Battle for Civil Rights

62 years on, the battle
for Palestinian civil rights
in Lebanon is joined

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt
opens the Parliamentary debate

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

Franklin Lamb
Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp
Beirut
June 25, 2010


Shatila Camp, Beirut
Photo: FP Lamb

Months before his mysterious death on 11 November 2004, PLO founder and
Chairman, Yassir Arafat arranged a secret telephone conference call with his
shrinking cache of political allies, who remained in Lebanon following the
1982 catastrophes and the 1985-88 “camp wars”.

Reflecting the new political reality that beset his people following the August
1982 departure of Palestinian forces, a departure that left the unprotected
refugee camps to a predictable fate, Arafat’s colleagues assembled in the
Parliamentary office of Speaker Nabih Berri who himself has had a checkered
history with Arafat and the Palestinians in Lebanon.

Their problems stem from a number of factors including PLO abuses in the
Shia South and Berri’s Haraket Amal (Amal Movement) militia’s role
in the above misnomered “camp wars.” They were not of course “wars” but
rather slaughters and attempted starvations of the Palestinian camps
populations designed to weaken Arafat and prevent his return. The results
are still plain today in terms of the more than 600 buried in yet another
Martyrs Square inside the camp, as well as the missing, the crippled, the
psychologically damaged, the still-destroyed homes as well as the loss of
infrastructure including the largest Palestinian hospital, Gaza. Formerly
the largest of the Palestinian Red Crescent Hospitals in Lebanon, Gaza was
heavily shelled and stripped of all its medical equipment and anything
of value. Today 1000 Palestinian refugees are crammed inside the crumbling
shell of Gaza Hospital, lacking privacy as well as minimal water, electricity
or sanitation.

Those in attendance in Berri’s office were friends and representatives from
Lebanon’s confessions, including Christians, Sunni, Shia and Druze.
According to two participants, interviewed separately, what they recall most
vividly about the conference call was the psychological and emotional
condition of “the old man” as many of his friends still affectionately refer
to Abu Ammar or Yassir Arafat.

One former close aid of the Palestine’s iconic figure described the scene:
“there were several Lebanese and Palestinian leaders in attendance. It was a
painful spectacle. Abu Ammar sounded weak and depressed. Maybe he
knew his death would come soon. What I recall so clearly is the sadness in
his voice. His spark and energy were gone. He asked us and asked us to ask
the camp residents forgiveness for his failure to protect Lebanon’s refugees.
We could not see him but we believed he was sobbing. He begged us
to do something for our people in the camps. To get them some rights so they
could at least work and maybe own a home. Perhaps mercifully, the old man
died before he could see the camps as they have become.” (Home ownership
for Palestinian refugees was outlawed by Parliament in 2001 as part of a
campaign to force Palestinians to leave Lebanon. There was an effort in 2001
by Hezbollah and allies to get a court decision overturning the government
ban on Palestinian property ownership but Lebanon’s High Court dismissed
the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Seven years after Arafat’s deathbed confession and plea, on June 15, 2010 ,
Lebanon’s Parliament, for the first time appeared to begin serious debate
over whether to grant the most universal and elementary civil rights to her
hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who few in Lebanon deny live
in near unimaginable squalor. Over this summer and perhaps the fall,
Civil rights for Palestinian refugees will be hotly debated with the decision
affecting the well being of the refugees and very likely the economy,
international standing and domestic tranquility of Lebanon.

Today a hopeful message is wafting from the narrow, foul and fetid alleys
where the sun never shines in this Palestinian refugee camp known at Shatila,
that the Palestinian refugee civil rights movement recently born, took its
first tentative steps. No less so one could argue, than on December 1, 1955
on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama the American civil rights movement
dramatically intensified and began to achieve substantial, if incomplete,
progress.

The current hero to many in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps is the lanky,
brilliant, mercurial (his friend author Robert Fisk says ‘quixotic’) leader
of the Druze confession. True to his word, MP Jumblatt, moments after the
Parliamentary session opened on June 15, 2010, introduced the first Bill to
enact a law to allow Palestinian refugees in Lebanon certain basic civil
rights. (Another Bill followed yesterday, introduced by the National Syrian
Socialist Party. It is preferred by several human rights organizations and
will be analyzed and discussed shortly.)

“Today, Bey (an honorary Ottoman and Persian title meaning Lord, or these
days, Mister) Wallid Jumblatt is our hero. May Allah hear his supplications
and protect him and his family”, an old lady in Shatila Palestinian Refugee
camp exclaimed to a Palestine Civil Rights Campaign representative
following the submission of the Progressive Socialist Party Bill by Jumblatt.

Walid, son of the venerable Kamal Jumblatt, (1917 –1977) (never, some in the
camps tell visitors, was there a truer friend of Palestine than this leader
of the National Lebanese Movement, until his assassination on March 17,
1977) had, just two weeks earlier on June 2, 2010, told an American delegation
from the Washington DC based US Council for the National Interest
(cnionline.org) that he would be damned if the Palestinian refugees were not
given by basic civil rights including the right to work. Jumblatt’s words
were pure Boston Symphony Jean Sibelius to the American assembly, some of
whom patted Walid’s two friendly mixed breed reddish dogs who obviously
adore their master, as they departed Jumblatt’s Clemenceau residence.

The future is not predictable and many times during the past three
generations Palestinian Refugee hopes were dashed in Lebanon as the
grinding poverty continued to metastasize. But a page may have been
turned.

The reaction in Parliament

Parliamentary Speaker and Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri immediately sent
Jumblatt’s Bill to the Legal Committee and abruptly adjourned the legislative
session. Jumblatt was not happy and protested as he left the Chamber of
Deputies, muttering the words, “Stupid right wing parties,” according to
Agence France Presse.

Some observers, wondered if this was one more betrayal.

Not so, one Parliamentary insider advised. What Speaker Berri did was
brilliant and to act fast and shrewdly to protect Jumblatt’s Bill from a severe
trashing by the right wing Christian Lebanese Forces and Kataib (Phalange)
Parties who in unison quickly howled in opposition. This, despite claiming
they did not know Jumblatt was going to introduce such a bill and their
earlier pledges to this observer and others not to re-fight the civil war when
Palestinian civil rights legislation was introduced but rather apply the
guidance offered in their the New Testament.

To many, an even more convincing explanation of why Berri cut off debate,
was the fact that several members of Parliament were chaffing to rush home
to their TV sets to watch the Brazil team perform in the World Cup, such is
the frenzy here for “that other kind of football”.

On the other side of the Grand Serail [Lebanon’s government palace],
President of Lebanon Michel Suleiman also adjourned an urgent Cabinet
meeting called to consider the State Budget, since his dwindling quorum was
shaky because some Ministers could not attend and others wanted to leave”
due to urgent matters” Some pled with the Presidents staff to be allowed
to leave to watch the Match. Quickly, both Chambers were vacant and silent
with a speed that normally happens only when a car bomb explodes nearby.

As soon as Jumblatt tabled his Bill, the anti-Palestinian rhetoric began and
it continued outside the closed Parliament.

The anti-Palestinian National Liberal Party leader MP Dori Chamoun: “Why
would Lebanon give Palestinians their rights while they don’t recognize
[the] Lebanese State. … When the Palestinians come under the Lebanese law
and they no longer have their own police force, we will see how we can
improve the living conditions and grant them additional rights. But as long
as the situation persists as it is, there’s no need to hurry in this regard,”
(6/16/10). Chamoun, stressed that “Lebanon’s treatment of the Palestinians
doesn’t differ from their treatment in Syria and the rest of the Arab countries,
and thus we shouldn’t succumb to emotional behavior or politically abuse
the issue at the expense of the Palestinian cause.”

One this point Chamoun could not be more in error. Lebanon gives
essentially no rights to her Palestinian refugees. Both Syria and Jordan give
them close to full civil rights including the right to work for the government,
health care, education, social security, and the right to own property. Anyone
visiting a Refugee camp anywhere and then sees one in Lebanon is shocked
by the almost total absence of civil rights.

When asked about the division in Parliament on Jumblatt’s bill to improve
the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees, Chamoun said: “Some
sympathize with the Palestinians more than they sympathize with Lebanon.”

Phalange party leader, and former President of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel
slammed what he called a ‘veiled attempt’ to naturalize Palestinians in
Lebanon. “When we give (them) all these privileges, (it means) we are
helping in their tawtin (naturalization). This is rejected.”

Gemayel knows better but is seeking to slow his family’s political decline
within the Christian community. He knows that under international and
Lebanese law, civil rights are just that, rights, not privileges. In using
the naturalization fear tactic he is aware that it has long been discredited and
that virtually every Palestinian refugee rejects naturalization and Lebanese
citizenship in favor of the full exercise of their Right of Return.

On June 24, 2010 Gemayel issued a policy statement from Phalange
headquarters proposing that “United Nations Relief and Works Agency for
Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) should find a solution to the
camps and help them overcome their difficult situation”. UNRWA as
Gemayel is aware, is essentially broke due to unfulfilled funding pledges
from several countries and that consequences UNRWA has had to reduce
services including in health and education services. UNRWA is in no position
to “find a solution to the camps.” Lebanon on the other hand is, by allowing
the refugees to work.

Hezbollah ally, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, following
the Jumblatt Bill, stressed the need for major powers to address the needs
and rights of Palestinian refugees. “We demand the major world powers
address the situation of the Palestinians and allow them to travel the world
freely seeing as they are not responsible for their displacement.” Aoun
scowled that “the Palestinians have weakened Lebanon once in the 1970s and
that was a tragedy on the Lebanese and Palestinian people.” Sometimes
incoherent when he gets upset or speaks about Palestinian refugees, Aoun
stressed: “Those who are demanding the improvement of the situation of the
Palestinians in Lebanon should sever their ties with the United States
because it teaches us about human rights while it builds smart bombs to kill
the innocent.”

Civil Rights campaigners in Lebanon are not too disturbed by Aoun’s
comments for two reasons. One, they have already discounted his earlier
statements that giving Palestinians civil rights will cause Lebanon to
“implode” plus they are confident that when the critical vote is scheduled,
weeks or months from now, Hezbollah will reason with the General.

The Palestinians leaders in Lebanon are trying to lay low and out of the
limelight and keep a modest profile so as not to further inflame the initial
rhetoric.

Hezbollah, well known for its position urging the rights of Palestinians
is also avoiding publicity just now on this subject but has made clear that it
will vote – and work for getting the votes of others – when the key vote is
schedule in order that at least 65 out of the 128 Members vote with the
Palestinian refugees.

On June 24, outgoing US Ambassador Michele Sison, on a cultural visit
with friends to view historic sites in the historic city of Sidon, was asked, as
she held a Lebanese falafel sandwich as if it was a dead rat, did not reply
to a question about Palestinian civil rights in Lebanon but did say when
asked about the U.S. administration’s stance regarding the Lebanese
aid flotilla soon to depart for Gaza, and whether the US Embassy would
accept the invitation of the organizers to inspect the ships to assure only non
military items were on board, said: “We hope everyone would be safe in
this region and we look forward for peace in the Middle East.”

Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon Abdullah Abdullah did say that granting
Palestinians residing in Lebanon basic rights would benefit Lebanon as well
as Palestine, the National News Agency (NNA) reported. Abdullah added
that there is a Palestinian-Lebanese agreement to refuse Palestinian
naturalization and to push for the right of return. He also said that granting
Palestinians civil rights does not mean they will be integrated into Lebanon’s
politics. “We are here only temporarily, the primary need of Palestinians
is the right to work permits.”

Jumblatt’s opening move on behalf of the Palestinians was not the beginning
of the end of this struggle but rather the beginning of the beginning. Months
or longer may be required to secure the prize. Parliamentary insiders are
predicting a series of clashers with claims being heard from some Deputies
that without the most elementary Palestinian civil rights being granted, there
may be civil war. Others aver, obversely, that if Palestinian civil rights are
granted there may be civil war.

Franklin Lamb is Director, Americans Concerned for Middle East Peace,
Beirut-Washington DC, Board Member of The Sabra Shatila Foundation,
and a volunteer with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign, Lebanon. He is
the author of The Price We Pay: A Quarter-Century of Israel’s Use of American
Weapons Against Civilians in Lebanon
and is doing research in Lebanon for
his next book. He can be reached at [email protected]

For information and updates on the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign in
Lebanon, and to sign the petition, go to:
http://www.palestinecivilrightscampaign.org