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62 years on, the battle for Palestinian civil rights in Lebanon is joined - Druze leader Walid Jumblatt opens the Parliamentary debate
Sunday, 27 June 2010 05:51
by Franklin Lamb Ph.D., Shatila Camp, Beirut

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, which departure 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 Movement ( 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, crippled, psychologically damaged and 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.” (Ed: 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.)

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“Today, Bey ( Ed: an honorary title meaning Lord or these days Mister -an Ottoman and Persian title) 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 dashes in Lebanon as the grinding poverty continued to metastasized. 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 the 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, Kataib, and 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, 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 Lebanese State. "When the Palestinians become under the Lebanese law and they no longer have their own police forcc, 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 Lebanon give them close to full civil rights including the right to work for the government, health care, education, social security, and own property. J Anyone visiting a Refugee camp anywhere and then sees one in Lebanon is shocked by the gap.

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 naturalization,( Tawtin) "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 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 inflame the initial rhetoric further.

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 in the historic city of Sidon, with friends to view historic sites, was asked, as she held a Lebanese falafel sandwich as looked at it as if it was a dead rat, photos show, 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 of 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, the may be civil war. Obversely others aver that if Palestinian civil rights are granted there may be civil war.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon and is a volunteer with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon.

He can be reached at fplamb@gmail.com

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