Van Meguerditchian, Simona Sikimic
The Daily Star
February 23, 2011 - 1:00am

Marching through mud roads, still loose underfoot from the heavy rains, several hundred Palestinians gathered at the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp Tuesday to protest the U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution condemning the construction of Israeli settlements.

Led by lines of elderly men and a troop of young children beating on drums and playing bagpipes – an eccentric relic of the British mandate of Palestine – the crowd weaved its way through the camp to listen to speeches made by Palestinian Authority representatives.

“Do not succumb to any veto exercised by the U.S. against 14 Security Council members who stood with us,” Fathi Abu al-Ardat, a Fatah party official told the crowd.

He also said Palestinians must hold on to their “sacred” right to return to their homeland.

The U.S. used its veto on Feb. 18 to scuttle the vote in a move criticized as a show of contempt for the international community that overwhelmingly supported the resolution, which called for an immediate end to settlement construction. All 14 of the other Security Council members endorsed the resolution.

“This rally is a move against the exploiting veto power of the U.S. in the matters of the U.N. Security Council,” Fares Ahmad, a Palestinian activist, told The Daily Star.

The Occupied West Bank settlements are home to some half-a-million Jews but are considered illegal under international law. They have been a major obstacle to peace, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas withdrawing from direct talks last year after Israel failed to renew a 10-month construction moratorium.

“This blind support for Israel exceeds all limits,” said Reem, a 36-year-old teacher who did not want to give her last name. “The international community has to understand that we have been [involved] in the peace process for a very long time but have not seen any change.”

While some demonstrators chanted the slogan “the people want the end of the regime,” made famous by the swirl of popular uprisings that have engulfed the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks, the majority of protesters dismissed the benefits of radical change.

“As long as the Palestinian leadership in the Occupied Territories is pacing on the right path, we stand with them,” said Ahmad.

However, he explained that the leadership must not abandon the military option in addition to the peace talks.

“Such negotiations with the Israelis should not put away the military struggle against Israel.”

Others also remained doubtful that the recent Arab revolts would help Palestine edge closer to independence.

“Arab unity is the only thing that can help … but change after the revolutions will take far too much time,” said Marwa, a 20-year-old student who did not want to give her last name. “The [Arab states] will have to build their systems up from zero first.

“[Lebanon] is not our country. We need to go back to Palestine. Here you are constantly looked at like an outsider and are made to feel handicapped,” she said.

The setback over the settlements is only the latest in a long line of disappointments for Palestinian refugees who continue to be denied many basic rights in Lebanon, such as the right to work or own property.

“America used its veto because it has always ignored us, our plight and our problems. We, as Palestinians, are given nothing and if we get anything it is never just for free,” Reem said.

In an unprecedented move last summer, the Lebanese Parliament removed some of the worst restrictions on the right to work but the reforms have been widely criticized for not going far enough. They have also not been finalized, with the implementation date remaining unconfirmed.

The large youthful population is thought to be the worst hit by the restrictions, with many dropping out of schools or staying unemployed due to a lack of opportunities.

“There is no hope and no work,” said Marwa. “There are very few jobs. Even when we find work, the salaries are low. It makes life very difficult.”

“Just look at the conditions we live in,” she said while pointing to the small piles of garbage, molded into the mud-filled streets.

Despite promised reforms, Palestinians continue to insist that their living standards are getting worse, not better.

“There has been a big drop in the level of services, and education and healthcare have both suffered in recent years,” said Reem.

The United Nations Relief and Work Agency is responsible for providing basic services to Palestinian refugees, but the agency has been crippled by funding shortfalls, brought on by donor cutbacks in the wake of the global economic recession.

“The schools have suffered on many levels. There is massive overcrowding, there is not enough space for the new students, there are fewer teachers and the standards of the curriculum have dropped,” said Reem. “It is almost as if UNRWA policy is trying to decline the levels to keep the education standard of the Palestinian population low,” she added. “[But] education is the most important tool. It is so important I cannot even describe it in words.”


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