Robert Fisk: Lebanon turns screw on the Palestinians who cannot 'go home'

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The Independent Online

In the smoky little room in Chatila camp, with its bare concrete walls, naked lightbulb and hot, velvet armchairs, Maher al-Turki was bemoaning the latest fate of the Palestinians in Lebanon – what he called the "last chapter" in his people's tragedy.

The lightbulb surged and dimmed repeatedly as the camp generator roared down the street. There was a time when Maher and his friends could buy a house outside Chatila, a place to call their own even if it was in someone else's country. Not any more.

For a new law passed without discussion by the Lebanese cabinet has deprived Palestinians of any future house ownership in Lebanon and – in a clause that has astonished and appalled those who already own their own homes – has forbidden Palestinian men from passing on their property to their wives or next of kin when they die. Grieving Palestinian widows in Lebanon can now look forward to eviction from their family homes, which must, by law, be sold to Lebanese.

For the Lebanese, it is another stage in the eviction of Palestinians from their country, a further turn of the social screw to ensure that any Palestinian with the opportunity of living in another country of exile will choose to head for Beirut airport.

A large number of Christian Palestinians received Lebanese passports from the 1950s administration of Camille Chamoun because their citizenship increased the number of the Christian minority in Lebanon. But no one wants the Sunni Muslim Palestinians to become Lebanese citizens, as they would then be the largest community in the country.

Talk to the Lebanese about the Palestinians – whom they still blame, unfairly, for the country's 15-year civil war – and they will tell you that the Palestinians should "go home." But since their "home" is in what is now Israel – and since the world is prepared to ignore their "right of return" – Maher al-Turki and his family have nowhere to go.

Except to a new house which, with considerable care, he and his brother and father have just bought. "It's down the coast in Saadiyat, seven storeys for $100,000 (£73,000), which can be a home for all our family," he says. "But of course, although I could pay my share, I can't be a legal owner since I'm a Palestinian. A while ago they let us buy a home, but we had to register it. Now those of us who've got homes can't register them – and can't pass them on to relatives."

The al-Turkis have got round the rules by using the foreign citizenship of Maher's brother Ghassan. He married an Englishwoman and now has two children and a British passport. If Maher or his father were to try to register the property – as they must do under Lebanese law – they would be refused because Palestinians can no longer register houses. But, as a Briton, Ghassan can do so.

"We are a good family but I have to tell you these laws put strains on us," Maher admits. "I'm even scared that my own brother Ghassan may want the whole house, even though I and my father have paid our share. What if Ghassan says: 'I want it for myself'? After all, it now legally belongs only to him. What if he died? His British wife would become the owner. What if she said she wanted to keep it for herself?"

The discrimination is all-pervasive. Palestinians are still talking about a woman whose husband – a former Palestinian UN employee – retired this year with a pension of $70,000 (£50,000), then died shortly afterwards in a car accident. At a Tripoli bank, so they tell you in Chatila, the widow was not allowed to take possession of the money on the grounds that she was a Palestinian. The pension was considered to be "property", which, under the new law, she could not inherit from her Palestinian husband.

Abu Hussein has a different and darker story. He rented land in Lebanon in 1982 and received permission to convert disused stables on the property into a mechanic's workshop. He also paid about £36,500 in khlou money or "leaving" money, a regular system to help previous tenants find new premises.

More than a decade later a new landowner bought the freehold – a Palestinian with Lebanese nationality, according to Abu Hussein – and demanded Abu Hussein's immediate eviction from the property. After eight years in the Lebanese courts, and with Abu Hussein's lawyers in possession of all the legal rental agreements, the authorities have told Abu Hussein he must leave; without the return of his khlou money.

"Squatters can get their 'leaving' money back but not us," Abu Hussein says. "Because we're Palestinians."

So, would Maher al-Turki and his family buy property in Yassir Arafat's "Palestine" if they had the chance? "One grain of Palestinian soil is worth a hundred buildings in Beirut," he says. "But if I go to Gaza, it would not be enough. It would only be a starting point."

Slowly, his meaning sinks in. For the al-Turkis want to go "home", to the family's original village of Farradiya near Safad. Walid Khalidi's great volume on the destroyed Palestinian villages, All That Remains (Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC), states that the site of Farradiya is now "deserted and covered with wild thorns, trees and piles of stones from the destroyed homes. Cactuses grow on the land around the site". And Farradiya, of course, is now in a land called Israel.

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