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Thousands protest for Palestinian rights in Lebanon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Several thousand Palestinians and Lebanese civil activists converged on central Beirut on Sunday, demanding more rights for Palestinians, many of whom live in in squalid and over-crowded refugee camps.

Dozens of buses transported demonstrators waving Palestinian flags from refugee camps across the country -- from the southern city of Tyre as well as from the northern city of Tripoli.

“As Palestinians in Lebanon we have no rights. We just want to live with dignity,” said Palestinian Imtithal Abu Samra, 29, who lives in the Beddawi refugee camp in northern Lebanon.

Some 425,000 Palestinians are registered as refugees in Lebanon by UNRWA, the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. Many live in 12 camps across Lebanon in conditions the U.N. has described as deplorable and appalling.

Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from working in dozens of professions and are generally paid lower wages than their Lebanese counterparts when they do find jobs. They are not allowed to benefit from public social or medical services.

Proposals for a draft law due to be debated in parliament in a few weeks would give Palestinians the right to own a residential apartment and would legalise work rights.

The protesters had planned to demonstrate in front of parliament but Lebanese soldiers prevented them from congregating there. Instead they gathered in front of U.N. headquarters, a few hundred metres away.

“Palestinians have been here for 62 years. Their (condition) is unacceptable,” said Dalia, a Lebanese assistant researcher. “Civil rights should be given to anyone regardless of their religion, sect or nationality,” she said.

Some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that led to the founding of Israel in 1948. About 4.5 million refugees and their descendents now live in squalid camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

Most of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are either refugees or their descendants. Israel has recently said it would ease a blockade on the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave, which critics say is collective punishment for Palestinians living there.

The issue of granting Palestinian more rights has raised worries it would promote ‘naturalisation’, which some politicians fear will upset Lebanon’s delicate sectarian and demographic balance. Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims.

The proposals have faced hurdles in parliament because of Christian lawmakers’ fears that granting these rights would eventually lead to their permanent resettlement, an allegation refugees and civil rights activists say is not true.

“Lebanon has marginalized Palestinian refugees for too long,” Human Rights Watch’s Beirut director Nadim Houry said in a statement last week. “Parliament should seize this opportunity to turn the page and end discrimination against Palestinians.”

Reporting by Yara Bayoumy: Editing by Matthew Jones