Shatila Camp, LEBANON — The current festive celebrations in Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps reflect the intense euphoria being witnessed throughout Gaza and occupied Palestine, Arab and Muslim countries, as well as relief among people of good will globally.
This observer’s special friend from Shatila camp, Zeinab (she refers to herself as ‘Miss International’ given all the Americans and foreigners we bring to meet her and her wonderful family), called last night and giggled, “This is wonderful! You must come! I and some of my friends were wearing black scarves in honor of Ashoura on our way to protest against the Israeli aggression in Gaza. Within half an hour after gathering at the Youth Center athletic field we heard the news of the ceasefire. Soon we were dancing and singing and celebrating!”
At about the same time, thirty miles south of Beirut in Ein el Helwe Refugee camp, Lebanon’s largest and most densely populated with nearly 90,000 people squeezed into less than two square kilometers, more sardine-canned than even Gaza city, the General Union of Palestinian Women (GUPW) also organized a celebration of Gaza’s victory.
Established nearly half a century ago in 1965, at the time of the founding of the Palestine Liberation Organization, GUPW has consistently achieved much for Palestinian families regardless of location or fate. Like Zeinab’s manifestation, the GUPW’s demonstration against the Zionist aggression against Gaza became a joyful rally to celebrate Gaza’s victory, and soon refugees inside and on the outskirts of the camp were dancing and singing and raising Palestinian flags.
As Lebanese journalist Mohammad Zaatari has pointed out, the women’s rally was originally scheduled to deplore the aggression against Gaza; however, after a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was reached, the occasion turned into a celebration with refugees hoisting banners and flags from various PLO and resistant groups while calling for the solidarity and unity of Palestinian factions to confront the Zionist occupation of their country, Palestine.
“Every grain of sand!” one university student shouted. “We must liberate all of Palestine and recover every grain of sand! Jews are most welcomed to stay if they want to live in peace as equals under the law, but forget about colonization, democracy for Jews only and apartheid. They must disappear for sure!”
“We have won in Gaza and this is only the beginning,” beamed Amina Jibril, Director of the Palestinian Women Union in Lebanon.
“We haven’t just won through rockets. The kids and women and civilians who were killed in the clashes were resisting every day because their mere presence in Gaza is an act of resistance itself.”
But when the cheering stops and the placards are discarded, the many joyful demonstrations throughout Lebanon subside; most of the participants will trundle back to their bleak abject existence in Lebanon’s camps worse off in many respects than Gazans.
It is true that in Lebanon, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Druze regularly condemn Israel and consistently support the “liberation” of Palestine and breaking the siege of Gaza. But few there are who have historically supported expanding the rights or improving the dire living conditions of the more than quarter million refugees within Lebanese borders. As one Palestinian wryly noted, the Lebanese “favor the liberation of Palestine and Gaza, but they oppose even the most basic civil rights for Palestinians in Lebanon.”
Without any help from the Lebanese government or the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have no choice but to depend on the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) as their sole source of support and protection. Unfortunately, UNRWA has not proved up to the task due to the United States and Israel politicizing and interfering with international donor contributions.
Most Palestinians in Lebanon who are cheering Gaza’s victory well into the night won’t have to be concerned about being late for work the next day because Lebanese law forbids Palestinians from working in dozens of jobs and professions. Today, according to UNRWA’s own statistics, only about 53,000 of the approximately 130,000-strong Palestinian labor force are employed at all. Most who are have “illegal” low paying work are often ruthlessly exploited by employers who know their workers cannot complain to authorities or collect any work benefits. This is because in 1964, the Lebanese Ministry of Labor instituted a policy under Ministerial Decree No. 17561 whereby professions in Lebanon could be limited to Lebanese citizens. The regulations prohibited Palestinians from working in some seventy job categories.
In the camps of south Lebanon, Ein el Helwe, Mieh-Meih, al Buss and Rasheideyeh, and up north in the still unrestored Nahr al Bared camp, approximately 85 percent of all refugees live in “abject poverty.”
Among the states in which UNRWA operates, Lebanon has by far the highest number of “special-hardship cases,” i.e., the poorest of the poor, some 30-35 percent of Palestinian refugees.
Nor will most the temporary celebrants of the victory in Gaza have classes to attend when the celebrations finish. As of 2008, the pass rate of Palestinian students in UNRWA classes was less than 50 percent—10 percent less than their Lebanese counterparts in state schools. This education deficit alone limits the opportunities of Palestinians in Lebanon.
UNRWA does operate seventy-four primary schools—of which approximately 25 percent try to educate with larger classes, shorter hours and in double shifts—and in the process, provides employment to 2,785 residents and as of 2006, was the largest employer of legal, skilled Palestinian labor in Lebanon.
According to the recently published 2012 Human Rights Watch report on the conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon:
“They continue to live in appalling social and economic conditions. 2011 saw no improvement in their access to the labor market, despite a labor law amendment in 2010 that was supposed to ease such access. The main reason was the government’s failure to implement the amendment. Lebanese laws and decrees still bar Palestinians from working in at least 25 professions requiring syndicate membership, including law, medicine, and engineering. Palestinian refugees are still subject to a discriminatory law introduced in 2001 preventing them from owning property.”
All activists and others around the world celebrating the victory in Gaza must encourage Lebanon through their local embassy and consults their own governments, Iran and the Hezbollah led Resistance in Lebanon, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt to immediately use their power and prestige, enhanced by this month’s victory in Gaza, to urge Parliament to repeal the racist 2001 law that forbids only Palestinians from owning a home in Lebanon.
They need to leverage the victory in Gaza to benefit Palestinians in Lebanon and assure that Parliament immediately grants Palestinians in Lebanon the same civil right to work as every other foreigner in Lebanon enjoys, as does every refugee in every country in the world including Gaza. It can quickly be achieved by progressive forces that currently control Parliament using their political power to achieve these long overdue humanitarian requisites.
Indeed, if these forces will generate the political will, no more than 90 minutes of Lebanon’s Parliamentary time will be required to truly make the victory in Gaza historic while at the same time lifting the shame off Lebanon for its massive violations of international and Lebanese laws by granting Palestinian refugees the most elementary civil right to work and to own a home.
If achieved, history will forever record that it was the 2012 victory in Gaza that substantially liberated their fellow refugees in Lebanon by granting these elementary rights.