Analysts see progress on Palestinian rights issue



 Analysts see progress on Palestinian rights issue
‘We’re witnessing a period where a breakthrough is in the making’

By Michael Bluhm
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 17, 2010

BEIRUT: Despite some contentious rhetoric in Parliament on Tuesday, a turning point appears to have arrived in a decades-long battle to secure sufficient political backing to approve key civil rights for Palestinians here, a number of officials and analysts told The Daily Star on Wednesday. 
Parliament on Tuesday debated bills that would allow Palestinians to own property, get work permits in any profession and receive social-security payments; deputies decided to send the draft laws to a committee for further discussion, but MPs from across the political spectrum expressed their support for Palestinians’ human rights, although some Christian legislators warned against the naturalization of the refugees.

In spite of the undying bogeyman of naturalization fears, Parliament will likely soon ratify an expansion of Palestinians’ civil rights, said Hilal Khashan, who teaches political studies at the American University of Beirut and is of Palestinian descent.

“We’re witnessing a period where a breakthrough is in the making,” he said. “The time has arrived now for such an action. They might water it down, but the momentum is there.”

Palestinians have long faced entrenched discrimination in Lebanon, as many here continue to blame the Palestinians for triggering the 1975-90 Civil War. Indeed, the breadth of support voiced Tuesday in Parliament would have been unimaginable until recently, said Ghassan Mukhaiber, an MP in the Change and Reform Bloc led by MP Michel Aoun, as well as a longtime human-rights activist.

“All members of Parliament were in favor of granting fundamental human rights for Palestinians,” he said. “The only debate was whether or not to grant them immediately there.”

Tuesday’s parliamentary debate broke down along religious lines, with Muslim MPs expressing unreserved support for the proposed measures, while Christian deputies raised settlement worries amid their support for basic human rights. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said the confessional divide was “distasteful,” while Progressive Socialist Party head MP Walid Jumblatt called the right-wing politicians “stupid and isolationist” for conflating the naturalization question with human-rights issues.

Even though the naturalization question persists, Christian deputies still displayed marked progress in their acceptance of the need to address the lack of Palestinians’ civil rights, said Edward Kattoura, Palestinian activist and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Commission.

“There is an improvement in the positions of [Lebanese Forces head] Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange Party,” Kattoura said. “It is a positive start, because all the Christian parties admitted that the Palestinians should not continue like this [and] that they should get their rights.”

Tuesday’s session was “the first time we feel positively that this file is going to reach the end,” Kattoura added.

However, the late move among the political elite to give Palestinians these basic protections stems largely from external coercion to address the human-rights debacle, AUB’s Khashan said.

“Lebanon has been coming under intense pressure from international circles over this issue,” he said. “The Lebanese government is not doing this out of the goodness of its heart,” he added.

The international push for Palestinians’ rights in Lebanon grew exponentially after the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp was largely destroyed in the conflict between Islamic extremists and the Lebanese Armed Forces in mid-2007, Khashan added.

“The pressure has been building up even before the composition of the present Cabinet,” he said, adding that former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had placed the rights issue on his agenda.

The UN has also been encouraging Lebanon to ameliorate the Palestinians’ situation, and Lebanon’s ongoing two-year stint on the UN Security Council has helped draw attention to the issue, Kattoura said.

Domestic activists and non-governmental organizations have also stepped up their efforts to raise awareness of the Palestinians’ plight, said head of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee Maya Majzoub.

Lastly, this month’s botched Israeli raid on an aid convoy of ships heading for Gaza has put Palestinians at the forefront of the world’s consciousness, Khashan said. “After the Gaza flotilla incident, it has become extremely difficult to violate with impunity basic Palestinian human rights,” he added.

While support for the proposed rights amendments has expanded, politicians will still demand a balance between human rights and their fears of naturalization as the measures enter the committee process, said Habib Malik, who teaches history at Lebanese American University and is the son of Charles Malik, one of the founders of modern Lebanon and co-author of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In addition to fears of naturalization, the draft amendments also still face the danger that some politicians will manipulate those fears to deny the Palestinians their rights, Mukhaiber said. In the end, guarantees against Palestinian naturalization will probably have to be worked into the proposed legislation, Kattoura said. “Giving us our rights doesn’t at all mean settlement in Lebanon,” he added.

However, Lebanese antipathy toward Palestinians remains, and incidents such as the recent call by Fatah commander in Lebanon Mounir Maqdah for marches to penetrate Israel’s borders will only serve to keep Lebanese suspicions of Palestinians alive, Malik said. As such, the broad backing for the rights measures might represent only a temporary phenomenon, he added.

“The atmospherics may be favorable for some kind of motion on that issue, but … these windows of opportunity in Lebanon are episodic,” Malik said. “They don’t last long.”

In fact, many of the discriminatory practices facing Palestinians date only to the Civil War and its aftermath, Khashan said. While Palestinians had lived in squalid conditions before the war, they could still own property until the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Shafiq Wazzan rescinded the right in 1982, Khashan added.

“In a sense, the Lebanese are simply abrogating an infamous decision they made in 1982,” he said. “Until the eruption of the Civil War in 1975, most of the regulations barring Palestinians from employment were ignored.” After the PLO was driven from Lebanon in 1982, the curbs on Palestinian rights were implemented “harshly,” Khashan added.

As a result, many Palestinians continue to endure desperate conditions that have changed little since they arrived here in 1948, Kattoura said. “Today we are in 1948; we are not in 2010,” he said. “The way of life in the camps [is] as if we were living in 1948. We feel sorry that after 62 years we are still discussing this issue with the Lebanese government.”