Last week's decision by the Lebanese parliament to improve the employment situation of Palestinians has gained wide media attention and praise around the world. In fact, however, the reform hardly changes the refugees' dire conditions in Lebanon.
In short, there is no such thing as "Lebanon granting civil rights to Palestinians", as many media outlets' headlines recently wrongly proclaimed. The approximately 250.000 Palestinians living in Lebanon are still not allowed to work in any profession they like, they still aren't permitted to either own or inherit property and they still can't enjoy freedom of movement, as most of their refugee camps are surrounded by Lebanese army positions and checkpoints.
In June, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt had proposed a bill granting Palestinians various civil rights such as full employment or ownership rights. Immediately the draft law sparked an intensive discussion within Lebanon's political spectrum. It effectively split the parliament along secterian lines: While Sunni and Shiite parties voiced support, Christian parties vowed resistance. The parliamentary debate was postponed in order to allow for a consensus across the political frontlines.
Over the past few years, Palestinian organizations, activists and international bodies such as the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) have increasingly pushed for a civil rights reform. Events such as the war in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 2007 and the perceived security threats arising from the camps have also convinced many Lebanese that the living conditions of Palestinians required drastical improvement.
Rex Brynen, professor of political science at the Canadian McGill University and coordinator of the Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet wonders: "Is it really in Lebanon's interest to have a quarter million alienated, impoverished and marginalized refugees in its borders – thereby creating the conditions for another Nahr al-Bared?" He argues that extending civil and economic rights to the refugees would reduce the risks of radicalization and make it easier to sustain a dialogue on other unresolved issues.
Under Lebanese law, Palestinians are considered stateless foreigners, even though most of them were born and have spent all their life in the country. Most skilled professions have been forbidden for Palestinians, they're left with choosing between working illegally and therefore being vulnerable to exploitation, doing low-paid menial jobs or emigration.
During the negotiations over the civil rights reform, Jumblatt's original proposals were watered down massively – largely due to the Christian parties' fierce opposition. For Brynen, the outcome is a disappointment. Sari Hanafi, Associate Professor at the American University of Beirut and Palestinian activist reacts similarly and states: "Palestinians can't be happy about it at all."
Hanafi explains that still Palestinians can't work in many liberal professions regulated by syndicates. Even though they may no longer be excluded by the law, they remain discriminated by the syndicates' rules. Many skilled professions in fields such as law, medicine or construction remain off-limits to Palestinians.
Lebanon's so-called 'civil rights reform' isn't worth its name. "The new law will be useful if it is the first step to further reform," says Rex Brynen and adds: "I fear, however, that it will forestall additional reform."
The original version of this report was published here in the Swedish weekly newspaper Arbetaren.