He says he does not aspire to much, just the right to own an apartment or a small store, something he can one day pass on to his children.
But his seemingly modest goal may never be realised, not necessarily because of financial constraints, but because the Lebanese government deems it illegal.
Abu Umar is a Palestinian refugee and amendments to a Lebanese property law in 2002 forbid the acquisition of real estate by non-Lebanese persons “who do not possess citizenship issued by a state recognised by Lebanon.”
Palestinian refugees are not specifically mentioned, but the aim is widely acknowledged to be to prevent the permanent settlement of about 390,000 Palestinians in Lebanon.
Half of these refugees live in squalid conditions in 12 camps throughout the country with no medical, social or educational services from the Lebanese government.
“Because nobody has recognised our country as Palestine why should I pay the price as a Palestinian refugee?” Abu Umar said in an interview at his home in the Shatila refugee camp.
“So if they recognise our government, will I then have the right to own the roof over my head?”
“If they recognise our government, will I then have the right to own the roof over my head?”
Long denied many civil rights including the right to work in dozens of professions, Palestinians received another blow when Beirut’s Parliament withdrew draft legislation that would have overturned the ban on refugees owning property in Lebanon.
The measure was withdrawn before it got a chance to be debated in the House.
The draft legislation had been presented by 10 MPs in early October and coincided with a campaign spearheaded by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), aimed at amending what it deemed the “discriminatory and racist” measures of the property law.
President Emile Lahoud and Speaker Nabih Berri did not support the bill on the grounds that it would “trigger strife” among the Lebanese.
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said the time was not right to grant Palestinian refugees such rights but that the “unjust” ban would one day be lifted.
The right time
“We wonder when the time is going to be right,” DFLP member Suhail Natur said in a telephone interview.
Refugees enjoy even fewer rights
“It was the wrong time to adopt this law from the very beginning against the human rights of Palestinians and all the time since has been valid to correct this mistake.”
The law meant those Palestinians who owned property before 2002 were not able to pass on their homes to their children.
The law also left all those who had bought property, but not registered it, in limbo. Many either registered their property under Lebanese names through bribes or, like Abu Umar, sold to Lebanese at low prices.
“I’d bought an apartment for $120,000,” he said. “But I hadn’t registered it yet. I thought I had plenty of time to do that. The property was jointly owned by two partners, one of whom had financial problems and the bank was seizing his assets.”
Abu Umar said that rather than risk the bank seizing the apartment he took what he could get for it.
“I was forced to sell the apartment to the other partner for $35,000. I didn’t even have the option of selling it to somebody else,” he said, “because by law it wasn’t mine to sell.”
“This law has created many problems,” said Natur.
“On the one hand there are those who began to pay instalments on houses and now they don’t have the right to register their property. There are others who registered their properties under the old law but have since died, and their heirs cannot re-register the properties.”
Abu Umar and Natur are among a number of Palestinian activists and their Lebanese supporters who are continuing the struggle to amend the law.
“It was the wrong time to adopt this law from the very beginning against the human rights of Palestinians and all the time since has been valid to correct this mistake”
A petition circulated within Lebanon’s Palestinian community has collected thousands of signatures and activists are hopeful that the 10 MPs will table their proposal again soon.
“There is an expectation that in addition to fruitful Palestinian lobbying there needs to be some change in Arab attitudes toward Lebanon and action from international human rights groups to pressure Parliament to adopt an amendment to this discriminatory measure,” Natur said.
“Palestinians and those who support human rights for the Palestinians expect a correction of the mistake done by the law – to allow Palestinians to own property like any other Arab foreigner in Lebanon,” he added.
“At the very minimum we hope they will treat us like foreigners,” Abu Umar said. “A foreigner is permitted to own 5000 square metres. “I just want about 118 square metres, the size of a small apartment.”
Abu Umar said that in addition to the MPs, the activists would also approach leaders from across the country’s patchwork mix of religious communities because “the right to pass on property to our children is acknowledged in the major religions of the country.”
Right of return
For economic, demographic and diplomatic reasons, Beirut refuses to consider permanently settling the refugees, fearing it would further alter the delicate religious makeup of the country.
“All of our endeavours and actions are geared toward achieving the right of return. An apartment won’t prevent me from returning to Palestine”
The Lebanese Parliament also initially passed the property law on the grounds that it wants to protect the right of Palestinian refugees to return eventually to their homes, which they fled after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
But Natur and Abu Umar said the property law created an artificial link between the two issues.
“One of the reasons that led to this law was a belief that if Palestinians owned property in Lebanon they would let go of their right of return. This is not true,” Abu Umar said.
“All of our endeavours and actions are geared toward achieving the right of return. An apartment won’t prevent me from returning to Palestine,” he said.
No relinquishing identity
And as for permanent settlement, “I don’t think there is a Palestinian who would like to relinquish his national identity or his right of return.”
Natur goes further.
“This propaganda seeks to blacken our image,” he said. “There is no legal basis for any linkage between the two issues of owning a home and the permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon.
Implantation is conditioned on obtaining Lebanese citizenship, on naturalization. It doesn’t mean ownership of real estate property.”
“Everyone in the Lebanese political arena says they are for Palestinian national rights, our right to have an independent state and our right of return,” Natur said.
“But at the same time they are against any human rights for the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,” he added. “The Lebanese political arena has to do away with the slogan ‘With Palestine, against the Palestinians.”