In recent weeks, the media has focused on the plight of blockaded Gazans. Amidst the international outcry resulting from the Gaza flotilla raid, a potential change in the fate of another group of Palestinians has gone largely unnoticed. Tuesday, after 62 years of waiting, legislation proposing basic rights for the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon made the committee stage in Parliament.
The proposed legislation, which was passed onto the Administration and Justice parliamentary committee, would grant Palestinian refugees the right to work and to own property in Lebanon. Currently, Palestinian refugees are barred from more than 50 professions, including medicine, law and teaching, and are prohibited from property ownership due to a law limiting land possession to “people with identification documents issued by a recognized country”. Such labor and property laws severely limit the economic and social opportunities of the Palestinian refugees who, for the majority, still reside in UNRWA camps after fleeing their homes in the 1948 and subsequent conflicts.
Lebanon is unique among the Arab states in its severe limitations on Palestinian refugees. The other main host countries, Syria and Jordan, both grant Palestinians near-citizen or citizen status affording them with a host of political, social and economic rights and opportunities. In Lebanon, however, due to its confessional system of government, the naturalization or even participation of Sunni Muslim Palestinian refugees, comprising approximately 10% of the population, would drastically alter the delicate balance between various religious and ethnic groups in the country. Thus, a group of Christian parties, including the Phalange party and Lebanese foces, are opposing the proposed legislation. Emphasizing the human rights of Palestinian refugees, MPs from the Democratic Gathering, Hizbullah, Amal and the Future Movement, led by PM Saad Hariri, support the legislation.
The Administration and Justice parliamentary committee will study the proposed legislation over the course of one month before it is referred to the Lebanese General Assembly. Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees and Lebanese activists are organizing an all-day demonstration, expected to have 5,000 participants, on June 27th to demand civil rights for the Palestinians. Marching on Parliament, the demonstrators will give lawmakers a petition asking for the amendment of discriminatory labor and property laws. While the new legislation and activists’ demonstration signal a growing recognition that denying the Palestinian refugees basic rights in unacceptable, fears still exist over a slippery slope to naturalization or compromising the refugees’ right of return.