Annie Slemrod
The Daily Star
February 17, 2012 - 1:00am

BEIRUT: Abdul-Majid Kassir, president of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, has called Lebanon’s law that bars Palestinians from owning property “unjust” and a “violation of human rights.”

The former diplomat took the helm of the body tasked with improving relations between the two communities last summer, and spoke with The Daily Star Thursday about a wide range of issues that affect an often strained relationship.

In 2001, Parliament passed a law that bars Palestinians from owning or inheriting property. Kassir called this law “unjustified and unjust, and a violation of human rights,” and said that “there is no benefit to it, for Lebanese or Palestinians. It also harms the image of Lebanon.”

Kassir added that the issue of land ownership is political, and that the law was prompted by “talk about the possibility of the presence of an international conspiracy to nationalize Palestinians in Lebanon.” But he does not consider “that there is a relationship between rights of Palestinians to land ownership and nationalization.”

Palestinians themselves are not interested in becoming Lebanese nationals, he said, referring to a topic that has been a flashpoint for the debate about Palestinians in Lebanon. “They do not want a replacement to their nation, and they cling to the right of return,” he said.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, of which there are between 260,000 and 450,000, have often found obtaining legal work difficult. A law signed early last year was intended to ameliorate this situation. It removed a $300 work permit fee, as well as the requirement for a pre-existing contract. But the law is yet to be fully implemented, Kassir said, because “the implementation decree is late, but inevitably will be issued soon. The political situation today in Lebanon is somewhat obstructive, and the minister [of labor] has been busy with the issue of wages, and before that with other issues.”

“The work of Palestinians in general is something that I believe will add value to national economic activity,” Kassir stressed, adding that he does not foresee Palestinians competing with Lebanese for jobs. Of the some thirty professions from which Palestinians are still barred, including medicine, engineering and law, Kassir said they should be dealt with by the syndicates that govern these vocations: “If [the syndicates] allow [Palestinian] engineers and lawyers to work, then nothing will prevent the syndicates from this.”

As for the question, oft raised by those who query the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, of the weapons that remain with Palestinians both in and outside the country’s 12 refugee camps, Kassir said this is external to the LPDC’s mandate.

“It is a political affair between Palestinians and the Lebanese government,” he said, continuing that “the Palestinians in Lebanon do not need arms, because the responsibility of protecting them should be transferred to the Lebanese government and to the Lebanese security forces, just as it is the responsibility of these apparatuses to protect the Lebanese.”

But the weapons won’t go, Kassir said, “unless the Palestinians and their factions are convinced that the presence of arms outside the camps, and perhaps inside them, is not beneficial for the Palestinians or the Lebanese.”

He said convincing Palestinians that these weapons are unnecessary “is a simple thing.” The Lebanese must show the Palestinians “that we recognize their rights to work, to dignity, and to be dealt with in a fair way, and as guests.”

Despite recent programs in the Lebanese media that have been criticized as racist against Palestinians, Kassir said he does not “believe the Lebanese are racist ... Undoubtedly conditions now are difficult ones, very difficult. And these difficult circumstances might make room for some Lebanese to voice their anger because of the current economic conditions. But I firmly believe that all the Lebanese cannot turn to racism and cannot deny from the Palestinians their social and human rights, and their rights to dignity and respect. The Lebanese also know that Palestinians did not come by Lebanon by choice, and that they were forced to leave a country that they want to return to.”

On balance, Kassir appears optimistic. “One must admit that both sides have not dealt well with each other ... there were mistakes that were made, and each side must admit to their mistakes and neglect ... But this page has been turned, and I believe we should establish an understanding that will lead to the Palestinians living in decent conditions. And a part of the Lebanese population might be convinced, after this [understanding is reached], that the Palestinians are not a threat to stability in this country.”


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