Displaced return amidst growing political tension

First day of school in Jabal al Batam village, Lebanon, 17 October 2006. The school, located 10 kilometers from the Israeli border, was bombed during the war but was repaired just before the opening. (Manoocher Deghati/IRIN)


Some 200,000 people are estimated to remain in a situation of internal displacement in Lebanon following the hostilities between the Shiite militant and political organisation Hizbollah and Israeli security forces in summer 2006. Nearly one million people were displaced at the height of the conflict - the vast majority of them within Lebanon. Most of the displaced returned to their homes in south Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut immediately following a UN-brokered ceasefire in August 2006. However the destruction of homes and infrastructure, the presence of cluster bombs, and loss of livelihoods are significant obstacles to the return and sustainable reintegration of displaced people. In addition, the overall stability of the country is in doubt as disputes have intensified between Lebanon’s diverse political parties.

Internal displacement is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon. A significant number of people remain displaced from the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 and as a result of Israeli invasions and occupation of part of south Lebanon. No updated reliable survey exists to determine the current number and estimates range hugely, between 16,750 and 600,000. Lack of adequate compensation and reconciliation are among the key factors preventing this group of displaced people from returning.

Background and main causes

Internal displacements in Lebanon have not been continuous, but occurred in separate periods of the civil war (1975-1990) due to internal strife and Israeli military operations in Lebanon between 1978 and 2000. More recently, Israeli military operations in Lebanon following clashes between Israeli security forces and Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant and political organisation, caused a new wave of displacement in the summer of 2006.

Civil war and Israeli invasions

It is estimated that at the height of the civil war up to one million people were displaced. A first wave of population displacement occurred in 1975 when Beirut was divided into Muslim and Christian sectors, although the fragmentation was more complex than a Muslim-Christian split and included divisions between sects within the two religions (Stamm, 2006). In 1985, an estimated 367,000 people were displaced in the Mount Lebanon region. Hundreds of thousands more people were displaced as a result of Israeli military invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982. In 1989, violent fighting between Lebanese militias and Syrian troops and between militias themselves led to further displacement. A ceasefire was declared in October 1989 when Lebanese parliamentarians signed the Document of National Understanding (the “Taif Agreement”) which was drafted following extensive negotiations between the different militias along with Syria in an attempt to reach consensus on internal political reform. In 1990, it was estimated that approximately 450-500,000 people were internally displaced (UNDP 2002). In 1996, Israeli air raids and rocket attacks on Beirut and southern Lebanon caused displacement of still hundred of thousands more people (Assaf and El-Fil, April 2000; LNF 2001; ILO, 1997).

The destruction of homes and infrastructure, the presence of cluster bombs, and loss of livelihoods are significant obstacles to the return and sustainable reintegration of displaced people.

The most affected areas of internal displacement were the Mount Lebanon region, specifically in the provinces (cazas) of Aley, Chouf and Baabda where an estimated 62 per cent of IDPs originated, and south Lebanon, where an estimated 24 per cent of the IDP population originated (USCR 2003; UNDP 2002). Although the civil war ended in 1990, the far south and southeast of Lebanon remained occupied by Israel for another ten years. During this period, hundreds if not thousands of Lebanese were ordered to leave their homes in the occupied zone, many expelled for suspected or admitted participation in attacks on Israeli military personnel (Harik, 7 December 2006; HRW, 1 July 1999). Displaced people from the south began to return home when Israeli troops withdrew from the area in May 2000 (UNSC Resolution 425 (1978)). Syria maintained a military presence in Lebanon until April 2005 when it withdrew its troops under national and international pressure following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 (UNSC Resolution 1559 (2004)).

There are large disparities in estimates of people internally displaced, IDP population movements and geographical distribution because the conflict caused both temporary and permanent displacements over an extended period of time (ILO, 1997). There is no international or national non-governmental organisation monitoring the situation of people displaced during this period. For a number of years, the US Department of State has reported that there continued to be 600,000 IDPs in Lebanon (US DOS, 8 March 2006). The US Committee for Refugees reported half this number in 2005 and 50,000-500,000 the year before (USCR, 2005 and 2004). However, the methodology underlying these figures is not clear. The government figure is significantly lower than these estimates. The government estimates that there are currently 16,750 people who continue to be in a situation of internal displacement as a result of the civil war and Israeli invasions up to 2000 (MoD, 10 July 2006).

Hostilities of July-August 2006

Cross-border clashes and exchanges of fire between Hizbollah and Israeli security forces along the Blue Line, the UN-established demarcation line separating Israel and Lebanon, have taken place regularly since 2000. Heavy exchanges of fire occurred in February and May 2006 and Israeli air incursions into Lebanese airspace continued to be regularly reported throughout the year (UNSC, 21 July 2006).

In July 2006, Hizbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers during cross-border clashes with Israeli security forces which led Israel to respond with major military operations including aerial bombardments causing massive displacement. Hizbollah retaliated with rocket attacks on northern Israel. The conflict affected the entire country, especially southern Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut as well as the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon. According to the Lebanese authorities, the conflict resulted in 1,191 deaths and 4,409 injuries (HRC, 13 December 2006). Human rights and humanitarian organisations have called into question the proportionality of Israel’s response and noted that the consistent failure of Israel to distinguish between combatants and civilians is in contravention with international law, calling for investigation into particular incidents such as Israeli air strikes that killed 28 persons in their home in Qana (HRW, 30 July 2006; MSM, 12 October 2006).

The main causes of internal displacement were indiscriminate attacks by Israel on civilians and civilian property and infrastructure, as well as a general climate of fear and panic among the civilian population caused by warnings, threats and attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces (COI, 10 November 2006). In addition, Israel imposed a blockade on the country and launched large-scale air strikes on key infrastructure such as the Beirut airport and port, strategic roads and bridges. Israeli forces occupied some areas of southern Lebanon (UNSC, 21 July 2006). Throughout the conflict, Israel regularly dropped leaflets across Lebanon warning the population to flee ahead of air strikes although in some cases people were unable to leave their homes, notably in southern Lebanon, for reasons including the destruction of bridges and roads or because they lacked transport or were physically unable to flee (UNSC, 21 July 2006; COI, 10 November 2006; OHCHR, 31 July 2006).

The main causes of internal displacement were indiscriminate attacks by Israel on civilians and civilian property and infrastructure, as well as a general climate of fear and panic among the civilian population caused by warnings, threats and attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Displaced people were also targeted by Israeli military as they fled their villages. On 15 July, a group of displaced people leaving the village of Marwaheen were killed by Israeli fire as they fled their village. A convoy of displaced people evacuated by the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) from the same village was also targeted the following day (UNSC, 21 July 2006). On 17 July, a convoy of displaced people fleeing the village of Rmayleh were killed by air raids (LHRA, 8 August 2006). Another convoy of people fleeing the town of Marjayoun, led by the UNIFIL, came under attack on 11 August (Ibid).

Nearly one million Lebanese were displaced between 12 July and 14 August, almost one quarter of the population. The government estimates that 974,184 people were displaced in total of which approximately 730,000 were displaced internally while some 230,000 fled the country (HRC, November 2006). This figure includes the secondary displacement of an estimated 16,000 Palestinian refugees (UNRWA, 3 August 2006). Some people were displaced several times during the conflict because the areas they fled to were subsequently shelled. At the height of the conflict as many as 128,000 displaced people were sheltering in public schools around the country, while others sought shelter in public buildings, garages and parks (OCHA, 4 August 2006). The majority of displaced sheltered with family and extended relatives or were taken in by host communities.

An internationally-brokered ceasefire led to a cessation in fighting on 14 August and prompted the return of most displaced people. The total destruction of entire towns such as Bint Jbeil or Khiam in the south, and of large neighbourhoods in the southern suburbs of Beirut, has however resulted in the continued displacement of around 200,000 people, most of whom are living with relatives and host families, according to the government (GoL, 31 August 2006). However, no registration or assessment has been undertaken to assess the number and location of the displaced.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), established in 1998 by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), is the leading international body monitoring conflict-induced internal displacement worldwide. Through its work, the Centre contributes to improving national and international capacities to protect and assist the millions of people around the globe who have been displaced within their own country as a result of conflicts or human rights violations.

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