Palestinian activist Zeinab al-Hajj talks to Helen Patuck about the wave of protests which took place last year across the refugee camps
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Why now?” Zeinab al-Hajj asks about the July 2019 changes to the labour laws for Palestinians living in Lebanon. The laws, which have existed since 1952, state that for every foreigner a Lebanese firm employs, the firm must employ three more Lebanese. Palestinians have been a long-standing exception to these laws.
However, last summer the Lebanese Labour Minister, Camille Abou Suleiman, decided that Palestinians in Lebanon were henceforth considered “foreigners” under labour law.
Lebanese employers must now apply for foreign worker permits for their Palestinian staff – and hire three times as many staff – or fire them. The question of why the law is being applied to Palestinians now, seventy years into their displacement, is urgent for Zeinab, a Palestinian refugee activist who has lived in Lebanon her whole life.
Like many, Zeinab lost her job as an executive secretary in a Lebanese firm last summer. Her job had allowed her to support her family, including her terminally ill mother, three brothers and five sisters, for over fifteen years.
Her experience also enabled her to become a prominent and respected activist in her community. Since losing her job, Zeinab has been carrying out social activism in her home, the long-standing refugee camp, Shatila, in Beirut.
“People don’t have jobs, so they don’t have money to buy bread for their kids and babies don’t have milk,” she told me. Families in the Palestinian diaspora of Denmark, Germany and Sweden are financially supporting Zeinab and other activists in their outreach work since the law was applied.
“We are delivering bread every day, it is crazy,” Zeinab adds.
“We don’t have the right to work, we don’t have the right to own an apartment outside of the camp, now we don’t even have the right to build inside the camp.”
Hardship is a reality the Palestinian people have known since al-Nakba, “the disaster,” of the mid-twentieth century. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 forced many Palestinians to leave their homes and become part of the global Palestinian diaspora. Zeinab’s family, like many others, fled to neighbouring Lebanon, where resistance to Israel encouraged many Palestinians to maintain their sacred “right to return” to the state of Palestine and settle in refugee camps established by UNRWA, the UN agency set up to support Palestinian refugees in 1949.
Zeinab’s family lived first in southern Lebanon before moving to Shatila Camp, Beirut, shortly after it was created in 1952. The family suffered greatly during the Lebanese Civil War, surviving the devastation of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of over 3,500 people. Zeinab is now faced with a new kind of devastation in Shatila, where breadwinners can no longer provide for their families.
“We don’t have human rights,” says Zeinab. “We don’t have the right to work, we don’t have the right to own an apartment outside of the camp, now we don’t even have the right to build inside the camp.”
Palestinians must build vertically, on top of existing structures, because they cannot build beyond the 200m square area allocated for the refugee camp since 1952. The original site was built to settle 7000 people, but Zeinab estimates a population of 35,000 since the Syrian conflict began in 2010.
Zeinab described how the Palestinian protests began in July and erupted in all Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon.
“Daily we did this. Young, old, always sharing in these protests, for three months,” said Zeinab, noting how the main political leaders of the camps, from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, together with Hamas and Jihad, organised the protests.
Lebanese civil rights organisations also took part and added weight to the movement, eventually forcing the Labour Minister to revisit his decision.
However, any momentum created was lost in the nationwide protests across Lebanon, which demanded an end to impunity for corrupt political elites and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October, 2019.
I asked Zeinab if Lebanese protesters took up the Palestinian issue of the labour laws in October.
“For sure no,” said Zeinab. “This group of young Lebanese are protesting against the economic situation, the political authority – against what this authority has done since the 1990s. They don’t ask for our rights, they ask for their own rights.”
When I asked if the Palestinians joined the Lebanese protests, Zeinab replied that Palestinian activists did not, as “we do not have the right for that.”
She explained how political leaders from the PLO and authorities from within Palestine itself discouraged Palestinian participation. Individuals may have attended, but many heeded the warnings from their community leaders.
Zeinab explained the general fear: “If they catch us, they will consider us the problem.”
A fear of being “the problem” has deep-seated origins for Zeinab and her community, who live with the legacy of Palestinian struggles against Israel from within Lebanon’s borders, and feel blame from the Lebanese community for the 1975-1991 civil war.
These new labour laws are the latest development in the structural violence committed by the Lebanese state towards its Palestinian refugee population.
However, Zeinab insists Palestinians are not the problem: “As we are living in Lebanon, we are adding to the economic situation, we are making it strong, we are working here, we are saving our money here. So we are not an economic problem – no, we are helping them to grow their economy.”
I asked Zeinab if these discriminatory new labour laws make her and her community reconsider acknowledging the state of Israel and going home. She said some were starting to consider this, offering this hard truth: “who has no land has no identity, who has no identity has no land.”
As the labour laws remains the same, and continuing instability and protests in Lebanon make change seem distant, I asked Zeinab what she wanted from the Lebanese government in the future.
She replied with urgency: “I want from them one thing, just. To give us our human rights. To let us work, to let us own an apartment, to let us, please, feel that we are human. Just we need from them these things, nothing more, nothing less.”