The Lebanese parliament voted on Tuesday to grant the country’s 400,000
Palestinian refugees the right to work in the same professions as other
foreigners, lifting a decades-old ban that had relegated the refugees to the
most menial jobs.
The bill was intended to transform Lebanese policies
toward the refugees, although Palestinian leaders in Lebanon and human rights
workers say it was only a first step that leaves significant stumbling blocks in
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The Palestinians living in Lebanon are isolated from the rest of
the country in refugee camps to a higher degree than anywhere else in the Arab
“I was born in Lebanon and I have never known Palestine,” said
Ahmed al- Mehdawi, 45, a taxi driver who lives in the Ein el- Hilweh refugee
camp, which is notorious for its lawlessness.
“What we want is to live
like Lebanese. We are human beings and we need civil rights.”
el-Hilweh, the largest camp in Lebanon with about 70,000 inhabitants, is located
on the outskirts of Sidon.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Israel
Beiteinu) praised the Lebanese parliament’s decision and expressed hope that
Lebanon and other Arab states would give the Palestinians living in their
countries full rights.
There was no reason for them to be considered
refugees after 62 years, he said.
“This is only a small step that is long
overdue on the way to completely naturalizing them in Lebanon and in other
places around the world that host Palestinians,” Ayalon said. “History shows
that displaced people eventually get adopted where they live.”
wrote an article that was published in The Wall Street Journal’s American,
European and Asian editions on July 29 in which he highlighted the poor
treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon at a time when a Lebanese flotilla was said
to be bound for the Gaza Strip.
“Today, there are more than 400,000
Palestinians in Lebanon who are deprived of their most basic rights,” Ayalon
wrote. “The Lebanese government has a list of tens of professions that a
Palestinian is forbidden from being engaged in, including professions such as
medicine, law and engineering. Palestinians are forbidden from owning property
and need a special permit to leave their towns. Unlike all other foreign
nationals in Lebanon, they are denied access to the health-care
Ayalon said he could not assess whether his article and the
international pressure on Lebanon it caused had a significant impact on the
parliament’s decision, but he said that “even if the impact was marginal, I am
According to UN figures, around 4.7 million Palestinians
claiming to be refugees – who fled or were driven from their homes during the
1948-9 and 1967 wars – and their descendants are scattered across the Middle
East. They live mostly in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and
Palestinian negotiators have demanded at least partial
repatriation, but Israel has refused, saying an influx of refugees would dilute
its Jewish majority and threaten the existence of the state.
neighboring Syria and Jordan, where Palestinians enjoy more rights, the refugees
in Lebanon live mostly on UN handouts and payments from the rival Palestinian
factions. Those who do work are generally either employed by the UN agency UNRWA
or as laborers at menial jobs such as construction.
Parliament on Tuesday
lifted the restrictions that kept Palestinians almost entirely out of the formal
labor market, although they are still subject to the same regulations as other
Lebanon’s National News agency said the lawmakers
amended a segment of the labor law that dates back to 1946.
But the laws
governing foreign workers in Lebanon pose a unique problem for Palestinians, who
Lebanese law restricts some professions only to Lebanese,
while many other professions – such as law, medicine and engineering – require
the employees to be members of the relevant professional association.
most of these associations say foreign membership depends on reciprocity in
their home country – which effectively bars Palestinians, who don’t have
“If you’re a Palestinian born and raised in Lebanon and your dream
is to become a doctor, you’re out of luck,” said Nadim Houry, the Beirut
director at Human Rights Watch.
Houry said Tuesday’s vote was a welcome
step, but more needed to be done.
Ali Hamdan, an aide to the speaker of
Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri, said Tuesday’s vote would legalize much of
the work that many Palestinians already were doing and open up positions in
fields such as insurance and banking.
“For the first time, Lebanon, which
is a small country, is trying to solve a historic crisis for the Palestinian
refugees,” Hamdan said.