Lebanon refugees look to Abbas visit

Palestinian refugees, crammed into squalid camps in Lebanon and living without the most basic civil rights, say they wonder if Friday's visit by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will have any effect on their bleak prospects.

    Around 400,000 Palestinians live in Lebanese refugee camps

    Abbas, on his first visit to Lebanon since being elected in January, thanked the Lebanese government for partially lifting a 22-year ban on Palestinians seeking employment in Lebanon, which Abbas said was done for "purely humanitarian" reasons.

    The recently passed measure was welcomed by Palestinians - hundreds of thousands of whom were exiled to Lebanon after the Israeli state was created in 1948 - as a step towards recognising their civil rights.

    But the move lifted the ban on only 70 or so private sector jobs previously closed to Palestinians, such as concierges and bank clerks.

    The measure was imposed in 1983 by the then Israeli-backed government of president Amin Gemayel.

    Employment ban

    A ban on Palestinians seeking professional employment remains in force, angering some refugees.

    "To refuse our 'integration' on the grounds that the Lebanese constitution proscribes it amounts to tearing us from the social and human fabric in which we grew up and where most of us were born," said Beirut-based refugee Abu Samir.

    Abbas is on his first visit to 
    Lebanon since he was  elected

    "All the more so, given that we have no hope of returning to  Palestine because of Israel's hostility," he added.

    Palestinian sociologist Suhail Natur said that the removal of the ban on refugees doing various blue-collar jobs had provoked a negative reaction from "those who hold out the threat of integration".

    "Some Lebanese politicians said that the measure ... falls into the framework of an American plan to integrate refugees which Palestinians categorically reject," said Natur.

    Refugee camps

    Around 400,000 Palestinian refugees are registered in Lebanon, according to the United Nations.

    The refugees were set up in 12 camps across the country where they suffered abuse at the hands of Lebanese police until the late Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation became an effective state within a state in 1969.

    "To refuse our 'integration' on the grounds that the Lebanese constitution proscribes it amounts to tearing us from the social and human fabric in which we grew up and where most of us were born"

    Abu Samir,
    Palestinian refugee in Lebanon

    Having spent the 1975-1990 civil war under the authority of the PLO, which along with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency provided jobs, money, healthcare and education, the refugees today live in dire conditions without the possibility of being integrated in their host country.

    Emigration rose sharply following the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, ensuing inter-camp fighting with the pro-Syrian Amal movement from 1985 to 1988, and the purge of partisans of Palestinian leader Arafat during 15 years of the recently ended Syrian domination.

    The issue of security in the Palestinian camps is likely to be raised as discussion heats up over UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which was passed last September.


    It calls for the disarming of the Palestinian group

    s, which currently exercise exclusive control.

    If Lebanon's security forces are allowed to enter the camps, "the refugees' suffering must be lessened" in return, said Natur.

    Palestinian refugee camps are
    notorious for their squalor

    For Kamal Medhat, an official from the dominant Fatah faction, Palestinians must first have an embassy in Beirut so that they can enjoy some kind of official protection, civil rights including the right to property, employment, social security, access to the state education system and renovation of the camps.

    "Granting these rights isn't necessarily a prelude to integration. It's about a simple respect for human rights," he said.

    Abbas said the possibility of opening a Palestinian Authority embassy in Beirut was "gently examined" in talks with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.

    The Palestinian Authority has repeatedly declared its readiness to cooperate in turning the page on relations with Lebanon.



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