BEIRUT, June 27 (JMCC) - With a growing population using limited resources, the question of Palestinian refugee rights in Lebanon is increasingly impossible to ignore.
On Sunday, 132 Lebanese and Palestinian organizations from across the country will march together to the Lebanese prime ministers’ residence in demand of better rights.
“This is the first march of its kind. We are expecting over 20,000 people to attend,” says organizer Sari Hanafi.
The demonstration intends to raise the profile of refugee issues at a time when a proposed draft law on Palestinian rights is to be debated in the Lebanese parliament. The law would for the first time give Palestinians the right to own property and to attain work benefits such as medical care and a pension.
Salvatore Lombardo, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Lebanon, issued a statement Friday supporting the demonstration. He urged the Lebanese government to ratify the new bill, arguing that giving Palestinians in Lebanon increased rights will promote dignity and well-being. The bill, he said, would reduce militancy in camps across the country.
The question of political rights for Palestinian refugees is divisive in Lebanese politics. Christian lawmakers fear that granting further rights to Palestinians might lead to naturalisation. Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, and this, many fear, would upset Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance.
History also plays its part. Sparked by conflict between Palestinian and Lebanese Christian factions, the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990 continues to weigh on citizens’ minds.
Many view the camps as flashpoints for potential violence. Outside of Lebanese military control, the camps have seen brutal fighting. Over 90 percent of Shatilla camp was destroyed during what is known as the “Camps War.” Pro-Syrian militiamen from Amal, a Lebanese Shia movement, and anti-Arafat factions laid siege to Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and the south.
Today the camps’ security committees continue to include representatives from Palestinian political factions. But camp leaders reject the idea that they present a threat to Lebanon.
“They have no real power,” says Munir Maarouf of UNRWA
, “Their remit is internal.” Rumors abound that Syria continues to influence Lebanon through the camps.
“Any group can put a bomb here and there and ‘de-civilize’ things but generally speaking this [Syrian influence] is no longer true,” says Hanafi.
The Lebanese government continues to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as rationale for limiting refugee rights in Lebanon. To allow refugees to integrate into Lebanese society is to relieve Israel
of pressure and responsibility to deal with the aftermath of its creation. At least so the argument goes.
The refugee “right of return” has proven to be a central sticking point in decades of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Palestinian national conscience however, it continues to thrive.
“My grandparents told me about beautiful Palestine. I dream that I am there, I look at the green mountains and the smooth air,” expounds refugee Ahmed Faris.
“All the time [in school] they tell us stories about Palestine. How life was there and how Israelis took our lands,” says 13-year-old Mona Faris. “They know I like to draw, and so all the time they ask me to draw Palestine.”
Political support is also drawn on these lines. “[Palestinian refugees] support anybody who says we are against Israel, anyone who says “I will take you back home,” says Maarouf.
QUEST FOR DIGNITY
Palestinians, however, reject that the rhetoric of return is sustained through suppression of rights in Lebanon. Greater political rights will, they argue, enhance their chance of return.
“If we live in Lebanon, live in dignity and work hard we will be in a good position to defend our rights to go back,” says Maarouf. “This is difficult when we live in a jail, always thinking about how to find food and work.”
Economics suggests that wealth subdues political resistance. But this is not exclusively the case. In Jordan, a country where over half the population is thought to be Palestinian, it is the middle classes who are best able to exert pressure for greater political rights on the government. This is perhaps, precisely what the Lebanese government fears.