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Although the law appears to be ineffective, rights groups say it has sparked a national debate on the rights of Palestinians in Lebanon. Late last month, the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign-Lebanon and the Sabra Shatila Foundation, a Palestinian advocacy group, sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI and Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, asking them to encourage parliament to grant Palestinians full work and property rights.

The letter included a petition with 430,000 signatures, including those of prominent activists such as former President Jimmy Carter, former South African President Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

“Civil rights for Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees have been denied for too long,” the letter says. “These days are pregnant with potential new tragedies that nobody wishes upon anybody else.”

But some politicians in Lebanon say Palestinians should have access to human rights, but that does not include civil rights.

Fares Souaid, secretary general of the ruling March 14 political coalition, said Palestinians are not given access to Lebanese social security, schools and health care because the refugees prefer to be supported by the United Nations. If Palestinians are incorporated into Lebanese civil society, their claim that they have the right to return to Palestine will lose legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, he said.

Mr. Souaid said parliament members also have rejected calls for civil rights for Palestinians because they fear an upset in the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanese society. In the political sphere, he said, Palestinians have enemies in parliament because they fought in the 16-year civil war that ended in 1991 and left more than 100,000 people dead.

“The Palestinians in Lebanon during the civil war were part of the civil war,” Mr. Souaid said. “The [Palestine Liberation Organization] was supporting part of the Lebanese against another part of the Lebanese. When you speak about the Palestinian problem and the Palestinian refugee presence in Lebanon, there is a kind of hypersensibility.”

Many refugees from Nahr al-Bared say they have spent their entire lives in Lebanon and have no plans to return to a future Palestinian state. Their status as foreigners leaves the society almost entirely dependent on the U.N. for survival. “A doctor should have the right to work as a doctor,” said Mr. Getawi, the construction worker. “An engineer should have the right to work as an engineer.”

Other parents in the barracks, however, say they are too busy trying to provide their children with food and health care to be concerned with politics. Parents say the food aid they get every three months usually lasts for two weeks.

Fares Abdullah, who shares a single room in the barracks with his wife and four children, said three of his children have regular seizures and he cannot work because of a heart condition. The limited medical care offered by the U.N., he said, can do nothing for their illnesses.

“If someone breaks his leg here,” he said, “They give him a Panadol.”