By Ali Younes – Al Jazeera World
Thousands of Palestinian refugees protested in and around their camps on Friday to demand that the Lebanese government end its requirement that they 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 labourers in the country and denied targeting Palestinians.
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.
“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.
Efforts to end crisis
The Ramallah-PA is holding talks with the Lebanese government to resolve the issue, while Hamas, which administers the besieged Gaza Strip, also sent a high-level delegation to Beirut on Friday to meet Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Palestinian officials who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the media said the Lebanese government is inching towards a solution that will satisfy all parties.
After the meeting with Hariri, senior Hamas official Izzat Risheq said the Palestinian delegation had reached an understanding with the prime minister.
“Hariri told the Palestinian delegation that the Lebanese government will take several steps to assure the Palestinian refugees that they will not be treated like foreign workers,” Risheq told Al Jazeera.
People at the meeting quoted Hariri as saying that the political status of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon should not be touched, adding that the Council of Ministers will enact executive decisions to amend the current Palestinian predicament.
There was no official statement by Hariri after the meeting.
Hassan Mneimneh, a former Lebanese minister of education, urged the two sides to come to an acceptable agreement for both.
“Minister Abu Sleiman was within his rights to demand the implementation of the Lebanese laws but perhaps was unaware of the complicated labour situation of the Palestinian workers,” said Mneimneh, who heads the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, an official Palestinian-Lebanese group leading the efforts to end the crisis.
Key to the Palestinians’ demands, Mneimneh said, is to ensure that government regulations that organise their presence or employment in the country must be decided by the Council of Ministers, not by individual ministers whose decisions might affect them depending on their political affiliation.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are stuck in a grey area within the country’s complicated Lebanese religion-based political system that sees them as outsiders.
As refugees, Palestinians get assistance in education and healthcare through the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
But one of the key Palestinian grievances that has emerged in recent weeks has been the Lebanese government’s lack of clear and proper categorisation of the Palestinian presence in the country.
Lebanese law refers to Palestinian workers broadly as “foreign workers” but recognises their particular situation because they cannot, as “foreign workers”, return to Palestine.
Zaher Abu Hamdeh, a Palestinian refugee and journalist in Lebanon, said that Palestinians are neither fully designated as “foreign workers” nor “refugees”, a situation that leaves the door open to individual Lebanese government ministers to take arbitrary measures against them.
“In either category, we would be entitled to a different set of rights and benefits but [they are] denied … in both categories,” he said.
“Lebanon has an elaborate racist political system designed to discriminate against Palestinians,” Abu Hamdeh argued.
He said, for example, as foreign workers, Palestinians would be entitled to live anywhere in Lebanon, have legal rights, and full social security benefits including healthcare.
Banned from working in many professions organised by association, including in medicine, law, and engineering as well as holding jobs as taxi drivers and barbers, the majority of Palestinian labourers end up taking on low-wage jobs in agriculture and construction work – the jobs most Lebanese workers avoid.
Unemployment among the Palestinian workforce is around an estimated 20 percent.
Palestinians are also banned from owning property or inheriting property from their family members.
Work permit issue
Palestinian workers argue that the government’s demand that they obtain a work permit is not realistic and ignores their real predicament in Lebanon.
They say that for them to obtain that permit, they must first get a work contract which entails enrollment and payment for the government’s social security programme – a scheme they, as Palestinians, are banned from having any immediate benefits from, including in healthcare, sick leave and others.
They also say such requirement opens the door for more exploitation of their rights as workers by greedy employers who would be reluctant to hire Palestinians with a work permit because they would have to pay a 23 percent social security tax on their behalf.
According to Lebanon’s religion-based political system, the three top leadership positions in the country – the president, prime minister and the parliament speaker – are allocated to a Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim and a Shia Muslim, respectively.
Lebanese and Palestinian analysts argue that the sudden rush to target Palestinian and Syrian workers in Lebanon has to do with competition between Lebanon’s right-wing Christian parties, mainly between the Free Patriotic Movement headed by Gibran Bassil, the foreign minister and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, and the Lebanese Forces, headed by Samir Geagea.
Geagea, a former militia chief with historic animosity towards the Palestinians, is jockeying within the Christian community to undermine Bassil, his main rival for Lebanon’s presidency, according to observers.
Analysts also said the recent work crackdown only came up because Abu Sleiman, the current labour minister, is a member of the Lebanese Forces, pointing out that the issue had not come up during the tenure of previous labour ministers who belonged to a different political party.
“The fierce competition between Geagea and Bassil on who is better to represent the Christians is essentially what drives the current crisis,” Abu Hamdeh, the Palestinian journalist, said.