When the news reported that Lebanese security killed 18-year-old Ahmad al-Qasim in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on June 15 — over a dispute concerning a motor bike rider without proper ID — the camp’s Palestinian refugee population erupted in anger and dismay.
Within a few days, outrage and violence spread, and more refugees were killed. One was Fouad Muhi’edeen Lubany, who was killed on June 18, as a crowd of mourning refugees attempted to bury the first victim of Nahr al-Bared, located near Tripoli in the north. Another was Khaled al-Youssef, who was shot in Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, near Saida, 30 miles or so south of Beirut. More Palestinians were reportedly injured, along with three Lebanese security officers.
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Palestinian refugees in Lebanon exist on the margins of a larger political question concerning the country’s irreconcilable sectarian, factional, and familial divides. This makes it somewhat difficult to place the tragedy of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon within one single pertinent political context, for Lebanon’s enduring conflicts, thus political alliances are in a constant state of flux. So, when such events concerning Palestinian refugees in Lebanon take place, the issue becomes almost entirely hostage to political analysis and considerations and hyped factional sensitivities. The challenge is hardly how to tackle the underpinnings of such dramas, or to urgently examine the relationship between economic, social, and other forms of alienation and political violence. The priority becomes how to, once again, conceal the festering problem.
Almost Living in Concentration Camps
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon exist on the margins of a larger political question concerning the country’s irreconcilable sectarian, factional, and familial divides.
The problem, however, will not disappear on its own. In Lebanon, there are 450,000 United Nations-registered refugees, who subsist in poverty, in twelve concentration camp-like physical entities, denied basic rights, and lack even nominal political horizon. They were mostly forced out of Palestine between 1947-48 by Zionists militias, which later formed the Israeli army. It was no accident that Nahr al-Bared was established in 1949. But since then, little, if any substantial efforts have been made to remedy some of the numerous problems created by that violent dispossession. Years later, Palestinian refugees become embroiled in Lebanon’s existing conflicts, first by accident — since it happened that the majority of the refugees are Sunni Muslims — and later by design, especially following the PLO’s departure from Jordan in the early 1970’s. Following the Israeli war on Lebanon in 1982 — accompanied by such infamous massacres as Sabra and Shatila, among others — the fate of the refugees worsened, reaching the point of nearly complete neglect.
In the summer of 2007, the Lebanese army clashed with an extremist grouping, Fatah al-Islam, which had earlier moved to Nahr al-Bared. According to Amnesty International, “The violence caused considerable destruction to the camp, forcibly displaced the camp’s 30,000 residents and led to at least 400 deaths, including 42 civilians and 166 Lebanese soldiers.”
“Considerable destruction,” is putting it mildly. The camp was literally “reduced to rubble,” as described in a report in the Lebanese Daily Star, on June 22. Many media outlets reported the story as if just another fight between an army and al-Qaeda inspired group, without making much fuss about the fact that within the confines of that lethal fight, hundreds of families barely subsisted, mostly unemployed, impoverished, and homeless.
Five years have passed since Nahr al-Bared was destroyed, yet many of its residents remain stranded between an old refugee status — as Palestinians who were forced out or fled Zionist violence in Palestine in 1948 — and new refugee status, that of fleeing from one refugee camp to another. This condition of old-new destitution is highlighted in but not unique to Nahr al-Bared; it is a shared experience by many Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
Despite the multiple tragedies that struck the dwellers of Lebanon’s refugee camps throughout the years, (which provide enough insight to the nature of the Palestinian refugee problem in the country, thus offering obvious clues to its remedy) much of the political discussion is devoid of any substance.
Lebanon-based US writer, Franklin Lamb quoted a statement by Army Commander General Jean Qahwaji that a “through (and) a swift investigation will determine the perpetrators and prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.” Lamb, rightly comments: “Given past experience, few believe the investigation will be serious or even completed.” The country’s Interior Minister, for his part, conveniently discounted the obvious link between the clashes in Nahr al-Bared and Ein al-Hilweh as mere “coincidence” (Akhbar al-Youm, June 20 as referenced by Lamb). Palestinian PLO and Fatah official, Azzam al-Ahmad told the Daily Star, during a recent visit to Lebanon that “regional powers are exploiting the hardship of Palestinian refugees .. to push their own Agendas in Lebanon.” He insisted that those powers don't include Syria.
Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees continue to be victimized by a bewildering political landscape and unmistakable discrimination by the state under the pretense that Palestinian refugees are temporary “guests” in Lebanon. Now even third generation “guests” of a UN-registered population of nearly 450,000 refugees are denied home ownership, inheritance of land or real estate, and are barred from many professions. That state of near complete economic stagnation has resulted in socioeconomic regression that places Palestinian refugees in Lebanon at a very low standing with little hope for the future.
Dignity and Decidedness
The Palestinian refugees’ predicament in Lebanon must be handled with decidedness and urgency.
In its report released on June 20 to coincide with World Refugee Day, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) resolved that “[t]he Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are considered the worst of the region’s refugee camps in terms of poverty, health, education, and living conditions.” ANERA reported that two out of three refugees subsist on less than six dollars a day, and that discrimination against them is expressed in multiple areas from health, to education, to housing, to other areas.
It is important to note the role that Israel has played in the perpetual suffering of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon — as in everywhere else. But extending that to include the inhumane treatment of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon no longer suffices. As in the case of refugees the world over, Palestinians must be repatriated to their homes and compensated for their losses, pain, and suffering. Until that goal is achieved, refugees must be treated with dignity and respect regardless of the political calculation of their host countries.
The Palestinian refugees’ predicament in Lebanon must be handled with decidedness and urgency. It is a responsibility that ought to be shared between the Lebanese government, the Palestinian leadership, the Arab League, and the United Nations. Any more neglect and the potential crisis could morph into a full-fledged one.
Related Links:The Palestinian Nakba: The Resolve of Memory
Nahr Al-Bared: The Afflicted Camp
Refugees in Lebanon…Layers of Ordeals