BEIRUT // Kamal Suleiman, an electrician from one of Lebanon's poorest and most violent refugee camps, gestured towards the 5-year-old boy by his side. "I am here for him," said. "Because of my son." Mr Suleiman and his little boy were among the thousands who gathered across Lebanon yesterday to demand greater social and economic rights for Palestinians in the country. Organisers estimated that 6,000 attended yesterday's demonstration in Beirut, and thousands more protested in Tripoli, Tyre and the Chouf mountain region.
A sea of Palestinian and Lebanese flags flowed down the main thoroughfare from southern Beirut towards the city centre, where a petition was presented urging politicians to change the laws governing Palestinians in Lebanon. "I want the right to a house," said Abed Aziyeh, a 22-year-old from Saida as he marched to parliament. "I studied accounting but I'm not allowed to do it." "It's not just a Palestinian issue, it's basic human rights," said Rana Hassan, 26, a Lebanese activist at the demonstration.
Lebanon's 400,000 Palestinians and their descendants are refugees from the violence surrounding the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Although Palestinians have lived in Lebanon for more than 60 years, and many were born there, they do not have the right to own property or work in a number of professions. Their economic marginalisation is widely seen as playing a key role in growing security problems in refugee camps, but politicians have been reluctant to tackle the issue because of Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance.
"We want to make them feel that we have had enough," said one man, as protesters listened to a song commissioned for the demonstration, entitled I Want to Live With Dignity. The demonstration, planned by a coalition of 132 civil society organisations over four months, came as members of the new parliament consider a set of proposals to amend the laws on Palestinians, to be voted on in a few weeks.
The proposed legislation would entitle Palestinians to own property, work in any profession and receive social security payments. The only significant difference between the proposed legislation and the demands of yesterday's demonstrators is that the protesters say Palestinians should not have to apply for a work permit. Two of Lebanon's main Christian parties have opposed the proposed law, claiming it would lead to the Palestinians' eventual naturalisation, upsetting the political balance between Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and Christians.
Nonetheless, activists are optimistic that, for the first time, some improvements in the Palestinians' legal status are possible, and that yesterday's demonstration will strengthen their case. "We felt we had to start something from below," said Sari Hanafi, a professor at the American University of Beirut and one of those involved in planning yesterday's demonstration. "The momentum is there ? this is a moral moment for Lebanon."
Significant obstacles remain, however, analysts say. Although the political environment is less polarised than it has been in recent years, Lebanon's stability remains precarious, and any alterations to the Palestinians' legal status involves confronting various trigger topics such as the civil war and the division of power between sects. They also raise difficult questions on the Palestinian side. Some Palestinians boycotted yesterday's march for the same reason that some Lebanese Christian parties have opposed the proposed reform - because they fear it will lead to Palestinians eventually getting Lebanese citizenship and giving up the right to return.
Ali al Houedi, a member of a group campaigning for the Palestinian right to return, said that he supported more rights for Palestinians in Lebanon, but was afraid of the "ultimate goal of naturalisation". "We are asking for our civil rights for the right of return, but we are afraid the ultimate goal is naturalisation compensation," he said. "It's tempting to point out how easily Lebanon slips back into its sectarian divisions whenever the Palestinian refugee issue comes up," said Elias Muhanna, the author of the influential political blog qifanabki.com. "On the other hand, that this issue is being debated in the halls of parliament and not on the streets of Beirut, and that its constituencies don't break down so neatly into sectarian boxes when you look a bit closer, is a sign of optimism."
The most likely outcome of the parliamentary discussions, Mr Muhanna said, was "some watered-down compromise" involving improved access to the labour market but not the right to own property. The mood among the Palestinians in yesterday's demonstration was a mixture of hope and weariness. "The atmosphere is much more positive than usual," said Ahmed Moor, 25. "I'm optimistic." Wassim Kayed, however, a 26-year-old teacher who left Lebanon to practise his profession, was not hopeful, in spite of having travelled from his family home of Baalbeck to attend the demonstration. "We've heard this for 50 years," he said, "and there's no change."