Palestinian vies for imaginary seat in Lebanon parliament

Manal Kortam explains to a classroom why she has nominated herself for a seat that does not exist at Mar Elias Palestinian camp in Beirut.

BEIRUT - She has been criss-crossing her native Lebanon ahead of May 6 elections but the parliament seat she wants does not exist and she is not even eligible. Manal Kortam is a Palestinian refugee.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have lived in refugee camps across the small Middle Eastern country for decades, facing tough living conditions and barred from certain jobs.
But in a country of just four million where each religious community is allocated seats in the legislative chamber, there are none for Palestinians.
In the run-up to Lebanon's first parliamentary polls in almost a decade, Kortam saw an opportunity to stand up for her Palestinian community by launching a symbolic campaign.
"Somebody needed to say: 'There are people who have been in this country for 70 years but who have no place at all in public politics'," she told AFP during a visit this week to the Mar Elias camp in Beirut.
"All candidates have programmes that speak of social justice and democracy," she said, dressed in a slick pair of chequered trousers and black jacket, a piercing in her eyebrow.
"Implementing social justice is very important -- but not just for nationals, for all Lebanon residents," the 40-year-old from the northern city of Tripoli said.
- 'We exist' -
Palestinians began taking refuge in Lebanon with the creation of Israel in 1948, setting up camps that have since transformed into bustling, urban districts.
Around 174,000 Palestinian refugees live in 12 camps across the country, a one-off government census said last year.
That figure was much lower than previous estimates of up to 500,000, in a country where demographics have long been a sensitive subject.
The presence of Palestinians has been controversial, with many blaming them for the eruption of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
"We exist," Kortam has often repeated as a hashtag on social media and slogan on her tours of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps.
On Facebook, she poses in a series of posters that subvert the slogans of well-known political parties to draw attention to the Palestinian cause.
"The pulse of the isolated people," goes one, adding an adjective to a slogan of the Kataeb (Phalange) party.
Palestinians in Lebanon face a raft of restrictions from the state.
They are banned from practising a number of professions -- including those of doctor, lawyer and engineer -- and cannot buy a home outside the camps.
- 'Social, economic rights' -
Kortam was born in Lebanon to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother.
But she does not have citizenship -- a result of a century-old law that bars women from passing on nationality, meaning that the children of Palestinian men and their Lebanese wives do not have the rights of a citizen.
The law was maintained over fears of upsetting the country's delicate sectarian balance.
"I'm demanding civil, social, economic rights for Palestinian refugees," Kortam said.
These include "the right to all jobs, the right to social security... and the right to own property", she said.
The Palestinian camps in Lebanon are built-up and fully integrated in the urban fabric but the army is banned from going in and crime has festered.
"Palestinian camps should not be isolated" from their surrounding communities but included in Lebanon's development as a whole, Kortam said.
Only "this way can we build a Palestinian... society able to liberate its land and return to it", Kortam said.
Some 597 candidates are running for a seat in Lebanon's parliament, but only a few dozen have pledged to uphold human rights including refugee rights, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
Just 27 candidates and some parties running in the polls have made public commitments to strengthen human rights protections, the New York-based watchdog said.
"It is deeply disappointing that none of the parties in Lebanon's current government saw fit to make strong commitments to human rights," HRW's Lama Fakih said.
Kortam said she knows her task is not easy, but she had received great feedback so far.
"Whether they support or oppose the campaign, just the fact that people interact with it is great," she said.
"It's an awareness-raising campaign and it's normal that it raises a lot of questions."