Stop humiliating Palestinian refugees

In a recent talk at the American University of Beirut, Chile’s former president, Michelle Bachelet, described how her country’s parliament was forced to issue a general amnesty in 1978, as a condition imposed by the dictator Augusto Pinochet to abandon power. Yet Chilean judges have refused to implement the law. Along with a vibrant civil society, they refuse to grant immunity to those who violated human rights.

While listening to Bachelet, I felt bitter about how Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have also been the victims of unjust laws, supported by the bureaucracy and politicians. At the same time, just laws that might improve the situation of those refugees have not been implemented.

Let’s take two examples. On Aug. 7, 2010, after much hesitation and heated debate, Lebanon’s Parliament ratified a law to facilitate the employment of Palestinian refugees. The law represented something new in the uneasy Palestinian-Lebanese relationship. It also effectively continued to legalize discrimination, to use the term employed by the journalist Talal Salman, prohibiting Palestinians from working in more than 30 professions, while allowing other foreigners to do so.

It is also a law full of contradictions, whose clarification is left to the discretion of the Labor Ministry. Boutros Harb, who was then labor minister, played a key role in making the law ambiguous. At the time, he promised the Palestinian ambassador in Beirut, Abdullah Abdullah, that he would compensate for this by issuing a ministerial decree to allow the law to become operational. Harb did nothing. His successor, Charbel Nahhas, kept postponing the issue until his resignation last Feb. 23. He issued a decree to regulate the procedure of granting work permits to Palestinians, a year and a half after passage of the new labor law.

When I heard the news I was very pleased. My joy was cut short when the director general of the Labor Ministry refused to implement the decree. A campaign was waged against the decision, orchestrated by the Phalange Party and some hawks in the Maronite League, who claimed the decree was “unconstitutional.” The newly appointed labor minister, Salim Jreissati, has since frozen the decision of his predecessor.

The second example concerns the banning of Palestinian refugees from acquiring property in Lebanon. Until 2001, non-Lebanese, including Palestinians, had the right to own property up to certain size or area. However, that same year Parliament adopted an amendment to the existing presidential decree 11614. This effectively prevented refugees from owning real estate, because it excluded individuals without a recognized nationality. The 2001 amendment also prevents Palestinians from bequeathing property, even when acquired legally before then.

The law can only be qualified as racist (to use the term employed by Walid Jumblatt), and politicians and bureaucrats are applying it literally. They are also preventing the Real Estate Registry Department from allowing people with Palestinian relatives to acquire property.

There is a conservative current in Lebanon, in varying degrees encompassing all political parties, that opposes granting the Palestinians any rights. In a country where the violation of most economic and social laws is a national sport, Palestinians are facing a concerted campaign by legislators, judges and bureaucrats to impede the improvement of their social situation. And civil society organizations, through their actions or silence, have participated in this endeavor. One wonders, for instance, why some human rights organizations have refused to sign on to a statement endorsing socio-economic rights for Palestinian refugees.

The reason is that this conservative current in Lebanon considers the right to work and to own property as the first step toward the resettlement and naturalization of Palestinians. At a time when Arab revolutions are carrying the winds of change, and with this a deep reflection on transitional justice, these Lebanese continue to deny social justice to refugees who have lived among them for some 65 years.

Yet is the right to work a step toward the permanent settlement of the Palestinians? Of course it isn’t, and nobody has ever established such a correlation except in Lebanon, despite the fine work of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee and the Committee for the Employment of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. For example, Palestinians in Syria enjoy full rights to work and to own property, with no signs that this is legitimizing their permanent settlement in that country.

Why have the Lebanese judiciary and bureaucracy not rejected the implementation of unjust laws as have the Chilean judges? Can this be explained by the fact that the Palestinians committed the original sin several decades ago by supporting half of the Lebanese population against the other half? Why should Palestinians who were born in 1990 be punished for the errors of their parents? Is this behavior not a violation of the fundamental principles underlying human rights? Is the refusal to reject unjust laws a consequence of sectarian polarization, whereby many Christians oppose the predominantly Sunni Palestinians?

I personally believe this is an oversimplification. There are Sunnis and Shiites as well who oppose granting Palestinians the right to work and own property. Or who, when they are not entirely silent, are more than happy to exploit their labors in the black market. Religion doesn’t tell us everything. How different social strata in Lebanon have responded to the Palestinians is also something to examine more closely.

Fear of permanent Palestinian settlement is a scarecrow that is often deployed by those who will begin by reciting how much they love Palestine and oppose imperialism and Zionism. How odd. It is as if they were telling us that the liberation of Palestine were possible only through the further debilitation and humiliation of the Palestinian refugees.

Sari Hanafi is a professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 16, 2012, on page 7.




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