BAALBEK, Lebanon — Jalil Refugee Camp is located about 90 km east of Beirut near Baalbek in the Bekaa valley and is home to approximately 8000 of the World’s most destitute Palestinian refugees. It is usually referred to as “Wavell Camp”, after the British Field Marshal Archibald Percival Wavell’s time at the former French military base during World War II.
The French built the base in order to secure part of their vast chunk of territory following the secret May 16, 1915 Sykes-Picot Arab land grab that divided parts of South Western Asia territory previously administered by the Ottoman Turks between England and France. The hegemony included illegally carving the State of Lebanon from Syria, during the League of Nations Mandate era and Jalil camp has been housing Palestinians since 1948. Today, the inhabitants live in particularly unhealthy conditions with some families still living in the original French army barracks and horse stables without daylight and ventilation and several families forced to share communal toilets which sometimes freeze up in the Bekaa’s frigid winters.
When this observer visited the camp last week with a colleague from the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign to discuss the possibility of an American ex-pat Palestinian building a factory near the camp that could employ 400 Palestinians, I was initially surprised by what I saw written on the Kastall Secondary School blackboard. I presumed a teacher had written the words, “Haram, 425 and no benefit to anyone!!” My first thought was that some of the teachers in UNWRA were finally resisting the outrageous prohibition against UNWRA schools teaching refugee children anything about their history or culture or even allowing them to wear a bracelet or pin with the Palestinian flag or Palestinian symbols to school, and certainly not the treasonous kafiyeh, although it’s become a popular fashion accessory for students around the world. While I was aware that the UNRWA prohibition was ordered by the US Israeli lobby lest Palestinian nationalism develop more rapidly among Palestinian youth who had knowledge their country’s history and the Nakba, I have always felt that this groveling was shameful and that UNWRA should completely reject it.
When our meeting started I realized that “425”written on the blackboard did not, as I had wrongly assumed, refer to UN Security Council Resolution “425” which ordered the withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied Lebanese territory in 1978, a UN demand Israel has still not fulfilled 33 years later as it remains in Shebaa Farms and Ghajar. Rather, it referred to the 425 days since Lebanon’s Parliament on August 17, 2010 claimed it had “partially” granted the right to work to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Of course, it did not do any such thing and the feel good thinly cosmetic gesture of abolishing the work permit fee (the fee was never a significant problem) for any Palestinian refugees who somehow might be able to navigate the Kafkaesque labyrinth was stillborn. A representative of the Camp informed us that since last summer’s Parliamentary feel good gesture, of a very minor amendment to the Lebanese labor law had not even been implemented. As many of us predicted at the time, Parliament had not created one Palestinian work permit and every Palestinian still remains barred from any job except casual farm labor, per day construction and a few other very marginal jobs such as tending livestock. So the factory idea has run into a problem since under Lebanese law it is still forbidden for refugees from Palestine to work in more than five dozen jobs including the new hoped for assembly plant.
But to hear the refugee’s new friends report on the current prospects for Palestinians internationally, conditions are coming up roses for the camp inhabitants in Lebanon as well. But the facts are quite the opposite for refugee prospects here in Lebanon.
It’s true that the recent events at the UN regarding the Palestinian request for UN Membership has raised the hopes of many in Lebanon’s camps. This observer was happy to see the much larger than expected turnouts in support of Palestinian statehood at UN HQ in downtown Beirut and also at Mar Elias refugee camp, the smallest of the 12 camps in Lebanon and one of three teeming camps in Beirut along with Shatilla and Burj al Barajneh.
One visiting Palestinian who was not hoodwinked during his visit last week was Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar who following a visit to Nahr al Bared camp declared that Palestinians in Lebanon live is worse conditions than in occupied Palestine or even Gaza following the 2008 Israeli war on the enclave of 1.5 million. Zahar promised Lebanon’s refugees: “We will make all efforts with the Arab League and with Arab states to help lift this injustice inflicted on you in the camps here in Lebanon. It’s injustice that cannot be tolerated by any man and is not acceptable to God Almighty.”
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Parliament is once again ignoring the issue of the elementary human right to work and to own a home for their guests from Palestine. Two bills that were not considered last year were scheduled to be voted on this session with the new Hezbollah led majority according to their sponsors, the National Syrian Socialist Party and the Progressive Socialist Party led by Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt. So far Parliament has not exhibited even a hint of considering draft legislation that would enact any internationally mandated civil rights for Palestinians forced into Lebanon 63 years ago.
Arch Palestinian foes are talking as if there is no problem with approximately 250,000 Palestinian refugees without the right to work or own a home. Michel Aoun, who more than any political leader has been and remains responsible for blocking Palestinian basic human rights in Parliament, told the September 27 weekly meeting of his Free Patriotic Movement that “it is the UN that commits an international crime by not recognizing Palestinians remaining rights… Today, the UN is confused and remaining silent vis-a-vis the ongoing crime against the Palestinian people, for which it is mainly responsible since Israel was established via a UN declaration. [Editor’s Note: while a widely held belief, the claim that the U.N. created Israel is a myth.] The Palestinians are not demanding their full share, rather what is left for them after the Jews occupied their land in 1948. They are demanding the 1967 border. If the UN is incapable of proclaiming the state of Palestine within the 1967 border, why is there a United Nations? Today, the UN will commit yet another crime against the Palestinians by not recognizing the remainder of their land and rights. So I would like to ask the so-called Arab moderate states whether or not they understood that the path they adopted with Israel was the wrong one.”
Aoun’s rivals in keeping Parliament from enacting civil rights is the right wing Kataeb politburo and Phalange party some of whose members bragged during last year’s elections about how many Palestinian the party had killed over the years. Sami Gemayal stated on September 28 that his party is “positively” following up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ steps at the UN regarding the former’s formal submittal of a membership bid to the UN. He claimed remarkably that “The Kataeb, has always stood by the Palestinian people and supported their legitimate rights to establish an independent state in Palestine and it cannot but stand by achieving the rightful and urgent demands. It supports any governmental plan that fulfills these demands.” The Kataeb statement also called on the Arab and international communities to find a “quick solution” to the issue of Palestinian refugees particularly those present in Lebanon.
While neither Aoun nor the Kataeb party as “new friends of Palestinians” is at all serious in demanding that the International community enforce Palestinian refugees rights in Lebanon and would reportedly take up arms to try to prevent it, this is exactly what the UN is obliged to do.
It has become clear that Lebanon’s Parliament is unwilling and incapable of acting on its own and those international sanctions may be the only path to encourage Lebanon to meet its international obligations to her refugees pending their return to Palestine.