Living War: Palestinians Refugees in Lebanon

Palestinian girls in Ein el Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, April 2001 (Photo: Eye to Eye/Save the Children, 2001)

The youth who play football on the small streets and narrow alleys of Bourj El Barajneh represent an entire generation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who live in a day-to-day low intensity war. This is a war waged against Palestinian refugees by the government of Lebanon. It is not waged through military campaigns and guerrilla battles as in the Lebanese civil war, but through policies and laws which are slowly choking the life from Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps.

This economic warfare is carried out through specific laws and regulations which attack Palestinian refugees’ ability to survive. They are forbidden from owning property, working in over 70 professions receiving proper health care, and moving and traveling freely. They do not hold Lebanese citizenship, which gives them little influence over the political decisions of the country in which the majority of them have lived for over 50 years. Most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live in poverty stricken, war destroyed camps as non- citizens with the struggle for the right of return to Palestine the only light shining in an otherwise dark future.

Essentially there has been a war against the Palestinians in Lebanon since their arrival in after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Throughout the Lebanese civil war the refugee camps became subject to countless military attacks from Israeli forces and Lebanese right-wing militias. Until the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Beirut had become the political and military headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). This created a political situation where the refugees of the camps became deeply and directly involved in defining the broader Palestinian struggle for liberation.

As in the case with the presence of Palestinians in other countries in the Middle East, the political organizing of the refugees in Lebanon for the liberation of Palestine LED to a sense of solidarity between the refugees and other disenfranchised elements of Lebanese society. Many activists within Lebanon refer to the beginnings of the civil war as the Lebanese revolution. Raida Hatoum, a Lebanese activist with the paper Al-Yasari (the Leftist) explained, “the Palestinian and Lebanese fought together in one front, not only with the aims of liberating Palestine but also liberating all oppressed people. We all know that they were fighting to change the whole system into a more just one. This was a threat not only to Israel but to all of the Arab regimes including the Lebanese one. They did not want a revolution that could also reach their own people.”

During the civil-war many right-wing Lebanese political movements tried to crush Palestinian and Lebanese popular movements fighting for the basic rights of Palestinians in Lebanon and for the right of return. Social movements which fight for the rights of Palestinians in Lebanon continue today, as the situation of life within the refugee camps has improved little since the end of the civil war. Elements of the Lebanese establishment continue to attack the rights of Palestinians and those movements which fight for their rights. The continued attacks on the rights of Palestinians in Lebanon must be seen in this historical context.

Currently many important political positions within the Lebanese government are controlled by politicians related to fronts within the Lebanese civil war, which engaged in military campaigns aimed at erasing the Palestinian social movements in Lebanon. Nabih Berri, the current speaker of Parliament, was the military head of the Amal militias throughout the civil war.

In 1985 the Amal militias led a full-scale military attack on various Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut including Sabra, Shatila and Bourj El Barajneh. This attack lasted through 1988, becoming known as the “Camp Wars”, which led to mass starvation at the camps of Beirut under military siege by Amal militia. Palestinian refugees at Bourj El Barajeneh and Shatila camp were under siege at one point for a six-month period. Many refugees within the camps still speak about the Amal attacks during the war. One refugee from Bourj El Barajeneh, who asked not to be named, recounted the siege at the camp:

“The children were starving, many people were dying each week and there was little food. We were forced to eat cats and dogs to survive during the siege of the Amal militias”.

So it is no coincidence that political figures like Nabih Berri consistently back new legislation which continues the attack on the rights of Palestinians. In 2002 the Lebanese Parliament passed an amendment to the national property law, which forbids “non-Lebanese persons, who do not possess citizenship issued by a state recognized by Lebanon, to inherit or buy property”. So a family of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon cannot pass down ownership of their rudimentary housing within the refugee camps to their children. Property is automatically handed over to the Lebanese authorities.

Nabih Berri dismissed the demands of a recent political campaign organized by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) aimed at amending elements of this property law, saying that altering it would “trigger strife” among Lebanese citizens. In reality amending this blatantly discriminatory law would “trigger strife” among only the Lebanese political and economic elites. It is not within their interests to establish laws which would give Palestinian refugees their basic rights. With the DFLP-proposed changes which would give Palestinians the ability to legally own property in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees would be in a better social and economic position to fight for their rights in Lebanon.

The national property law symbolizes the larger economic war being waged against Palestinian communities aimed at erasing their presence from Lebanon. Essentially the regularization of the refugees in Lebanon would erase an easy political scapegoat for the Lebanese establishment, as many of today’s social and economic problems in Lebanon are unjustly blamed on the Palestinian presence.

This economic warfare against the Palestinians is furthered by two governmental decrees passed in 1964 and 1995, which outline the conditions of work for foreigners living in Lebanon. As Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon are considered foreigners to the country, Palestinian refugees are barred from working in over 70 professions. This lack of employment opportunity for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has created a devastating economic condition throughout the refugee camps. According to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) more than 60% of Palestinian refugees live below the poverty line. As Souheil Natour, a Palestinian organizer in Lebanon with the DFLP, explained:

“Can you imagine a Palestinian refugee family who has lived in Lebanon for over 50 years living without the right to work. Palestinians often do not have any means to support themselves or their families this is why you find so many Palestinian youth fleeing Lebanon, traveling to various countries in the hope that they will have the ability to work, so that they can send money back to their families to sustain them”.

It is not only economic tactics which are used in today’s war against the Palestinians. The Lebanese army maintains a constant presence on the outskirts of the majority of the refugee camps. When attempting to enter refugee camps throughout southern Lebanon, such as Ein El-Helweh, you encounter a series of Lebanese military check-points which control each entry and exit point of the camp. These check-points essentially prohibit the freedom of movement for Palestinian refugees living in the camps.

Jaber Suleiman, a Palestinian living in Lebanon, displaced in 1948, and an activist with the international Al-Awad (Right of Return) Movement explained: “Palestinians in Lebanon are treated as a threat to Lebanon, so therefore the Lebanese army attempts to contain the refugees in the camps. There is a process of Ghettoization. The movement of Palestinians from the refugee camps of southern Lebanon is controlled by the Lebanese army. Each entrance and exit to the camps is controlled by the army. To enter or exit the camp you car is checked, your documents are examined.”

Essentially today’s war on the Palestinians by the Lebanese establishment, has driven the ghettoization process of the camps, in which the refugees are treated like criminals. The crime for which Palestinians are guilty, is being refugees, displaced people, forced from their homes in Palestine by the Israeli state into ghetto like refugee camps. This criminalization continues today. Each Palestinian born into a camp, each Palestinian child born in Lebanon arrives into this world as a refugee, stateless and without any basic rights.

The refugee camps of Southern Lebanon are in reality large decaying prisons. Refugee prisons, which remain in terrible disrepair from the countless attacks of the Lebanese civil war. Buildings in each camp are lined with bullet-holes and all of the camps are filled with countless bombed-out buildings. The camps remain in this state of disrepair, due to Lebanese legislation passed shortly after the end of the civil war, which prohibits refugees from entering the camps with building materials.

The Lebanese army check-points at the entrances of the camps enforce this regulation. In concrete terms Palestinians living in the camps have no ability to improve the living conditions within the camps and live with constant reminders of the tragedies borne by their communities during the civil-war.

Walking through Sabra and Shatila camps, the site of the 1982 Phalangist militia massacre of thousands of Palestinians ordered by Ariel Sharon, you pass a busy market on the same street where the bodies lay. The walls of the buildings on the street are still lined with the bullet-holes from guns fired at the Palestinians during the war.

In the face war, the refugee camps also serve as an inspiration for the human spirit and the ability of people to struggle against injustice. The camps of Lebanon represent the living face of the Palestinian struggle for liberation and for the right of return. As Palestinians in Lebanon continue to endure the terrible economic and political conditions of life in the camps they continue to organize and fight as part of the larger Palestinian movement.

From the edge of Rashidiyeh camp in southern Lebanon, on the Mediterranean, the mountains of southern Lebanon flow into a country which is today called Israel, but to which the small children of the camp point to with joy and exclaim “Palestine!”

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    Stefan Christoff is a member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led movement of Palestinian and International activists working to raise awareness of the struggle for Palestinian freedom and an end to Israeli occupation. Stefan also works with the No One is Illegal Campaign and is an independent journalist working with CKUT Radio Montreal & Free Speech Radio News.