Is the Umma Shatter-Proof? (Part 2)

A second news item comes from Lebanon, where “Palestinian” refugees — that is, the descendants of those Arabs who left what had been Mandatory Palestine just before, during, and after the 1948-49 war — have been engaged in protesting a new law regarding employment of non-Lebanese. Thousands of Palestinians protested in and around their camps on July 19 to demand that the Lebanese government end its requirement that all undocumented non-Lebanese must obtain a work permit to gain employment.

The intensifying protests were triggered by the closing down of two Palestinian-owned businesses last week, with the demonstrators calling on the government to reconsider its crackdown on undocumented non-Lebanese workers that they say is affecting their livelihood.

Critics have claimed that the Ministry of Labour’s recent measures are part of a campaign directed at the larger Syrian refugee population to force them to return home.

Speaking to a local TV station on Thursday, Camille Abu Sleiman, Lebanon’s labour minister, said the ministry was simply enforcing the laws that regulate foreign laborers in the country and denied targeting Palestinians.

True, the new measures did not target the Palestinians. But nor did it exempt them.

But the Palestinian refugees, who are already barred by Lebanese from working in dozens of professions as part of a long-standing policy to discourage them from staying in the country, fear the move will hit their employment opportunities further.

In Lebanon, where Palestinians have lived for decades, they have generally been denied citizenship, unless they marry Lebanese. The majority of them still are confined to camps, living in wretched conditions. They are denied the right to practice many professions. Such treatment has as its main purpose preventing the Palestinians from integrating successfully into the larger society, where they could no longer be held up as people whose situation can only be ameliorated if they are allowed to return to “Palestine.” They are political pawns of the Arab states where they live, which do not wish to improve their lot  but to keep them in conditions designed to win international sympathy for their “right of return.”

“The Palestinian worker is not a foreign visitor but rather a refugee forcibly living in Lebanon,” Fathi Abu Ardat, an official at the Palestinian Authority (PA) embassy, told reporters earlier in the week.

The Palestinians are not forced to live in Lebanon. There are other Arab countries to which some of them could move. There is work for them in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. Many Palestinians already work in the Gulf Arab states, where the natives rely on large numbers of foreign workers. 240,000 Palestinians now work in Saudi Arabia. 200,000 live and work in Kuwait, which is down from 400,000 before the Gulf War, when the Palestinians sided with the Iraqi invaders, and as a consequence many were expelled:. But everywhere in the Arab lands obtaining citizenship is made exceedingly difficult for them to obtain.

The Palestinians now protesting against the new law in Lebanon, whereby the undocumented must obtain work permits, are not just angry about this law. They are angry that they cannot, except in special cases, become citizens, that they are still prohibited from practicing certain professions (though in 2005 70 previously prohibited occupations were opened to them). They are angry that so many of them continue to be made to live in a dozen camps, in wretched conditions, many with open sewers, where they endure miserable conditions so that the Arabs can score political points against the Israelis, who are always to be blamed.

And the Palestinians are no doubt angry, too, at the 1.5 million Syrians who are now in Lebanon, with whom they must share whatever private charitable funds exist for refugees in Lebanon, while previously that money was spent only on Palestinians. They are angry that the Syrians will work for wages even lower than what the Palestinians receive. As for the Lebanese, they  clearly don’t care for the well-being of the Palestinians; they could so easily make their lives easier, just by allowing them to practice more of the professions still prohibited to them, or allowing them to work in the pubic sector, or even giving them the right to own property. And the Lebanese have lost whatever fleeting sympathy they may have had for the Syrians, but now are eager to see them return home, since the civil war has wound down. The Syrians in Lebanon express no fellow-feeling for the Palestinians, whom they see only as rivals for relief. Palestinian protesters in Lebanon were not so much protesting against the new law that requires the undocumented to acquire work permits as they were protesting the application of that law to them.  They don’t care if it applies to the Syrians.

You can preach about Al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ all you want, but in Lebanon, pocketbook issues rule, and among the Lebanese, the Palestinians, and the Syrians, there is no love lost.

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