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The fate of Palestinian refugees divides Lebanese

Text by Marc DAOU

Latest update : 2010-07-15

The Lebanese parliament on Thursday began debating a new bill aimed at improving conditions for the thousands of Palestinian refugees in the country. Politicians are proceeding carefully, though, as this is a very sensitive issue in Lebanon.

 

Lebanese MPs opened discussion on Thursday on a new law to improve conditions for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living within Lebanon, many of who are confined to twelve overcrowded camps. 
 
Conditions within these large camps have sparked growing concern both domestically and internationally over the deprivation of many basic human rights. 
 
The new law, first proposed last month by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, seeks to address the issue by granting an emergency set of civil rights that include certain labour and property rights, as well as social security. 
 
While there is widespread consensus in Lebanon that the presence of so many Palestinian refugees poses a real problem, how to solve it is now becoming highly contentious issue. In the few weeks since Jumblatt’s proposed legislation was unveiled, stark divides within Lebanon’s political class have emerged, threatening the chances of the bill’s passage in parliament.
 
Outcry among Christians
 
While Lebanon’s Christian MPs are often divided on many issues, in this instance, they have united to oppose the current version of the bill.  
 
In their view, the Palestinian refugee problem in Lebanon cannot be solved until a lasting solution is found for the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We totally support the rights of Palestinian refugees, but the question is political: if you gradually convert Palestinian refugee into a resident in his country of exile, it can become dangerous," said MP Ibrahim Kanaan.
 
Understanding Lebanon’s fragile demographic balance is central to this issue. Christians have not been a majority in the country since the 1970s.  Now facing the prospect that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, who are largely Muslim, could be gradually converted to Lebanese residents, Christian leaders fear their diminishing influence could be diluted even more.  
 
Amid this kind of opposition, the bill’s supporters are scaling back their expectations, and are concerned about whether the measure will even have enough votes to pass at this stage in the debate. "It is not certain that the texts are ready to be voted on Thursday, as there does not yet appear to be a consensus," explained MP Marwan Hamadeh, a member of the party of Walid Jumblatt, in an interview with FRANCE24.com.
 
Muslim support
 
While Christians have united to oppose the draft legislation, Muslims have come together in support of the bill. Rival Islamic parties including Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s [Sunni] Future Movement and the political wing of Shiite-led Hezbollah have put aside their usual differences to build momentum for Jumblatt’s legislation. 
 
That said, observers note that while both of these parties have been in power at different times neither has been successful in resolving the Palestinian refugee crisis. "The Lebanese political class needs to resolve this issue of Palestinian refugees. We must find a compromise on the sole condition that it preserves the atypical structure of Lebanon (the balance of power among diverse religious groups) and the country's interests," explained Hamade.

Discrimination and restrictions
 
Lebanon is a diverse country of four million people where the social fabric is fragile following the 15 year Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990.
 
There is a widespread consensus that one of the key factors that sparked the conflict was the massive influx of Palestinian refugees who began to flee Israel after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.  For decades, thousands of these refugees have been living in political limbo, unable to return to their homes in what is now Israel, while not permitted to transition from the refugee camps to Lebanon proper. Trapped in these camps, often for years and even decades, NGOs and others have sounded the alarm that this is a serious humanitarian crisis.
 
Life in the refugee camps is grim, confronted with a number of degrading restrictions. Denied the right to own property, the Palestinian refugees are subsequently forced to live in sub-standard housing accommodations. 
 
Classified as “stateless” by the government, the refugees do not qualify for Lebanese health care and they are prohibited from entering certain professions including legal, health and engineering. Until 2005, they were forbidden from working in some fifty other jobs ranging from chauffeur, cook, waiter and hairdresser. Amid this officially sanctioned discrimination and poor living conditions, analysts fear the consequences could be severe.  
 

There is also growing concern that Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps are now becoming increasingly fertile recruiting grounds for the region’s extremist militant groups.

 

Date created : 2010-07-15

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