Sunday, October 18, 2009

Palestine 'Right of Return' Still Key Demand After 61 Years in Lebanon

WW interviews PFLP leaders

‘Right of return ’ still key demand after 61 years in Lebanon

By Joyce Chediac
Published Oct 16, 2009 11:24 PM

When cameras are running, Washington officials sometimes express “concern” for the plight of the Palestinian people. But even this phony caring doesn’t extend to the 4.5 million Palestinians who for 61 years have remained stateless, without official nationality, stranded in Arab countries.

The right to return has never been raised in the so-called Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that Washington brokers. The U.S. government sidesteps the right of Palestinians to return to their original towns and villages because it opposes this right.
Palestinians in Lebanon are allowed to live only in overcrowded refugee camps, with no rights to social services. Here, children of the Bourj al Barejneh camp in Beirut have only sewage-lined streets in which to play.

Workers World recently visited five Palestinian camps in Lebanon as a guest of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist organization with a long history in the Palestinian struggle. The situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon underscores why the right of return is so important, and why all progressives concerned with the Palestinian question must actively support it and never let it be dropped.

Slow war against Palestinians in Lebanon

For the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the civil war did not end in 1990. Right-wing forces in and outside of the Lebanese government are still waging a slow war against them.

In Lebanon today, Palestinians are not allowed to live outside the refugee camps. They cannot own property. They cannot be citizens and can’t vote. They are not entitled to any social services. They cannot work in most jobs.

They are scapegoated by Lebanon’s right wing for many of the social and political ills, and must worry constantly about their safety from attacks by paramilitary militias and from the Lebanese Army.

From 1970 to 1982 the Palestine Liberation Organization and its fighters were based in Lebanon. During the Civil War of 1975-90, poor and disenfranchised Lebanese united with the Palestinian resistance to wage a struggle for the liberation of all. Though the struggle was defeated by Arab reaction and by Israel, backed and armed by the U.S., Lebanon’s reactionary rulers will never forget or forgive the role that the Palestinian struggle played. This is why Lebanon’s rulers are slowly squeezing the Palestinians from every direction. Until they can return to Palestine, however, the Palestinians in Lebanon, have nowhere to go.

“In Lebanon Palestinians have the right of free speech, but not economic or social rights,” Abu Ali Hassan, a national PFLP leader in Lebanon explained. “In other Arab countries Palestinians have a higher standard of living, but cannot speak out. Palestinians in Lebanon are the worst off economically.

“Most Palestinians in Lebanon want the right to return” to Palestine, he continued, “but to do this they need support in the form of social rights, the right to work, the right to buy a flat [apartment], and the right to live outside the camps.”

‘Living situation worse than Gaza’

Abu Jabad is the PFLP leader responsible for political activities in Lebanon. His home is in Nahar al Bared camp, which was destroyed by the Lebanese Army two years ago. He said: “The living situation for Palestinians in Lebanon is worse than in Gaza and the occupied land. Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank have a university. Palestinians in Lebanon don’t. In fact, because Palestinians are considered foreigners, education here is more costly.”

Lebanese government decrees passed in 1964 and 1995 bar Palestinian refugees from working in more than 70 professions.

“Palestinians work as farm workers and as construction laborers. This is seasonal work. There are no benefits,” said Hassan. “Palestinians must work outside Lebanon. Many go to Europe illegally or as refugees, assisted by [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East].”

Fuad, a PFLP leader in the Bourj al Barejneh camp, said, “All families here have people who work in the Gulf and in Europe.” He added, “There is just one UNRWA high school for the Palestinians in all of Beirut. There are 600-700 students there.”

Raafat El Najjar is the medical director of a clinic in Bidawi camp in Tripoli. He said Palestinian doctors “are not allowed to work outside the camps. A Lebanese [doctor] gets $40 per patient. I get $3 per patient. Sanitation workers, people who repair cars outside make more money than the professionals in the camp.”

Cannot own property

Meanwhile, a 2002 amendment to Lebanon’s national property law forbids “non-Lebanese persons, who do not possess citizenship issued by a state recognized by Lebanon, to inherit or buy property.” This prohibits Palestinians from owning land or even an apartment outside the refugee camps. If they already own property, they cannot pass it to their children.

Dependant on U.N. for basic services

Because they cannot work in Lebanon and have no access to social services, Palestinians in Lebanon must rely on the very limited resources of UNRWA as the main provider of basic services—education, health, relief and social services.

This relationship has a dual character, Hassan pointed out: “The United Nations accepts the state of Israel. However, it also passed Resolution Number 194, which supports the Palestinian right to return, and to get financial compensation for what they have gone through.”

There are 422,188 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, making up 10 percent of Lebanon’s population. According to UNRWA, “The Lebanon Field has the highest percentage of Palestine refugees who are living in abject poverty and who are registered with the Agency’s ‘special hardship’ program.”

Fear daily for their safety

Hassan explained that two of the 13 camps in Lebanon were destroyed outright and never replaced. Israel destroyed Nabatiyah camp, near the Israeli border. Lebanese fascists destroyed Tel Al Zaatar in Beirut, and massacred the population. In 1982, the Israelis and Lebanese fascists massacred the inhabitants of the Sabra and Shatila camps. In 2007, the Lebanese Army bombed and destroyed Nahr al Bared. Its residents are still displaced.

Abu Jabad, the PFLP leader responsible for political activities in Lebanon, explained that the Palestinians living in these camps were killed, deported or made to flee to other camps, increasing the already severe overcrowding. “The situation is very dangerous. Palestinian lives are threatened,” he added. “It’s not over, as can be seen by destruction of Nahar al Bared two years ago.”

“There is no certain future, and always fear of war,” Dr. El Najjar said. “Some Palestinians in Badawi camp who lost proper ID cards can’t go outside the camp. Others are afraid to leave the camps.”

‘Where is justice?’

Imad Audeh, the PFLP leader responsible for north Lebanon, added: “People are not living the way they are supposed to live. Where is justice? There is a U.N. resolution to return, but we are still waiting for 61 years to return.

“The Lebanese government says, ‘You are going back? Why should we give you citizenship?’ This is an excuse. While they are living here, at least give the Palestinians some rights, like the Lebanese.” The government “doesn’t want to nationalize Palestinians because it would upset the balance.”

Audeh referred to Lebanon’s archaic, religion-based political system, which awards great authority to ruling cliques in the Maronite Christian and Sunni Muslim communities, based on an obsolete census conducted more than 75 years ago. “Palestinians don’t have religious discrimination,” he said. “Palestinians will be with anyone who supports them.”

What do Palestinians in Lebanon want?

“We want the human rights we need to go on living here, and the implementation of U.N. decision 194,” Abu Jabad said. “We have the right to return to our homeland. The U.S. government must play a role in this and not against Palestinian rights.”

Despite the difficult conditions, the spark of struggle lives. Imad Audeh spoke for all the Palestinians interviewed on this visit when he said, “We are sure that we will take back Palestine.”

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