“If they throw us out, we will end up in the sea,” Zahar Sayed Ghadbaan says, her anger not entirely disguised by the joking tone. “We have nowhere else to go but here,” she says, gesturing towards the small hand-built home with a corrugated iron roof.
The Ghadbaan family is one of 75 in the Palestinian gathering, or informal settlement, of Qasmiyeh in south Lebanon, where they are living with the prospect that their homes might be destroyed. Like many of Lebanon’s estimated 280,000 Palestinians, the family came to the country in 1948 after being evicted from their homes by Israelis. Now, 65 years later, they could be facing a second eviction.
Qasmiyeh, unlike other areas where Palestinians have established homes, is not part of an official refugee camp run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). There are 12 such camps, recognized by the Lebanese government as holding official status under UNRWA management and the residents are protected against eviction.
In contrast, the Ghadbaan family live in one of 43 informal settlements like Qasmiyeh, scattered across Lebanon and subject to Lebanese property laws. A study by the American University of Beirut found that between 260,000 and 280,000 of the 425,000 Palestinians registered with UNRWA reside in formal camps, with around 150,000 living outside of them.
In 1948 the owner of the land allowed the refugees to stay in exchange for working in the fields, but gradually a permanent community emerged. A few thousand people now live here in accommodation ranging from properly constructed houses to shacks. “There was nothing here when we came, just land. We have built all these houses ourselves,” Ghadbaan says.
After the original landowner died a few years ago, his daughters took legal action to evict the families. They demanded the destruction of the homes and in 2012 a court ruled in their favour. So far, the families are refusing to budge, but they fear the day when the bulldozers will arrive. “We even offered some money to buy the land so we can stay here, everything we could afford, but they refused. They said it was not enough,” she says.
Even if the offer had been accepted it would have been impossible for the owners to legally sell the land to the Palestinians in a country where they have few basic rights. In 2001 the Lebanese government passed law 296, adjusting the rules on foreign ownership of property. The law does not specifically mention Palestinians, but it prohibits “any person who is not a national of a recognized state… acquiring real estate property of any kind”, and serves to ban Palestinians living in Lebanon from buying or selling their homes.
The only safe havens are the official camps, where although they do not formally own the houses, there is a widespread perception of ownership. But the camps are suffering from severe overcrowding, made worse in the last two years by the influx of over 50,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
The lack of property rights is part of a bleak picture for Palestinians in Lebanon. Legally prevented from working in over 20 professions, a 2010 study revealed that just 37 percent of working-age Palestinians are employed. Among the five countries where UNRWA operates, Lebanon has the highest percentage of Palestinians living in abject poverty.
“The camps and gatherings where Palestinians live suffer from serious problems, including poverty, overcrowding, unemployment, poor housing conditions and a lack of infrastructure,” says Ziyad Qamar, Acting Deputy Director of Programmes at UNRWA in Lebanon, who notes that things are becoming tougher.
Gatherings are not under the direct remit of UNRWA, so the agency has not specifically advocated the right of property ownership for Palestinians. Instead, it has pushed for property rights to be part of a wider recognition of Palestinian rights.
Other organizations are taking a stand on the issue. Last week the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) launched a report, titled ‘No Place Like Home’, in which the charity highlights the lack of property rights for Palestinians, hoping to put pressure on the government to reintroduce the previously held property rights.
Dalia Aranki, head of the legal programme at the NRC Lebanon, says the law has further sidelined an already marginalized community. “Ultimately, we would like to have the 2001 law repealed, as it doesn’t serve a purpose other than to take rights away from a large section of the community. Before 2001, Palestinian refugees could buy and register land, and afterwards they couldn’t. That is a very big step to make.”
Despite the law being over a decade old, most Palestinians have gone underground rather than trying to fight it, hoping that by ignoring the changes they will be left alone. “Since 2001 there have been a lot of initial readings of the law but not many [court] cases to test the consequences of it. People have been frightened of the law so they haven’t tried to register property; they haven’t tested the law’s limits,” Aranki notes.
Palestinians across the country live in fear of eviction. Nasra Ali Mohammad, a 69-year-old widow, does not own the land on which she and her husband built a home and where her family have stayed for 60 years. She has never met the person who owned the land before they came, but she has heard rumours they might come and throw her off.
The lack of formal rights over the land is also causing tension in her family. Her 11 children are all married, apart from her daughter, Awsaf, 37. She wants her to inherit the house, but says, “I fear that my sons may want the land, but they have their own homes - Awsaf needs it. I can write a will but I don’t know if it will be obeyed,” she says. “Anything could happen.”
In November 2013, NRC Lebanon organized a symposium with leading Lebanese lawyers, legal experts and judges to discuss the implications of the law. One area where they are confident it can be challenged is inheritance. In theory the 2001 legislation prevents Palestinians who owned property before 2001 from passing it on after their death, but Aranki thinks this is disputable.
“There are a lot of rumours saying inheriting from your family is impossible, but we think you probably can under Lebanese law,” Aranki says. “There are other laws for inheritance that we believe supercede this law.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions