Palestinians Are Still Guests in Lebanon

Hezbollah has no desire to challenge the longtime Lebanese government policy of banning Palestinian refugees from working in dozens of professions and earning a decent wage

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A child peeks from behind a corner of a building in Beirut's Karantina district, where many Palestinian refugees live.
A child peeks from behind a corner of a building in Beirut's Karantina district, where many Palestinian refugees live.Credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The explosion in the Hamas weapons depot located in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tyre on Friday night triggered an outcry that went well beyond the camp’s borders. Social networks in Lebanon were immediately flooded with requests from the government to locate and confiscate the weapons held by non-governmental groups in general and Palestinian ones in particular.

“We want to know, why do Palestinian refugees still have weapons? What are they used for? Which agenda does it serve and against whom is it directed?” tweeted Nada Andraos Aziz, a talk show host on the LBCI television station. “The weapons that the government doesn’t control, be they in Lebanese or Palestinian hands, are evil and despised. They are weapons of terror,” wrote Dr. Hadi Al-Amin.

“The Palestinians sow destruction everywhere they reside – from Black September in Jordan through the civil war in Lebanon to terror in Sinai,” stated Abdullah Al- Tawile’I, director of his eponymous Saudi research center.

These reactions don’t distinguish between Hamas and Fatah, between the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the other Palestinian militant groups or Hezbollah. In their eyes, any weapon or person bearing arms who does not belong to Lebanon’s security forces is a threat to Lebanon.

Youth driving through the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj Shamali near Tyre, Lebanon - site of a major explosion on Friday night. Credit: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP

Hezbollah has yet to comment on the explosion in Burj Shamali, the Palestinian refugee camp. However, there is no doubt that the incident pushed it into an uncomfortable corner. The group, which styles itself as leader of the armed resistance against Israel, cannot, it seems, permit other groups to break its monopoly, even if it considers them to have an equal right to fight Israel. Hezbollah frequently puts on the breaks and prevents Palestinians from attacking Israel from Lebanese territory, even though sometimes it fails to stop such attacks or is silent about them, as happened during the rocket fire against Israel during Operation Guardians of the Walls in May.

The group fears that Palestinian military activity will not only provoke an Israeli response against Lebanese targets but also cause the public to demand disarming Hezbollah. The group spent decades getting Lebanon accustomed to the idea that its weapons are holy, meant for defending Lebanon against Israeli attacks, arms that forced Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and later created a balance of deterrence.

Those accomplishments won it formal and public legitimacy for its weapons. Therefore, privatizing, as it were, the use of unpermitted weaponry endangers not only Hezbollah but also the entire country. However, this strategy creates an unresolvable contradiction for Hezbollah; the flagbearer of the struggle against Israel and the liberation of conquered territories doesn’t permit Palestinians themselves to wage armed struggle from Lebanon.

Not only does Hezbollah not permit Palestinians to wage armed struggle. Neither is it prepared to allow Palestinian refugees to earn a decent wage. True, responsibility in this area belongs to the Lebanese government, which forbids Palestinians from working in dozens of professions, among them law, medicine, accountancy, engineering, veterinary medicine, optics and even taxi and bus driving.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Beirut. The Lebanese government forbids Palestinians from working in dozens of professions, among them law, medicine and accountancy.Credit: Bilal Hussein,AP

However, Hezbollah, which holds the power to invoke change in this area, prefers to stick with these sweeping restrictions in order to fend off any public and ethnic resistance against it. The reason is that jobs for more Palestinians means fewer jobs for Lebanese and a Palestinian, or rather Sunni, foot in the door in government and the private sector at the expense of Shi’ites.

Last week, it seemed for a moment that the status of Palestinians in Lebanon was about to undergo a revolution. The labor minister, Mustafa Bayram, who belongs to the Shi’ite Amal movement and is a close associate of Hezbollah, announced he planned to remove the restrictions placed on Palestinians and Lebanese lacking identity cards.

The upshot is that tens of thousands of Palestinians would be able to engage in professions that belong to the most lucrative areas of the Lebanese economy and contribute to the fabric of the country’s economy, at a time when Lebanon is sunk in the worst crisis it has ever known. However, the rage of the politicians and of the public on the street forced the minister to swiftly issue a clarification that “my words were taken out of context.”

The most ardent opponent of reform is Gebran Bassil, the brother-in-law of President Michel Aoun who hopes to succeed him. Bassil stated: “The labor minister’s decision is ‘naturalization in disguise’ of the Palestinians… there shouldn’t be any stealing of jobs from Lebanese under the current circumstances.”

Cabinet ministers and parliament members stressed that the labor minister has absolutely no authority in this manner, that indeed such a decision requires legislation, approval by the professional associations and agreement of the cabinet ministers. After a quick consultation between the minister and the head of the Amal movement, Nabih Berri, and Hezbollah, Bayram said: “Nothing has changed. What has been forbidden by law until now will remain forbidden.”

Journalist Jihad Bazi wrote of this farce that Bassil is afraid that the Palestinians, if they get a chance to breath, will immediately pounce on Lebanese jobs and take them away by force, and that he will wake up in the morning and see these voracious aliens conquer Lebanon. The attack on Bassil isn’t new. The man has already shown his racist and nationalist colors when he proposed deporting all migrant workers from Lebanon. However, by the same token, Bazi could aim his arrows at the Lebanese government, and particularly at Hassan Nasrallah, who consider naturalizing Palestinians in Lebanon a kind of declaration of war against the government.

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