Saturday, July 20, 2019

Palestinians - Pawns in Lebanon's Politics

The plight of the Palestinian people is not restricted to their oppression by the Israeli government but is often a wider problem.

Thousands of Palestinian refugees protested 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 calling on the government to reconsider its crackdown on undocumented non-Lebanese workers that they say is affecting their livelihood. 

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. 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. Unemployment among the Palestinian workforce is around an estimated 20 percent.
"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.
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 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. Palestinians are also banned from owning property or inheriting property from their family members.
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, 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. 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.

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