Today the Lebanese army gave the PLO 72 hours to take out Fatah al-Islam or else the violence will be escalated in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. It is not clear if this means that they will enter or if they will use heavier artillery, but I fear that they will raze the camp. This would not be the first time that it has happened. The Dbeyeh refugee camp was destroyed in 1976 during the Civil War in Lebanon when most of the Palestinian refugees living there were killed or forced out.
The shelling in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp has resumed yet again; more Palestinians are trapped inside and many of them seem to be men. Those who fled Nahr al-Bared and arrived in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut are fatherless families. Houses were destroyed and collapsed and people fled the camp, but many could not find their identity cards. Women and children have an easier time passing through checkpoints without these cards, but men cannot.
The identity cards that Palestinians are required to carry and show the army when they are stopped at checkpoints around Lebanon, which have increased in number since the bombings in Beirut and the fighting in Tripoli, are currently being used as a means to round up and arrest Palestinians. There have been numerous reports of Palestinians getting pulled over at checkpoints around Lebanon as the army does not want Palestinians to move freely from refugee camp to refugee camp.
When we drove to Badawi refugee camp in Tripoli yesterday we saw two such men, who I assumed were Palestinian, pulled over and handcuffed by the side of the highway. As our car passed through the checkpoint, in a caravan of four other cars carrying aid to Nahr al Bared refugees, we saw one of our core group members being taken away by the Lebanese army. He was the only Palestinian refugee among our group (the rest in the convoy were Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian-Jordanian, American, Armenian-American, and German). He was taken inside the army station and questioned about which side he was with: Fatah al-Islam or the Lebanese army. He was also asked what he had with him on his person. We sent two Lebanese men into see what happened and we got him released. But we were lucky.
When we arrived at the camp, we saw that the aid relief in Badawi has improved in some ways, but deteriorated in other ways quite seriously. Groups seem to be better coordinated, but now the camp is flooded with journalists and NGO workers as well as a refugee population that continues to swell. Aid still is not reaching most families in houses, although this is what our group is working on in collaboration with civil society organizations in Badawi. But the aid work that comes in from most NGOs is purchased outside the refugee camp and thus the economy inside Badawi is beginning to suffer.
The aid situation in Nahr al-Bared is by far worse. It’s not clear how many people remain inside, but the Lebanese army continues to hinder the access of journalists, ambulances, and humanitarian aid into the camp, although they did allow four trucks to enter today. As for the journalists and aid workers interviewing families from Nahr al-Bared, it felt a tad obscene especially since the refugees complain that the media is not telling their stories properly and they are feeling violated by the manner in which many of the aid workers and journalists are conducting their work.
Refugees in Shatila and Bourj al-Barajneh camps in Beirut do not yet have to worry about such things as very few media outlets are reporting on the refugee populations here which keep growing. Today in Shatila camp the number grew to 157 families, 1,0009 individuals, 40 of whom came today; nearby Mar Elias camp grew from two to 15 families. We found people living in very cramped conditions, as before, but the details painted a far worse picture of the situation. Families do not have enough mattresses so eight people are sharing one or two mattresses. Another family, living in a mud hut on the edge of the camp, with no proper flooring in the shelter, had no mattresses; this family also has a relative who was shot in Nahr al-Bared and who is still there, but they have no idea where he is or how to get in touch with him. There are many chronic illness issues, especially diabetes, as well as a paralyzed girl who is in need of a brace, a woman with metastasized breast cancer, and thus far two very pregnant women who are due to deliver in the coming week.
There are groups helping in Shatila and we are coordinating our efforts. Al-Aqsa, Fatah, Hamas, and a local NGO in the camp, Najdeh are surveying the new arrivals as well and are distributing some aid, and Hamas has given families some money as well. But the aid is insufficient. Because we are a small group we are adopting a group of 50 families and will be attempting to meet their daily needs. But as we scramble for funds in between our work in the camps we could not help but notice the vast gap between the Palestinian refugees’ hospitality last summer during the July War and the current situation. Lebanese who fled the south during the war last summer were welcomed into the Palestinian refugee camps and greeted with “ahlan wa sahlan” (welcome). Yet not one Lebanese church, mosque, school, or home that we know of has yet to do the same in return. Instead I read, hear, and witness increasing hostility towards the Palestinians among a large population of Lebanese. My only hope is that the next two days do not lead to a repeat of Dbeyeh forcing refugees to remain in even worse conditions before in these increasingly overcrowded camps.
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.
For more information please email Marcy Newman at marcynewman at gmail.com.