BEIRUT – BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon expanded employment rights for 400,000 Palestinian refugees Tuesday, changing a decades-old law that many have criticized for keeping the community impoverished and excluded from Lebanese society.
Palestinian leaders in Lebanon and human rights workers welcomed the move, but said it is only a first step toward improving the lives of stateless refugees who have been banned from all but the most menial professions for decades.
"I was born in Lebanon and I have never known Palestine," said Ahmad al-Mehdawi, 45, a taxi driver who lives in Ein el-Hilweh, one of 12 crowded and squalid refugee camps in Lebanon. "What we want is to live like Lebanese. We are human beings."
Some 4.7 million Palestinian refugees — who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 and 1967 Israeli-Arab wars — and their descendants are scattered across the Middle East. They live mostly in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, according to U.N. figures.
Their fate is one of the most emotionally charged issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Palestinian negotiators have demanded at least partial repatriation, but Israel has refused, saying an influx of refugees would dilute its Jewish majority and threaten the existence of the state.
Tuesday's decision allows Palestinians to work in the same professions as other foreigners, one of the most serious efforts yet by Lebanon to transform its policies toward the refugees.
But the laws governing foreign workers here pose a unique problem for Palestinians, who are stateless.
Lebanese law restricts some professions only to Lebanese, while many other professions — such as law, medicine and engineering — require the employees to be members of the relevant professional association.
But most of these associations say foreign membership depends on reciprocity in their home country, which effectively bars Palestinians who don't have one.
"If you're a Palestinian born and raised in Lebanon and your dream is to become a doctor, you're out of luck," said Nadim Houry, the Beirut director at Human Rights Watch.
Unlike in neighboring Arab countries Syria and Jordan, where Palestinians enjoy more rights, the refugees in Lebanon live mostly on U.N. agencies' handouts and payments from the rival Palestinian factions. Those who are employed work either at the U.N. agency UNRWA or as laborers at menial jobs such as construction.
Ali Hamdan, an aide to Lebanon's parliament speaker, said Tuesday's vote will legalize much of the work that many Palestinians already are doing as well as open up positions in fields such as insurance and banking.
"For the first time, Lebanon, which is a small country, is trying to solve a historic crisis for the Palestinian refugees," Hamdan told The Associated Press.
The debate over Palestinians in Lebanon often goes beyond matters of civil rights and touches on the prospect of permanent settlement. Lebanon's population of 4 million is divided between 18 sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druse, and every community is sensitive to anything that could tip the balance of power in a country with a grim history of sectarian strife.
Christians and Shiites are particularly worried about any possible permanent settling of the refugees, who are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
The Palestinian leadership also does not want refugees to gain citizenship, fearing it could deny them their right to ever return home. But it does support giving them civil rights.
Hamdan said Tuesday that the decision is a social issue with nothing to do with the right of return.
Beyond the legal restrictions thrust upon them, Palestinians also face deep prejudice from many Lebanese.
The bitterness dates back to the early years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when Lebanon was flooded with tens of thousands of refugees, upsetting its delicate religious and sectarian balance.
The situation worsened when the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat moved his base here in 1970, after being expelled from Jordan in a bloody crackdown because his forces tried to form a rival government.
Many Lebanese have not forgiven Arafat's fighters for attacking Israel repeatedly from southern Lebanon, giving Israel a pretext to attack villages and twice invade.
Associated Press Writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.