Palestinian refugees in Lebanon eye statehood bid with skepticism

A Palestinian woman lays a flower at the Palestinian Martyrs’ cemetery at Shatila refugee camp on the anniversary of the 1982 massacre, 15 September 2011.

Sharif Karim Reuters

Last week marked the anniversary of the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. The Lebanese Phalangist milita murdered and injured thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians while the camp was surrounded by the Israeli army. An upcoming vote on an independent Palestinian state at the United Nations is said to be motivated by the wish to prevent such an atrocity from ever occurring again. But Palestinian refugees in Lebanon aren’t exactly holding their breath.

I decided to go for a walk in the Shatila camp last week. It’s well known in Beirut that a taxi will not drop off a passenger inside the camp, only on the outskirts. Some taxi drivers will argue that they cannot drive inside the area due to crowds and the hideously potholed roads; others will give the standard Lebanese racist talk demonizing the Palestinians who live there, declaring the dangers of going inside.

Dropped off on the outskirts, I started walking towards the camp. In a matter of moments the scene shifts from normal city life, to a devastated shantytown, as if someone hit fast-forward on the remote control. Pictures of superheroes martyred during Palestine’s 63 long years of struggle for liberation, plastered on every wall. Water pipes and electrical cables crisscross in front of these tributes to heroes, improvised infrastructure because in this area the Lebanese government is not concerned about providing for the population, not that the government is that concerned about it anywhere else in the country.

Walking through the narrow alleys of Shatila, the daylight here is dimmed because the overcrowded buildings are pressed up against each other; sunlight has no chance to shed its rays here. I see the usual scene: old and young men alike hanging out on the corners of these gloomy passages, in cafes or just outside their buildings.

Unemployed and waiting to return

In a cafe, where a group of young men my age were playing cards, I spoke to Ahmad al-Ali, who explained, “As you see, I’m just hanging out with the guys, I don’t have any work. I’m a plumber but I can only work in the camp; outside the camp the Lebanese don’t give us work; they would rather hire a Lebanese or a Syrian but never a Palestinian.”

“We are confused about who we are and what we are doing here,” he added. “We are trapped in this small camp not knowing what is next for us. We are living in order to return, but here I am, one generation after another, waiting to return.”

As I left the neglected Shatila camp I thought over the obvious fact that no young Palestinian wants to remain a refugee. None of them have forgotten or ever stop thinking about return. Young Palestinians stress that the return is imminent, to them it’s not just a sentiment or an idea.

Khaled Zaher, 25, a Palestinian refugee struggling to make a living, told me he was not optimistic regarding the UN vote.

“I think the vote and this whole process is a maneuver to let the Israelis gain more time for further establishment of settlements and land theft,” he said. “It would only be a change from the outside; the daily reality would remain the same since the lands of 1967 are still occupied.”

Zaher added: “As for refugees, the situation would get worse since it is going to affect the right of return on many levels. I think this whole maneuver is a serious and dangerous attempt to prevent their return forever since a Palestinian state would further acknowledge the Zionist state as a ‘Jewish’ state and become a platform for population transferring projects.”

“Palestinian Authority only represent themselves”

One of the effects of the 1993 Oslo accords signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel, which created the Palestinian Authority, was the political disenfranchisement of Palestinian refugees like Zaher.

“The Palestinian Authority people only represent themselves, [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas’ mandate expired so he does not represent Palestinians under the PA and he never represented the refugees anywhere,” Zaher said.

“An uprising of Palestinian people with sound objectives is the only way to reclaim all Palestinian rights with all of historic Palestine and return of refugees, in addition to a reform of the PLO and its institutions on democratic grounds,” he added.

Montaser Abed-Rahim, a refugee from the Nahr al-Bared camp near Tripoli, is cautiously supportive of the UN bid, so long as it doesn’t endanger Palestinian refugees’ rights.

Born in 1975, at the start of the Lebanese civil war, Abed-Rahim is a father of two and a graduate who studied airplane mechanics. However, because of legalized discrimination in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are prohibited from working in most professional fields. Unable to practice his profession, Abed-Rahim runs a mini-market in the Baddawi camp near Nahr al-Bared.

Nahr al-Bared was destroyed in the summer of 2007 after several weeks of fighting between the Lebanese army and the insurgent militant group Fatah al-Islam.

Supportive of a state within the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital, Abed-Rahim said, “This has to be done while ensuring the return of refugees and compensation on the basis of the Security Council Resolution 194 [which calls for the right of return of Palestine refugees].”

“I hope the option of going to the United Nations is to make the international community face its responsibilities in front of Israeli intransigence and actions against our people,” he added. “In case of a failure of the vote, I expect a third intifada against Israel from inside and outside Palestine.”

The request for a Palestinian state to be admitted to the UN will be presented this week and, whether it passes or not, the precarious situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is a reminder of the status quo’s untenable nature. Meanwhile, as the Arab uprisings push on, perhaps the flawed bid will galvanize the Arab masses in support of action. Whatever the outcome, it won’t break the will of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

Moe Ali Nayel is a journalist and fixer based in Beirut.