no contact of any kind with a Palestinian, while only 18% had a Palestinian friend. The sample was constructed from Lebanon's six major sects, including Sunnis, the sect to which most Palestinians belong.
With the Lebanese economy in crisis, Palestinian unemployment continues to mount. An unpublished survey conducted by the Norwegian research institute FAFO in 1999 found little difference between Lebanon and Jordan in the level of Palestinian unemployment (17% cf 16%). It is questionable whether the ILO measure of unemployment used by FAFO gives an adequate measure of the refugees' work and wage situation, but in any case the job market has tightened further since then. On recent visits to camps in the North, South, Bekaa, Beirut and Sidon I asked camp leaders for unemployment estimates, and was given figures ranging from 60 to 70%. Men of different generations gave work histories that revealed that most from the generation that came to maturity after 1982 have never done work for which they were trained. Casual jobs they get seldom last more than a few weeks. One young man in Wavell camp with a BA in philosophy had never worked in all of the ten years since graduating. It is ironic and sad that this generation has had far better opportunities for education and training than their grandparents - the 'generation of the Naqba' - yet it is older men who managed to work and save to educate their children. The point is made by Ziad, an engineer living in Bourj al-Barajneh: "My father had no education, and he was able to feed the family well, even to provide me and my brothers with higher education. As an engineer, I cannot even afford to live in a proper place, or to marry" (quoted by Bendik Sorvig in "Exile Without Refuge, MPhil thesis, University of Oslo, 2001, p 66).
Is the state's reduction policy authorized, encouraged or merely ignored by Damascus? Syria attempts to control Lebanon's sectarian cauldron by avoiding creating the enemies that would inevitably be provoked by permanent alliances. Its basic support is a coalition of pro-Syrian politicians from the three major sects - Maronites, Shi'ites and Sunnis. The Maronite component in this combination is always on the defensive vis-a-vis its own 'street'. This is why those Maronites who are with the regime need the Palestinians as whipping boy, to demonstrate their sectarian credentials. Weapons in the camps create a 'Palestinian danger' that is used to justify the presence of the Syrian Army to the 'Maronite street'. This was made transparently clear by Michel Murr, ex-Minister of the Interior, when he inserted into a speech supporting the Syrian presence the "presence of 300,000 Palestinians in Lebanon"(L'Orient/Le Jour, April 18, 2001). A week later Murr underlined the connection again, arguing that Syrian withdrawal must be postponed until after Palestinian resettlement (ie. transfer) (Cyberia News Center, April 27, 2001).
Syrian policy towards them is a frequent theme of Palestinian discussion: if Syria needs them in Lebanon as a 'card', why does it not use its influence to improve their status and living conditions? Salah Salah, ex-PFLP Central Bureau member, gives this view: "There are two Syrian red lines: arms stay in the camps, and the Lebanese Army stays out of them. Other than this, the Lebanese government is free to do what it likes". This speaker believes that Damascus has no particular interest in the conditions of Palestinian in Lebanon or in the high level of their out-migration. Rather he puts the responsibility on the Lebanese state which, in his view, has always aimed at making life impossible for Palestinians "to prepare them to accept any solution", whether towteen or emigration. This is an analysis that minimizes the economic and political benefits that Syria gains from its workers in Lebanon, whose freedom to work and rights to social security come partly at Palestinian expense.
[Palestinian marginality is equally illustrated by a recent Syrian tilt in favour of Arafat's Fateh, formerly excluded from most of Lebanon except Rashidiyyeh camp. Damascus's desire to build good relations with political Maronitism, and to keep its ties with political Shi'ism sweet, generally rules out overt support for Palestinians. However the ascendence of Sharon to power closed the door to Syrian/Israeli negotiations, and gave a powerful jolt to the regional chessboard. One of the resulting shifts is the possibility of a Syrian/PLO/Lebanese strategic alliance. Though this is a card in Arafat's hand rather than an imminent development, it has already translated into greater freedom for Arafatists to spread and mobilize in the camps in Lebanon. This tilt may further alienate hard-core Maronites, but after Patriarch Sfeir's spring speaking tour in North America, the Syrians may have decided that courting the Maronites is a losing game. Under threat by Sharon, they seem at last - and perhaps temporarily - to be playing 'the Palestinian card'.]
["Whoever wins, Palestinians lose" is an apt summary of a structural position in the Lebanese political arena that forces upon the refugees the role of pawn or scapegoat. This is well illustrated by their relationship with Hizbollah. Hizbollah cooperates with Resistance groups it considers ideologically aligned with itself; its welfare branch distributes aid in the camps; most importantly, it counteracts Amal movement's anti-Palestinianism with the Shi'ite 'street'. Yet at the same time, for electoral and regional reasons, Hizbollah cooperates with Amal leader Berri. The Palestinians have nothing to offer Hizbollah, while the Party of God, whatever its political and humanitarian impulses, is constrained by its relations with Syria, Iran, and its own Shi'ite constituency.]
Constraints on the employment of Palestinians go back to the beginning of exile in Lebanon, though they have never bitten as deeply as now. But with the recent passing by Parliament of revisions to Law 11614 (1969) concerning ownership of real estate by foreigners, a new threshold of exclusion has been reached through a clause forbidding "anyone who does not have citizenship in a recognized state" from owning property (Qanun tamuluk al-ajanab, text published by al-Safir, 23 March, 2001). The excluding clause will mainly affect Palestinians forced by low income and need for UNRWA services to live in the camps. This is because the majority of upper and middle class Palestinians have acquired foreign or Lebanese passports that shield them from the exclusion clause. Because camp boundaries are non-expandable, and building inside them is restricted, Palestinian families in camps accommodate their expansion by trying to buy apartments or land plots outside. This will now be illegal, and they will be forced to rent at a time of deepening impoverishment, with the government preparing a bill that will free rents completely within twelve years (The Daily Star, March 28, 2001.)
The comment of DFLP spokesman Fethi Khleib on the recent property law is not exaggerated: "The only rights that remain for Palestinians in Lebanon is the right to residence and the right to die". The right to die - but not the right to be buried. The Palestinian Human Rights Organization recently raised an alarm over the lack of new burial space for Palestinians. Moreover death has revealed another damaging aspect of the law excluding Palestinians from owning property. Whereas formerly after a death Palestinian refugees simply obtained a certificate from a religious court naming a deceased person's heirs, and then registered it with the government, such transactions are no longer legal. One of the first institutions to protest has been the Sidon Chamber of Commerce, in anticipation of the problems likely to arise from the fact that some 60% of property in Sidon is 'owned' by Palestinians. Much Palestinian property has remained unregistered because fees for non-Lebanese were until recently.
Though the requisite twelve parliamentarians signed a request to the Majlis al-Dastouri to review the exclusionary clause because of its inconsistency with those parts of the Lebanese constitution that ban all forms of discrimination, the Majlis affirmed the clause. This prompted from one Lebanese the comment that nothing in Lebanon is independent of the state, least of all the judiciary. As the implications of the exclusion clause sink in, Palestinians will be more than ready for a planned series of protests that began in 'Ain al-Helweh camp on July 26. Further camp demonstrations are likely before a special parliamentary session on August 13 for which discussion of the property law has already been tabled. A new property law that would negate the exclusionary clause is being drafted and has been promised support from Hariri's block, Hizbollah and the national progressive parties. This would give it a simple majority. But no one is predicting how this issue will play out between the Troika, the parties, Damascus and other external actors when the time for voting comes.
Between now and the next parliamentary session, however, Lebanese support for the Intifada may begin to spread to attitudes to the Palestinians. Several important political groupings, such as Hizbollah and Habib Sadek's Mimbar Dimukrati, Hizbollah support civic rights for Palestinians; Nassib Lahoud's Democratic Renewal Movement may include this in its platform. Expressions of disgust at conditions in the camps by political leaders are becoming more frequent, and parts of the Lebanese public are beginning to echo Sayyed Nasrallah who called conditions in the camps "a smear on Lebanon's forehead" (Al-A'hed, April 9, 2001). Even though neither Nasrallah nor any other Lebanese politician can make civic rights for Palestinians a priority in a country riven with economic crisis, it is possible that the state's policy of repression and exclusion of the refugees will become increasingly costly in terms of local and foreign public opinion.
One option open to the Palestinians is international legal action. A recent graduate paper by Petter Aasheim at the University of Lund (Spring 2000) puts Lebanese laws and attitudes vis-a-vis the refugees in a context of international laws and covenants concerning the right to work of refugees and stateless persons. For example, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) affirms the right of Palestinian refugees to work as foreigners staying on a non-temporary basis. By denying them this right, Lebanon is also violating article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at preventing discrimination. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights - ironically drafted by Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik - affirms the right to work, and is applicable to non-citizens. Non-citizens as well as refugees are protected in several international covenants, eg the Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951) and the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Lebanon has not signed several of these conventions, so that raising a case would not be easy, especially as complainants should be states. Yet there's a loophole in the '1503 procedure' which allows individuals or organizations to submit complaints of human rights abuses to the UN, and if the complaint proves "a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights" the UNHCR can send a rapporteur or mission of enquiry. Such proof should not be difficult in the case of Lebanon's laws and practices vis-a-vis Palestinians.
It is however precisely their insecurity in Lebanon that makes Palestinians averse to taking such a radical step. They are acutely aware that they survive - barely - on sufferance, and that 'going international' would only increase Lebanese hostility. On the other hand, the current combination of Intifada-rekindled nationalism and anger as the new property law begins to bite may will transform the dominant mood from passive despair to active challenge. The more likely form that challenge will take, however, is protest action in alliance with Lebanese sympathizers, challenge within the system. Such a strategy would find resonance at a time of mounting Lebanese hostility to Israel and the USA.
Rosemary Sayigh is the author of Too Many Enemies: Palestinians in Lebanon (London: Zed Books, 1994)