New York Times
May 6, 2007
Invisible Palestinians Exist in Legal Limbo in Lebanon
By NADA BAKRI
BEIRUT, Lebanon, May 5 — Three generations of the Hamdallah family have lived in Lebanon. And for three generations not a single member of the family has been allowed to graduate from school, legally marry, or hold a job, or even set foot outside of the rundown camps that have been home to generations of Palestinians.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates that more than 400,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon — refugees, their children and their children’s children — all denied many basic rights in their adopted homeland on the Mediterranean.
But within that diaspora at least 3,000 people, including the Hamdallah family, are invisible to the legal system, aid groups here say. When their families arrived in Lebanon, they failed to get refugee status, and without it they cannot get identification cards, the currency of all life transactions in this region. Marriage, travel, work — all are impossible without a national identification document.
“They are not persons in front of the law,” said Stéphane Jacquemet, regional representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon. “They live in camps, don’t have access to services, schools, hospitals, and strictly speaking a person with no documents can be arrested. They absolutely have no future, and they are giving their no future to their children.”
Palestinian refugees have been denied citizenship in Lebanon for years, and they are prohibited from practicing more than 70 professions. The Lebanese government has insisted that the plight of the refugees should not be settled at the expense of host nations, and it has made clear that it eventually wants the Palestinians to go back to Israel after a settlement with that government.
At the heart of that policy lies the fear that the refugees could upset Lebanon’s already complicated and tenuous power-sharing system, based on ethnic and sectarian affiliation. Because most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, nationalizing them would throw the power balance to Sunnis.
So, with no real hope of becoming Lebanese citizens, Palestinians remain squeezed in dark, small camps where sewage water often runs in claustrophobic alleys, the only playground of young refugees. Outside most of these camps, the Lebanese Army maintains a heavy presence.
But while most Palestinians are denied citizenship, a vast majority have identification papers that allow them to participate in society.
“Generally speaking, everyone must have and is entitled to a legal identification paper,” said Fateh Azzam, a regional representative of the International Council on Human Rights here. “In this part of the world you can’t do anything without it.”
That is a reality that the Hamdallah family has struggled with for generations.
Born in Jerusalem, the oldest member of the family, Moetaz Hamdallah, 65, came to Lebanon in 1970 from Jordan after “Black September,” when King Hussein expelled Palestinian militants. Mr. Hamdallah was one of those militants. He arrived in Lebanon when the Palestine Liberation Organization — then ensconced in southern Lebanon — was at the height of its power, and so he never thought about legalizing his status.
“The revolution was strong, I was strong,” Mr. Hamdallah said in an interview. “I never thought about identification papers or what would happen to me and to my children without them.”
But when the P.L.O. was driven out of Lebanon in 1982, “I started pitying myself,” he said as he sat on a plastic chair outside his concrete-block house in the Rashidieh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. Inside, flies buzzed under a zinc roof and unpainted walls.
Mr. Hamdallah did not flee when Israel was formed over the former Palestine in 1948, and so he and his family did not meet the United Nations definition of Palestinian refugees. In Lebanon, the P.L.O. was blamed for igniting civil war, and so Mr. Hamdallah, like others with his background, were not welcomed.
Their situation came to light in 2001 when a young refugee without proper identification was fatally shot in the back by Lebanese soldiers after he ran from a security checkpoint monitoring his refugee camp. When investigating why he ran back toward the camp, the army found out that he had a forged ID card and feared arrest.
“They have melted into the background for too long,” said Richard J. Cook, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. “This is a problem not going to go away on its own; now is the time to solve it.”
But obstacles complicate the more direct possible solutions, human rights advocates say. For example, Jordan and Egypt have refused to renew the passports of the Palestinians who used to live there before their move to Lebanon. Refugees cannot transfer their files with the United Nations to Lebanon from their previous resident countries unless they have the approval of those countries and Lebanon.
One of the solutions would be for the Lebanese government to provide Palestinians with some sort of documents that recognize them as a special category of refugees entitled to remain in the country until the issue of the so-called right to return to Israel is settled. But the government said that a lack of a thorough and well-documented survey about them prevents that for now.
“They are illegal in the country, so they are not going to raise their hands up and say, ‘We are illegal, can you help us?’ ” Mr. Cook said.
The Danish Refugee Council, a nongovernmental organization funded by the European Union Commission Humanitarian Aid Department, put the number of undocumented Palestinians in Lebanon at 3,000, while other nongovernmental organizations put it at as high as 5,000.
Some human rights advocates insist that the real problem is not a lack of clear statistics, but the government’s objection to any measure that would raise the official number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
That charge is denied by Khalil Makkawi, a former Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations who now leads the committee negotiating with the Palestinians on how to regulate their presence here.
“It has no foundation whatsoever,” Mr. Makkawi said. “It is in our interest to solve the problem and identify them as Palestinians.”
When the government gets clear figures from the P.L.O. office here, it can start talks with Jordan and Egypt to renew refugees’ old identification papers and to transfer the files of those registered with the United Nations elsewhere to Lebanon, he said. As for those who lack papers and have never been registered anywhere, the government will seek a special solution, he said.
When Mr. Hamdallah’s oldest son, Mohannad, 34, was a child, he asked his father why he did not have an identification paper like his fellow classmates. He was told that he would get papers when they returned home — meaning Jerusalem, he said.
Recently, when Mohannad Hamdallah was asked how he would respond if his 7-year old daughter, the oldest of a third generation of refugees in his family without identification, someday asks him why she cannot graduate from school, he thought for a moment before answering.
“I would tell her they were burned during the war,” he said.
Desperate for some form of legal identity, he has throughout his life collected hundreds of papers with his name, place and year of birth written on them from local mayors, hospitals and schools where he studied but never graduated.
He keeps the papers, their edges worn from use, in a briefcase, and the briefcase in a safe. “I keep every piece of paper because I am like the drowning man who clutches at a straw,” he said. Still, at one military checkpoint, they evoked only mockery, then detention, he said.
He looks for work as a freelance accountant, but can only keep a job until his employer asks for legal identification.
“When they do, I disappear,” he said. “I can’t tell them I don’t have an ID. They won’t understand.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
PHOTO: Mohannad Hamdallah, left, his children and brother Talib at home in one of the Lebanese camps where three generations of the family have lived. (Paul Taggart/World Picture Network, for The New York Times)
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