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Palestinians' Reaction Mixed Over New Rights Granted By Lebanon

Palestinians are having mixed reactions to a move by the Lebanese parliament Tuesday to give members of their 400,000 strong community the right to work in professions previously closed to them.

Abed, a Palestinian who works at a grocery store in Beirut, is bitter and angry that he does not have the same rights as his Lebanese co-workers. "I was born in Lebanon," he complains, "and my father was born in Lebanon, but we still don't have many rights."

Unofficial estimates indicate that some 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in 13 refugee camps in Lebanon. Most of those refugees fled to Lebanon after the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Sami, a Palestinian journalist who lives in the Ein al Hilweh refugee camp, insists that Palestinians have not been given many rights because they are Muslim. "No one in Lebanon wants to upset the official balance between Christians and Muslims," he argues.

"Look at the Armenians," he notes. "They were refugees, too, but they were given Lebanese citizenship, because they were Christian."

Most Christian political parties, including top religious leaders, are officially opposed to granting citizenship or equal rights to Palestinians because they are worried that their own community will be swamped, demographically.

Christians have 64 seats in Lebanon's 128 member parliament, although estimates indicate that they now represent just 30 percent of the population. No official census has been taken in the country since 1932.

Timor Goksel, the former spokesman for the U.N.'s UNIFIL peacekeeping force in Lebanon, says that there is still opposition to the parliament's decision to give Palestinians more rights, so it's not clear to what extent the new law will be implemented.

"This is something that a lot of people expected, hoped for, for a long time, But, it was not an easy decision," he said. "There's a lot of opposition to it. So, a lot of people are saying that it's a very great step, but that they like to see more of it, and something on the ground that it works. Just legislation is not the solution to it."

Goksel notes that Palestinian refugees often lead a difficult existence in Lebanon. "Those who live in the camps cannot even improve their housing. For example, they cannot have a permanent roof, they cannot have tiles on their roof. Everything has to stay as a refugee tenement," he said.

"So, it makes their life very, very difficult and unsanitary. But, most importantly has been for them this denial of working. They are banned from many, many trades and professions in Lebanon and those that do work, they work illegally," he added.

Munir Maqdah, the former Fatah militia commander in Lebanon, complains that Tuesday's vote by the Lebanese parliament doesn't change much for his community.

He insists that the parliament vote doesn't give Palestinians much of anything. Palestinian workers, he says, will continue to get no health care or worker's comp if an accident occurs. He stresses that Palestinians have no legal status in Lebanon, and that they are calling for their civil, social and human rights.

Maqdah argues that Palestinians in neighboring Syria enjoy most of the same rights as their Syrian compatriots. "We want those same rights," he insists. "Why shouldn't we be able to work in all fields, or own a house? Birds can own property and foreigners can own property in Lebanon," he asks, "so why can't Palestinians?"