EIN EL-HILWEH REFUGEE CAMP, Lebanon — Mohammed al-Amin spends his days doing little more than playing billiards and smoking cigarettes in this sprawling Palestinian refugee camp, where gunmen roam narrow alleyways dotted with tin-roofed, cement-block homes.
The 25-year-old studied dental lab technology but works at a small, grubby coffee shop in the camp, making $100 a month. He dreams of working with a respected doctor in Lebanese society and being welcomed like any other foreigner, without being looked down on.
“Sometimes I feel like a pressurized bottle that’s about to explode,” said al-Amin, who was born in Ein el-Hilweh years after his family fled what is now Israel. “Why should three quarters of the Palestinian people here be selling coffee on the street?”
The approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, many of them born here, are barred by law from any but the most menial professions and are denied many basic rights.
Now parliament is debating a new law that would allow Palestinians to work in any profession and own property, as well as give them social security benefits. The bill, due for a vote on Aug. 17, is the most serious effort yet by Lebanon to transform its policies toward the refugees.
But the proposal faces stiff resistance, because it has implications beyond expanding the refugees’ civil rights.
Lebanon’s population of 4 million is divided between 18 sects, including Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Druse, and every community is highly 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.
So Palestinians in Ein el-Hilweh are deeply skeptical there will be any change.
“They are not fooling us,” said a woman pushing her handicapped mother on a wheelchair to a nearby clinic run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Her mother, 80-year-old Jamileh Salameh, lost her right leg in an Israeli air raid on Ein el-Hilweh in 1987.
“Nobody cares about us, they will talk and talk but nothing will happen,” she said.
The Palestinians in Lebanon are isolated in their camps to a higher degree than in any other Arab country. 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, 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.
Unlike in neighboring Arab countries like 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 do work are either employed by UNRWA or as laborers at menial jobs such as construction.
Beyond the legal restrictions on them, they also face deep prejudice from many Lebanese.
The bitterness dates back to 1970, when the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat moved his base here after being expelled from Jordan in a bloody crackdown because his forces tried to form a government to rival Jordan’s. 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.
The refugee camps — Ein el-Hilweh in particular — are notorious for their lawlessness. Lebanese troops patrol their perimeters but have no jurisdiction inside, part of an informal agreement with the PLO since the early 1970s. Factions of Palestinian fighters police the camps, but clashes and assassinations are common.
The Palestinian leadership 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.
Druse leader Walid Jumblatt proposed the rights bill in June, and it has triggered a heated debate. Some lawmakers insisted Palestinians should not be granted any “privileges” as long as they do not answer to the state’s authority. Others argued that letting Palestinians work and receive social security would strain the economy.
“They (refugees) are not entitled to any rights according to Lebanese laws — only some facilities that we can give them,” said Christian leader Michel Aoun.
Lawmaker Sami Gemayel of the right-wing Christian Phalange Party accused U.N. agencies of trying to pawn off responsibility for the Palestinians onto Lebanon. If that happens, he warned, “we will move step by step toward naturalization” of Palestinians.
Parliament has split largely on sectarian lines over the bill, with Christians opposed and Muslims supporting. The result may be a compromise that grants broader work rights but keeps other restrictions like the ban on owning property.
Fathi Abu al-Ardat, a senior official with the main Fatah faction of the PLO in Lebanon, warns that disillusionment and frustration push young Palestinians toward radicalism.
“Fanaticism and extremism thrive on misery and poverty,” he said. “We should let them live a free, dignified life with the opportunity to work and move freely.”
Al-Amin, speaking in the coffee shop where he works, agrees.
“We have education and talents,” he said. “Given the chance, we can contribute a lot to Lebanese society.”