Letter from a Palestinian Camp

A tent at the entrance to Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp reads, “The people of Nahr al-Bared Camp demand their immediate return [to Palestine], not the salvation of their houses.” (Dr. Marcy Newman)


On 16 April 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed white American clergymen who were opposed to his civil resistance campaign that fought against racist, segregationist policies and practices in the US. Writing from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he responded particularly to people who would have preferred that African Americans be patient and wait for those rights to come to them rather than to resist:

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

For 59 years Palestinians have been waiting to return to their rightful homes in Palestine under UN Resolution 194. They have waited for this right in Palestinian refugee camps in occupied Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon as well as in the diaspora. By comparison refugee camps in Lebanon and restrictions on Palestinians in Lebanon are worse than the conditions in Jordan, Syria, and in some respects to those in occupied Palestine. But for all of these Palestinians King’s words ring true; Palestinians have waited far too long for their rights within the national spaces in which they reside and under international law.

I had the opportunity to address my concerns about the treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon directly to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora last week in a meeting at the Grand Serail with other relief workers from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Palestine Red Crescent, International Committee of the Red Cross, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) and a governmental group called the Emergency Relief Committee. Throughout the meeting I had the desire to stand up and read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — just changing the words to fit the circumstance in Lebanon. Because while Lebanese soldiers have lost their lives in the siege on Nahr al-Bared refugee camp it does not mean that Palestinians should be subjected to massacre and gross human rights violations. As King also stated in this letter, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In other words, Lebanese security should not be formed on the basis of Palestinian insecurity.

When we entered Siniora’s office a map of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp was laid out on a conference table and he was discussing the rebuilding of the camp with engineers and architects. Throughout the meeting Siniora asserted that he wanted to rebuild Nahr al-Bared and create “a model camp.” That the notion that destroying a camp and slaughtering the people residing in that camp merely to rebuild it is immoral and inhuman seems to be irrelevant here. It does not seem to occur to him that predominant feeling among Palestinian refugees from Nahr al-Bared, who are now thrice or twice displaced as many used to live in the destroyed Tel al-Za’atar camp in Lebanon, believe that any promise by the government is not in earnest (the part of Nahr al-Bared camp where people from Tel al-Za’atar lived is now destroyed). They remember all too well the destruction of camps in Nabatiyeh and Tel al-Za’atar which were never rebuilt. They recall their multiple displacements in Lebanon and the current situation elicits memories of trauma and homelessness. But Siniora insists he wants to rebuild and that the people who are now rendered homeless will have to wait until their community is rebuilt — a figure of 18 months is being circulated — before they are allowed to return to the camp.

Of course there are still around 5,000 Palestinians who have remained inside their homes in Nahr al-Bared. Around 300 people were able to come out this week, many of whom remain in army detention facilities. Of those who were released from detention facilities at least 84 made it to Baddawi to share reports of being stripped naked, harassed, and/or beaten. Their treatment by the Lebanese army compelled them to telephone family and friends remaining inside Nahr al-Bared refugee camp urging them to stay there. They did so despite the fact that the army circulated a message to all those remaining inside — Fatah al-Islam and Palestinian civilians alike — telling them that all who remain will be considered militants with Fatah al-Islam whether or not they are. They did so despite the fact that the army is making it more difficult for aid to enter the camps as a way to encourage people to leave. Palestinians remain inside for a number of reasons: people are afraid of their homes being destroyed; people worry about a loss of cultural identity if they leave the camp; people fear that leaving the camp takes them one step further from returning to Palestine. One older woman from Baddawi told me that “if they came here I wouldn’t leave the camp. Even if they destroyed it. If I left I’d lose everything, if I stayed at least I’d die in my house.”

The promise that Siniora will make Nahr al-Bared a “model camp” is as meaningless to refugees from Nahr al-Bared as is his statement that, “We want to reestablish levels of confidence between Lebanese and Palestinians. Let’s make this camp a model of re-cooperation and confidence building.” In response to this statement I challenged Siniora about his commitment to Palestinians, specifically in light of the contradiction between his idea of “confidence building” and Lebanese security concerns. I remarked that Lebanese security cannot be built on Palestinian insecurity, especially in light of increasing testimonies by Palestinians who have been subjected to harassment, detention, humiliation, and brutality by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) and the army. I requested a public statement condemning such behavior. A colleague from the American University of Beirut, who joined me at this meeting, added to my statement asking for Palestinians to be granted equal rights in Lebanon as a more genuine gesture towards building confidence and creating security for all those residing in Lebanon. Siniora’s response was weak, if typical: “You cannot change things, there are certain things that require laws that I cannot do.”

My colleague and I pressed further requesting Palestinians be granted equal rights with respect to removing the law banning Palestinians from some 70 professions. We posed this proposition in response to one of people at the meeting suggesting that job creation for Palestinians be made a priority, especially with respect to blue-collar work like carpenter training. I argued that prohibiting Palestinians from the freedom to work in whatever profession they choose does not in any way compromise UN Resolution 194; moreover, what type of society will Palestinians build if they are only trained in carpentry? Siniora’s response recalls King’s words about patience: “I passed through this stage [meaning my point of view]. This will not lead anywhere. You will have all these syndicates of lawyers and engineers who will fight to the last Lebanese. This is not the way to do it. The way is to approach it calmly, patiently, slowly. Some Lebanese tell me, why should we pay for reconstructing the Palestinian camp? You should pay for the reconstruction of Lebanon [from Israel’s invasion last summer]. I have to fight that attitude.”

While Siniora may be willing to fight the attitude in Lebanon that he should be rebuilding the areas destroyed by the Israelis in last summer’s war in lieu of or in addition to rebuilding Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, he remains unwilling or unable to fight increasing anti-Palestinian attitudes in this country. Whether these are attitudes or practices that are increasingly adopted by state officials in the army and ISF, we know that none of these will contribute to the rebuilding of confidence Siniora seems intent on if at least rhetorically. And, fortunately, my colleague and I were not the only people in the room who shared concerns about Palestinian treatment in Lebanon. A woman from the UNDP revealed that women who remain inside Nahr al-Bared are afraid of leaving because there have been women who have left who were strip searched and humiliated by the army upon their exit from the camp. A woman from UNICEF also remarked that while Siniora’s letter to Palestinians a couple of weeks ago felt that the letter was hypocritical given that they way they are being treated by the ISF and the army is “a major contradiction” to the tone of that letter. Siniora responded to these women stating, “We have to cooperate. We have to be pragmatic. Our army is the most disciplined with all the risks they are facing about bombs here and bombs there. Take any example of any army in the world …” He begins to offer the US as an example as I shake my head and respond, “I would not use that as a positive example of how an army should operate.” He continues, “My army is not made up of Oxford graduates. I just want you to understand what we are trying to do.”

But I don’t understand Siniora. I don’t understand why there are now at least 41 Palestinians who are being held by the ISF and/or the army; additionally there are now at least 90 Syrian workers who have been rounded up by the ISF and/or the army since this week’s bombing that killed ten people in Beirut. We know from some of the Palestinians who have been released from detention that they are being harassed, stripped naked, beaten, and detained without charge. One young Palestinian 16-year-old, in particular, whose ear was slashed and who bled for one-and-a-half hours before questioning even began. Will treating all people of a particular group — Palestinian, Syrian, take your pick — make Lebanese people safer? Will depriving them of justice and humane treatment make it easier for Lebanese to rest at night?

The cycle of violence is only bound to enlarge and increase before subsiding if these practices of humiliating, detaining, and beating Palestinians and Syrians does not cease. I still have questions for Siniora, including the many which I excerpted here and which he failed to answer directly. First and foremost: are we willing to sacrifice other people’s rights for what we want right now? Does that make it justifiable? When will we understand that what never works is to sacrifice other people’s rights — and never our own? When will we learn that these practices of collective punishment and detention merely play right into the US and Israel’s hands and do nothing to further a secure Lebanon nor Palestinians’ right of return?

Dr. Marcy Newman is a Visiting Professor at the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut and a Fellow at the Initiative for Middle East Policy Dialogue. She is also a coordinator for the Nahr el Bared Relief Campaign (www.nahrelbaredcampaign.org). For more information please email Marcy Newman at marcynewman at gmail.com.

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