SIDON/BEIRUT: Palestinians Tuesday protested across Lebanon for the second consecutive day against the Labor Ministry’s week-old crackdown on undocumented foreign labor. In the morning, residents of Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp burned tires at the camp’s entrances. Gas station owners pleaded with protesters not to set tires alight near their stations.
Local media reported similar scenes in refugee camps in Tyre and Beirut, including Burj al-Barajneh and Mar Elias.
Protesters also gathered under Beirut’s Cola intersection. They had planned to march toward Parliament but were prevented by security forces, the state-run National News Agency reported.
The protesters said they had obtained a permit for the march and did not expect restrictions to their movement, the NNA said.
Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman last month gave employers a one-month grace period to sort out the legality of non-Lebanese workers. The grace period ended last week.
Since the deadline expired, the ministry has closed dozens of noncompliant shops and fined others that employed foreign workers without work permits.
Inside Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, multiple demonstrations were staged against the Labor Ministry, as a general strike came into force Tuesday.
Mahmoud Khashan, a shop owner in Ain al-Hilweh, said it was the first time he had seen complete adherence to a general strike, while other traders of fresh produce complained as their goods piled up, untouched by customers.
The demonstrations began Monday, when Palestinian refugees in Ain al-Hilweh as well as the Mieh Mieh and Rashidieh camps in Tyre blocked entrances and burned tires and other items.
Children also joined the protests, some carrying pieces of bread to symbolize their parents’ meager incomes.
“My father works 12 hours a day as a construction worker to bring us a few pieces of bread and food. Does the minister want to starve us?” 10-year-old Issam Marzouq from Ain al-Hilweh asked.
“This decision will not pass. The international community must stand with us, and here I ask: Where is UNRWA now? Why do they remain silent? Do they agree or not?” Mahmoud Azouz, another resident of the camp, told The Daily Star as he loaded another tire onto his vehicle, referring to the U.N. agency for Palestine refugees.
The protests were not limited to south Lebanon.
In a camp in Baalbeck, a number of residents staged a sit-in at the entrance to denounce the Labor Ministry’s recent decisions, the NNA reported.
They also blocked the road leading to the camp and called for Abousleiman to withdraw what they said was his decision “to deprive the Palestinians of the right to work.”
In an interview with local news channel LBCI Tuesday, Abousleiman reiterated that the labor law was neither new nor aimed at Palestinians.
“We adopted a plan a month and a half ago to implement the labor law, and we gave a grace period of one month for people to settle their legal status before we started the crackdown,” he said.
“The Palestinian reaction is incomprehensible and nonsensical.”
Abousleiman said his ministry’s inspectors had found a total of 550 violations, only two of which involved a Palestinian.
In 2010, Parliament approved granting Palestinian refugees work permits at no cost to them and at a reduced price for their employers, in addition to end-of-service benefits through the National Social Security Fund.
Despite the legislation, only around 2 percent of Palestinian workers had acquired work permits in 2012, according to the International Labor Organization.
Many Palestinians do not hold official work contracts, and their employers are put off by the paperwork and fees necessary to obtain a work permit.
Abousleiman signaled Monday that he would be willing to simplify the process, including by overlooking certain documents for Palestinians only.
In a cable to Speaker Nabih Berri Tuesday afternoon, Palestinian National Council speaker Saleem al-Zanoun said the PNC looked to Berri’s “extensive wisdom and experience” to combat the negative effects of the Lebanese government’s decision to apply the labor law.
Zanoun said the Labor Ministry’s actions had caused “great damage” to human and civil rights.
“[The Labor Ministry] is closing the door on Palestinian refugees living in [Lebanon],” Zanoun said, according to a statement from Berri’s office.
Palestinian Ambassador Ashraf Dabbour also weighed in, calling on Palestinians to abide by the law and warning against being “dragged into something that does not serve our struggle.”
He added that it remained of the utmost importance to maintain “strong and honest relations with our Lebanese brothers.”
“The objective of our forced existence in Lebanon is to live a dignified life until we can return to our homeland, [an aim] which is supported by our Lebanese brothers.”
Abousleiman told The Daily Star Dabbour’s remarks were “positive and responsible.”
Dabbour met with Abousleiman and Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee Chairman Hasan Mneimneh Monday to discuss ways to simplify the process by which Palestinians obtained work permits.
The meeting’s atmosphere was “good,” Mneimneh told The Daily Star at the time.