Can Lebanon Come in from The Cold

By Franklin Lamb

More than six decades after their expulsion from Palestine, Lebanon’s unwanted refugees just might be granted some basic civil rights.

Part I:  Hiba’s Story, Ein el Helwe Palestinian Refugee Camp, Lebanon

Granting even the most elementary and normally taken for granted civil rights to Palestinians in Lebanon won’t be easy and it may not be pretty. Yet there is undeniable and growing Lebanese and international resolve for Lebanon’s politicians to end a dark bleak chapter in Arab brotherly relations.

The disturbing paradox of Lebanon depriving its refugees of the most elementary civil rights, some of which are even granted Palestinians by their arch-nemesis, the Zionist occupiers of their own country, is increasingly being condemned in Lebanon. In addition, there is the gaping contradiction between the sweet words and the clarion trumpeting calls by groups wanting to liberate Jerusalem and all of Palestine and enforce the internationally mandated Right of Return (UNSCR 194), while at the same time appearing to avert their eyes from the very ones seeking to return and who exist in abject squalor, humiliation and indignity, thus appearing to tolerate their brothers and sisters’ degradation.  These contradictions are motivating expanding panoply of Lebanese leaders, civil society organizations, side by side with local and international NGO’s, to demand civil rights legislation from the current Cabinet and Parliament. 

What civil rights advocates seek is compliance with basic international law and indeed Lebanon’s Constitution, both sources of law mandating civil rights for Palestine refugees including the right to work and to own a home. In plenty of Lebanese neighborhoods, polite society often avoids the subject of  ‘haydoulik’  (‘they’) when a foreigner mentions the teeming and squalid Palestinian camps,  or brings up the subject of  yet another local media or NGO’s report  detailing the alarming and accelerating deterioration of the world’s oldest and largest refugee population.  Close to half of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees are crammed into 12 camps and 27 unofficial ‘gatherings’.  Of the  original 120,000  who were  forced across the full length  of the Palestine-Lebanon border  during  the 1948 Nakba, their offspring now  number close to  450,000–some 425,640 of whom are registered with the United Nations Refugee Works Administration (UNRWA) as of April, 2010, and some also with the Lebanese Ministry of Interior.  Since 1948, roughly 22 percent of the refugees in Lebanon have left loved ones and family members to seek jobs abroad so as to remit their foreign earnings back to the fetid camps. Lebanon leads the world in the amount of per capita in bound remittances, a significant contribution to its Gross Domestic Product.

The Untouchables

According to a Sunni Muslim family in the Sanayeh area of Beirut who has a long history of support for the Palestinians, including  two sons  who fought with the PLO against Israeli forces in 1982-83, a father  who used to hide  sensitive PLO documents  inside his apartment walls as Israeli forces searched West Beirut house to house in the fall of 1982, and a mother who prepared home cooked meals during the summer of 1982  for ‘Abu Ammar’ (Yassir Arafat) and ‘Abu Jihad’ (Khalil al Wazir) and their office staffs, between 90-95% of Lebanese have never been inside a Palestinian camp.  A teen-age member of the same Beirut family snarled to this observer, "Not since the (1982) Sabra-Shatila Massacre has a group of our Lebanese brothers visited a Palestinian camp!", referring to the right wing Phalange Lebanese groups who conducted the camp slaughter after being egged-on and equipped by the occupying Israeli military leadership including Israel’s then Minister of Defense, Ariel Sharon.

With the exception of Druze leader, MP Walid Jumblatt, and a couple of Hezbollah members of Parliament, and one from the Saad Hariri Future Movement, not one member of the 128 member Parliament or the 30 Member Cabinet has acknowledged visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in the past five years, according to a March 2010 survey taken by the Sabra Shatila Foundation and the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon. For some of Lebanon’s population the very idea of "going inside" a camp  in enough to produce an exaggerated grimace, is shocking as it is true, Lebanon by refusing to even allow Palestinians the right to work in dozens of professions or to own homes, stands in clear violation of no fewer than 43 international legal obligations contained in treaties, conventions, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Lebanon played a major role in drafting, international customary law, and indeed its own Constitution.

The arguments against granting civil rights to Palestine refugees are numerous, with some as imaginative as they are spurious. They vary widely depending on whom from which of the 18 confessions is discussing the subject. Some arguments for the status quo currently being heard by advocates working to change Lebanon’s right to work and home ownership laws include the following sampling:

"If we grant civil rights to our Palestinian Refugees it could interfere with their Right of Return!"

"How are Palestine Refugees in Lebanon deprived of the civil right to work since some do manage to find a job illegally?"

"The Palestinian refugee population poses a security risk for Lebanon and before any civil rights are discussed this must be resolved."

"Palestinians are Sunni Muslim and giving them civil rights will interfere with the fragile sectarian balance among Christian, Druze and Shia Muslims."

“Why shouldn’t Lebanon take more time considering civil rights for the Palestinian Refugee families?  At least their children are being looked after in UNWRA schools and are fine. Their elders must be more patient and haven’t the Palestinians caused many of their own problems."

"Lebanon needs more time to straighten out the "situation" with the Palestinians. Also, don’t forget, Lebanon is quietly issuing Identification Cards to  the 5000  plus Palestinian refugees who have never had either UNRWA or Interior Ministry registrations subjecting them to arrest at any time.  So aren’t we making solid progress?"

"Since all other foreigners need work permits, how has the requirement that Palestine Refugees obtain a work permit unfairly affected Palestinians right to work in Lebanon?"

"Lebanese women also are deprived of civil rights. They must get theirs before Palestine Refugees are given any."

"Palestinian refugees don’t contribute to Lebanon’s economy so why should Lebanon allow them the right to work?"

"Lebanon is a very small country and we cannot afford to allow refugees to own a home, given our limited available housing space."

"If Lebanon grants civil rights to the Palestinian Refugees, they may become too comfortable and seek permanency in Lebanon via Naturalization (Tawtin)"

An analysis of these and other arguments against granting civil rights to Palestine refugees will be considered in Part II of this discussion but should any of these arguments prevail with Parliament, a least a quarter million Palestinian refugees  in Lebanon will remain deprived of  achieving much more than subsistence during their wait and struggle to return to Palestine.

Miss Hiba Hajj

One of the hundreds of thousands wretched refuse facing continuing condemnation is  a gifted 15 year old named Hiba Hajj, born and raised in the teeming 90,000  plus resident Ein el Helwe Palestinian Camp, in the 6000 year old town of Saida Lebanon. Hiba,  is  a stunning, savvy, totally charming, hijabed Palestinian youngster who lives with her large family near the Sharia Bustan Yahoudi (Jewish Park Street) area of  Ein el Helweh  (‘Eye of the Beauty’ or ‘Source of sweet water’). Hiba’s neighborhood is named after the Jewish community that used to live in the quarter before Zionist colonials invaded Palestine. Most Jews who stayed in Lebanon after 1948 left during the 1982 Israeli invasion and the subsequent 18 year occupation-fewer than 30 are thought to remain in the country today.

To this foreign observer, when  Hiba (‘gift from God’) relates her story of dreams deferred, she becomes every Palestinian Refugee in Lebanon and her personal and anguished narrative embodies the urgency and historical imperative for Lebanon to immediately grant the most elementary civil rights for her and Hiba’s  close to 450,000 fellow Palestinian refugee. Like many of her friends, Hiba, reputed to be one of the best female teenage football players and long distance runners in Lebanon (she runs an approximate 5 minute 20 second mile on her slower days) is considering dropping out of school to help support her family, whose income has plummeted since the recent fighting between camp factions because, as she explains to an American visitor, people are too afraid to enter the camp to have their cars fixed at her father’s auto repair shop. The American Embassy has instructed the Lebanese army which has blocked off seven entrances to the camp and mans checkpoints at the four remaining entrances to Ein el Helwe, not to allow American passport holders inside the camp "for their personal safety".

Hiba often spends her free time at her sister Zeina’s home, filled with four squirming babies, which is located in the explosive no-man’s-land known as Taamir, between the boundary of Ein al-Hilweh and one of the Lebanese army checkpoints that overlooks the camp. Hiba’s peers consider her  an expert on the camps  factions, that range from the  Saudi Wahhabi Takfiri groups who she says, "want to kill us Muslims and anyone else who don’t follow their Wahabist version of our religion", to Osbat al-Nour (League of Light),  Ansar Allah (Followers of God), Fatah al Islam remnants on the lam from the 15 week battle at Nahr al Bared in the summer of  2007,  Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Greater Syria or the Levant) Islamic Jihad, Asbat-al-Ansar (League of Followers) seven or eight Palestinian factions including Fatah, Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) Ahmad Jebril’s Syrian bankrolled Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command,  Fatah al-Intifada, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the defunct Saiqa, along with  some upstart  secretive and   well armed global jihadist cells sporting  new heavy weapons from Iraq according to camp officials, courtesy of  US military inventory "shrinkage."

"Hiba acts crazy sometimes," her older sister anguishes, "and our family worries about her.  I have seen her walk into the center of a gathering of young fighters, many of whom she knows from rival gangs while they are yelling and threatening to shoot each other. Just last month she grabbed a boy’s AK-47 from him just as he took aim at a rival and she screamed at the boys to go home and read the Koran!"  And they left without firing one shot"

Hiba needs to stay in school where she is an excellent student but like so many Palestinian teenagers she sees no point because she can do nothing with an advanced education. For all her energy and ‘don’t blame others just make your own life the way you want it’ attitude Hiba grows introspective and seems sad as she explains to visitors what she would like to do with her life.

Like all Palestinian refugees born in Lebanon, Hiba is stateless and unprotected, brought up in the misery and hopelessness of a Lebanese Palestinian refugee camp. This sweet kid, like all Palestinian refugees, has no civil or political rights in Lebanon. She is barred from working in over 70 professions, cannot own or inherit property, is subject to I.D. checks every time she enters or exits the camp, and has no access to public healthcare or public education. No Palestinian need apply.

Her brother Ahmad explains: "To start off, if you are a ‘camp kid’ in Lebanon that is a big strike against you.  For us we feel there is nothing here. Our country is there (he points in the direction of the Palestinian border, 35 miles South).  There is nothing to do here, maybe play games on the internet if you can find somewhere with a connection-if you go and play games at the internet place, you’re happy that you did something for the day. Some of my friends accept a small salary and join a militia group."  Refugee-camp teenagers like Hiba once fuelled the anger and resistance to Israel occupying their land. "Not now" says Ahmad "Much of that anger has turned into depression, increasing drug use, gang violence, dropping out of school, domestic violence, feelings of hopelessness."

"My sister wants to become an eye doctor", he explains, "She has no chance". Today, Palestinians in Lebanon continue to suffer from draconian measures which the Lebanese state claims are needed to prevent them from becoming permanent guests.  As of February 10, 2010, the following dozens of jobs remain off limits to Palestinians in Lebanon per Ministry of Labor Regulation No. 10l1—either because they are restricted to Lebanese nationals, or are forbidden due to the Reciprocity requirements. Since Palestine is not recognized by Lebanon as a country it is impossible to fulfill the Reciprocity requirement, since the job seeker must be licensed in his recognized country and his country must allow a Lebanese to work at the same job.  In addition, a Palestinian job seeker must have been a very expensive and difficult to obtain work permit by the Lebanese government. The Minister of Labor can theoretically exempt a person from the laws for certain jobs if the job-seeker:

– has been residing in Lebanon since birth
– has a Lebanese mother
– has been married to a Lebanese woman for more than one year.
– or, if he or she is from a  recognized country that allows Lebanese nationals to do the same job, i.e. the barrier of Reciprocity again.

The jobs that Hiba and her fellow refugees are barred from include the following updated forbidden careers:

Archeology Guide, Banking and administrative work of all kinds, particularly: Manager-Assistant manager-Staff manager-Treasurer-Accountant-Secretary Manager Clerk-Documentalist-Archivist, Computer worker-Commercial representative-Marketing representative-Forman-Warehouse keeper-Salesman-Jeweler-Tailor-Darning worker with the exception of darning carpets-Electrical installations-Mechanics and maintenance-Painters, Glass panes installer-Doorman-Watchman-Driver-Waiter-Hairdresser- electronic work-Arabic food chef, All technical professions in the construction sector and its derivatives such as tiling, coating, plastering, installation of aluminum, iron, wood or decoration works and the like-Teaching at the elementary, intermediate and secondary levels with the exception of foreign language teacher  when necessary, hairdressing, Ironing and dry-cleaning upholstery, publishing, printing, Engineering work in all specialties, Smithery and upholstery work.  All kinds of work in pharmacies, drug warehouses and medical laboratories. In general all occupations and professions which can be filled by Lebanese nationals- money changer, real estate agent, attorney, physician, dentist, taxi driver or driver training instructor, registered nurse or assistant nurse, or other job in the Medical field, dentistry, health controller, any job in the engineering field, licensed health controller, medical laboratory worker, clinical health industry jobs, prosthetic devices fitter, certified accountants, dental laboratory science technician, jobs relating to nutrition and meals, topography, physiotherapy, veterinary medicine."

The only four jobs listed by the Lebanese Ministry of Labor that are open to Palestinian refugees are:

– midwife
– financial brokerage firm owner
– roving photographer
– land surveyor.

All Palestinian job seekers for the "available" four jobs are required to have been issued the nearly impossible to obtain work permit. "This scheme by Lebanon is among the most egregious  easily preventable massive human rights violations imaginable, given what the largest and oldest refugee population on earth has been through", according to Dr. Souheil  El-Natour, long time analyst of the Palestinian camp populations in Lebanon, and director of a Human Development Center (HDC) in Mar Elias camp. Meanwhile, Hiba has promised her family and the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon that she will stay in school through the current academic year to see what Parliament will do about allowing Palestine refugees some basic civil rights.  She has joined the PCRC from her camp and recently emailed her colleagues in Shatila Camp to get to work on the Petition drive to Parliament with the following message:

"Failure is not an option for us, our only choice is success."

The online version of the hard copy Petition can be signed at:

Part II:  Analysis of the arguments against Palestinian civil rights and handicapping the draft laws arriving at Parliament: Promises are being made, are fools rejoicing?

– Franklin Lamb is a researcher and volunteer with the PCRC in Lebanon. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out