Lebanon’s Merry
Month of May

In Lebanon this month,
like spring flowers,
proposals to give Palestinians
the right to work
are busting out all over

Part III of a six part series
on securing Palestinian
Civil Rights in Lebanon

Franklin Lamb
Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp

This year, the Merry Month of May in Lebanon includes Labor day, the
May 15 anniversary of the Nakba, the month long Lebanese municipal elections
and the May 5 elevation of Lebanon to the Presidency of the United Nations
Security Council. Yet, for most Palestinians wiling away their lives in
Lebanon’s 12 fetid refugee camps and 27 gatherings, May will pass anything
but Merry. The festive Labor day and month long elections, held in the 26
municipalities in Lebanon, with the participation of more than 650
glad-handing vote-seeking candidates extolling the Lebanese virtue of
working to provide for one’s family, constitute a cruel joke for Palestinian
refugees denied the right to work.

The May 15th anniversary of the Nakba reminds the World that Lebanon’s
“camp Palestinians”, approximately 15% of the 750,000+ who were ethnically
cleansed by Zionist gangs six decades ago, suffer an existence that is
demonstrably the most inhumane of any of the 58 camps in the Middle East,
including Gaza. Warehoused in open air prisons, their children are among the
most discriminated against of this largest and oldest refugee population on
earth. With drug use, drop-out rates, violence, health issues rising fast–
test scores, school attendance, academic achievements, hope and self-esteem
are plummeting.

Lebonon’s May Day pledge to the UN: “ We are honored and will fulfill our
responsibility towards the Palestinian cause”

Despite proudly producing one of the authors of the 1949 Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, its current membership on the governing board
of the International Labor Organization, and now holding the Presidency of
the UN Security Council, the first time in half a century, doubts remain
whether Lebanon is up to its international duty. Entrusted by the international
community with the exigent work of implementing internationally mandated
civil rights, doubts remain whether Lebanon will fulfill its pledge relating
to civil rights for refugees including the right to work and the protection of
refugee children. Increasingly the international community, as well as its
own population, is urging Lebanon, now being referred to as “Mr. President”
before the Security Council and the entire United Nations, as it prepares
to preside over the UNSC agenda on the subject of “Arab responsibilities
towards the Palestinian cause
” to begin its critical work where the need is
arguably the most exigent. That would be inside the borders of Lebanon itself.

Last week, introducing an AUB workshop on the subject of securing the right
to work for Palestinian refugees, Rami Khouri, Director of the Issam Farris
Institute and prolific writer on Middle East affairs, told the participants
“The atmosphere in Lebanon, at least on the level of rhetoric, is changing
in favor of civil rights for Palestinian refugees.” And so it is. The
question remains whether popular will can generate enough political will for
the Cabinet and Parliament to enact an elementary civil right to work into
Lebanese law.

‘Illegal’ Palestinian labor as valued subsidy for Lebanese businesses

Lebanese bureaucracy, as in many countries, can make the most pro forma
paper work task inordinately complicated. Consequently, for Palestinians in
Lebanon, obtaining a work permit will remain a major hurdle for a variety of
reasons including ‘security considerations’, lack of awareness by the
applicant of how to proceed, the economic exploitive advantage to Lebanese
businessmen and women who prefer cheap illegal Palestinian labor which
literally subsidizes the Lebanese economy by millions of dollars annually,
and inflate their personal profits—as well as occasionally bigoted
government workers in some ministries. Support for this assertion in found
in the recent 2009 Najdeh (Help) Association (www.associaton-najdeh.org)
survey that found that only 1.2% of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps
residents have been granted work permits. The past month a total of 2 work
permits have been granted Palestinians, but since the work permit must
be renewed annually these two could simply be renewals.

Through sustained and varied efforts, and to their eternal credit, Lebanese
civil society organizations, international and local NGO’s and even some
Lebanese politicians are pushing for enactment of legislation to grant basic
civil rights to Palestinian refugees. The initial batch of drafts bills vary
significantly. As they are discussed in conferences, meetings and workshops,
there is a perceptible trend in the direction of merging the key elements
into a sort of ‘unity bill’ that will include the minimal acceptable elements—
granting Palestinian refugees the right to work, an identification document,
access to public education and lifting the legal prohibition barring home

Among the draft bills headed to Parliament…

The still largely secret legislative drafts includes the “first one out of
the gate” authored by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist
Party last February. It reflects the views of Lebanese Information Minister
Tarek Mitri that Lebanon’s estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees suffer
from “double discrimination,” as he told one recent gathering, “Because
Lebanon’s labor laws are based on the principle of reciprocity, Palestinians
are viewed as foreigners and yet not afforded the rights granted to other
foreigners who belong to recognized states”.

The PSP bill is impressive and amends Labor and Social Security laws to
allow the right to work, home ownership (one apartment) by changing the
3/4/2001 law forbidding Palestinians home ownership, and allowing the
inheritance of property by Palestinian refugees as well as health, accident,
and retirement benefits. Jumblatt’s draft law is being used as a template by
others fine tuning their own legislative preferences.


Some civil rights advocates are suggesting a “quiet and soft approach” so
as not to rile slumbering sectarian demagogues from the anti-Palestinian
civil war (1975-90) with whispering about a publicity-shy “subtle
adjustment of Labor and Interior Ministry regulations as best can be
achieved over time.” This approach, it is argued, is designed to make it
easier for Palestinian refugees to navigate the Kafkaesque and catch 22 web
of work permit forms, the condition precedent of having an employer
contract, and other draconian procedures. Others are quite adamant that mere
“ministerial adjustments” or legerdemain without the full force and effect
of law to back them up would be flimsy at best and could destruct overnight
given the musical chairs of the undulating and shifting 30 member cabinet.
Few in Lebanon, this observer included, can even name more than 10 of the 30
ministers by name, and a new Labor minister could simply by the stroke of a
pen, publish a new labor regulation eviscerating the previous one along with
the civil right it provided, or more likely, just fail to implement it.

Evidence of past as prologue on this subject is found in the much ballyhooed
June 2, 2005 Ministerial Decree by the Minister of Labor. His enlightened
declaration was touted as removing dozens of jobs from the “no Palestinian
refugee need apply” list and exempting Palestinians registered with the
Ministry of the Interior from certain conditions applying to foreigners. Even
though this “Decision” was confirmed on June 26, 2008 it has never been
implemented. Today this promising Ministerial Decree lays moribund.
Minister of Labor Boutros Harb, of whom it is said in Lebanon that he is a
master of the Lebanese legislative culture, is viewed with suspicion by some,
for hinting just last week that the solution may be to just tamper a bit with
the requirements for a work permit, and obfuscate other issues such as the
reciprocity requirement. Harb is praised by others for his publicly
expressed conviction that “something must finally be done to correct this
travesty.” The Minister is privately counseling civil rights advocates,
including the Palestinians themselves, to bring him something concrete that
all “the stake-holders” can agree upon. Boutros appears to want something
specific he can present to his Cabinet colleagues and assure them that its
broadly acceptable. “This is not easy. He’s only one of 30 in the Cabinet
and then there is the 130 member Parliament to convince” one of his staff
explained recently.

“2 no’s, 2 yes’s and one thank you”

It appears that the representatives of the Palestinian refugee camps,
including Fatah and Hamas who have cooperated on this project, may have
achieved some of what the Minister of Labor has in mind, following months
of discussions among various PLO groups, NGO’s and importantly,
representatives of the new “unity” government.

It is possible that a five point plan, prepared by a hard-working steering
committee with quite broad representation, could be seriously considered. It
is known to Palestine Civil Rights Campaign in Lebanon as the “two no’s,
two yes’s and one thank you” draft. While still not made public, it can be
reliably reported that this draft law says ‘no’ to the work permit, ‘no’ to
reciprocity, ‘yes’ to social security benefits, ‘yes’ to the right to work
in all professions, and ‘thank you’ but we don’t want naturalization but
only to exercise our right of return at the first opportunity.

Theoretically, this ‘unity’ proposal could end up in the Cabinet for approval
and then sent to Parliament. But it is just as likely, according to experienced
Palestinian insiders and observers who have been around this track a
few times, that the “Lebanese model of words over deeds” will prevail at
the Grand Serail unless more Lebanese and international support and
political will is manifested.


The most comprehensive legislative proposal is the maximalist draft bill,
not yet public, offered by the National Syrian Socialist Party, nemesis of
the right wing Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea, whose partisans
skirmished again on May 2, 2010. The NSSP and the LF have a long history of
mutual antagonism going back to 1949 when the Phalange party, reputedly
founded following an epiphany experienced d by its founder Pierre Gemayal,
while a guest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, sent “brown shirts” to trash NSSP
offices. The two parties remained bitter rivals during the 1975-90 civil war
when the NSSP was a pillar of Palestinian resistance and today, benefiting
from strong Palestinian leadership, is gaining strength and has allied with
Hezbollah and Amal. Pending a vote of the NSSP Executive Committee
concerning the best timing for release of its legislative proposal, an executive
summary of the much anticipated NSSP draft might read something

“Civil rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon constitute a right
not a privilege or charity. These rights cannot be bargained away any
more than the Right of Return. As such complete civil rights for
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon must be fully implemented and backed
by the State. All civil rights afforded any Lebanese citizen must be
equally available to every Palestinian refugee. Included are all social,
political and economic rights including the right to vote.”

The NSSP draft is very attractive to many Palestinians and civil right
activists. “ I support this approach. It’s clean. It’s honest. It does not grovel.
It tells it like it is.” As one Palestinian student at the Lebanese University

Minimalism: ‘My party has killed more Palestinians than my opponents
and we have earned your vote’

Many who have labored for years to wrest some Palestinian civil rights from
the government of Lebanon fear that the NSSP approach, while arguably
ideal, will terrify Lebanese politicians, including some progressive Christian
supporters in the Metn. One Christian proponent of granting civil rights
explained: “Remember, in the last election, some rival Christian candidates
would argue in private gatherings of voters that “our party killed more
Palestinians that our opponents did and we have earned your vote.” Another
advised that the language in the by-laws of the right-wing Christian
Guardians of the Cedars to the effect that “ it is the duty of every Lebanese
to kill at least one Palestinian” has never been expunged.

Lebanon is a country where cynicism runs deep towards politicians–
especially their words. But there are exceptions, including Samir Geagea,
leader of the Lebanese Forces. While maliciously rumored to be having
an affair with US Ambassador Michele Sison given their frequent meetings,
Samir enjoys the status as the only politician in Lebanon who former
ambassador, now US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
Jeffrey Feltman still trusts–understandable in light of the mushrooming
defections of “Welch club” March 14 politicians to the Resistance bloc. When
he speaks about Palestinians, Geaga has a public credibility rating close
to Hezbollah’s. People believe him.

“You may not like what Geagea, says, but when he speaks about Palestinians
you can believe him. That is very rare in Lebanon.”, according to Lebanese
Human Rights Ambassador Ali Khalil. The Lebanese Forces has the clearest
political party position on the subject of granting the right to work to
Palestinian refugees and it has never wavered over the years. During this
observers first ever visit to Lebanon in July of 1981, following the Israeli
massacre that killed more than 170 and wounded more than 800 in the
Palestinian neighborhood adjacent to Shatila camp called Fakhani, this
observer had lunch with the Lebanese Forces leader Bachir Gemayal, (known
as “BG” in those days to untutored Congressional staffers in Washington
unsure how to pronounce his name ). A gracious host and the son of Pierre
Gemayel, who along with Camille Chamoun founded the Lebanese Forces in
1976 with the primary objective of killing Palestinians, Bachir invited a
couple of his friendly and charming aids, Elie Hobeika (leader of the LF from
1985-86) and Fadi Frem ( leader of the LF, 1982-84)–both of whom would
participate in the massacre the following fall at Sabra Shatila. The slaughter,
which had been planned weeks in advance in Israel according to LF
participants, was ordered executed the day after Bachir’s September 14, 1982

What Bachir said privately about Palestinians over lunch 29 years ago is
virtually identical to what representatives of the Lebanese Forces, which
fought Palestinians during the 1975-90 Civil War, are saying today. In public,
their language is more restrained and less profane, but equally bigoted.
As LF representative Fadi Zarifeh informed a working group on civil
rights for Palestinian refugees on February 10, 2010, the Lebanese Forces
remain “quite hostile to the whole idea. The Lebanese state should first
take care of its own citizens and not others.” Zarifeh added that his party
was “the one farthest away from approving greater rights for Palestinian

The internationally orientated Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon has
proposed draft legislation entitled: “The 2010 Employment Act for Palestinian
Refugees.” This Bill, drafted with PCRC colleagues at Harvard Law School
and the London School of Economics, and benefiting from NGO work in
Beirut, provides, inter alia:

Article 2: Palestinian refugees shall be subject to all provisions of State
law relating to the right to work of foreigners in Lebanon, including the
obligation to obtain a work permit by paying the same fee that all
foreigners pay. Due consideration to be given to the privileges granted
by state law to Arab subjects.

Article 3: Palestinian refugees shall be exempt from the application of
“reciprocity of treatment” wherever it appears in the State law or in
bilateral agreements. Notwithstanding any text in State law, Palestinian
refugees are henceforth exempt from the requirement of providing
proof of reciprocity.

Article 4: Notwithstanding any text to the contrary, Palestinian refugees
shall be exempt from the condition of obtainment of a license for the
exercise of any profession in their country, wherever this requirement
appears in State law. Professional licenses shall be obtained only from
the appropriate State administration

No doubt there will be others.

On May Day (Labor Day) Lebanon’s new permanent representative to the
Security Council and the current President of the Council, Ambassador
Nawaf Salam, announced to the World: “Part of Lebanon’s message has
arrived by its entry into the Security Council. Lebanon’s voice for Palestine
will be heard throughout the world.”

And her deeds will be monitored regarding elementary civil rights including
the right to work for her Palestinian refugees.

Part IV: Why Hezbollah may be a major political loser if Parliament fails to
enact civil rights for Palestinian refugees

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and volunteers with the
Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon. He can be reached at
[email protected]