The Nahr al-Bared Relief Campaign loaded up a truck from its center in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut yesterday to take a shipment of baby formula, medicine, and food aid to Nahr al-Bared refugees in Baddawi refugee camp near Tripoli. There were three of us: our driver from Shatila, a Lebanese, and me, an American. The extra people in the car were there, in part, to ensure that our driver would not be picked up by the army and detained at a checkpoint for driving while Palestinian (think driving while Black in an American context), which is increasingly becoming a problem. We loaded up the pickup truck and started down the coastal highway. For once there was little traffic so it would seem that the trip would not take as long as usual. But just about half an hour outside of Beirut we got a flat tire near Jounieh. Our driver had a spare tire so he changed it and we moved on. But not very far. That same tire we changed became flat with the two other new tires we replaced it with on our drive up to Baddawi. I asked why our truck was getting flats while the other trucks taking shipments up the highway were not. The answer was simple. Palestinians are not allowed to drive trucks which have two tires on each corner of the vehicle like the regular delivery trucks do.
The laws in Lebanon affecting Palestinians’ freedom and mobility (economic or physical) are extensive. It is a favorite argument used by Zionists in the U.S. to argue that Israel is not the only state repressing Palestinians as if that somehow absolves them of their brutal regime and illegal occupation. But it somehow feels more painful here in Lebanon given the discourse of brotherly Arab love that exists side-by-side such laws. This week all Palestinians living in refugee camps received a letter from Fouad Siniora and the Committee for Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue. This letter — which should actually have gone out to Lebanese citizens instead — was addressed to “My Palestinian Brothers and Sisters.” It tells Palestinians that “the raid on Nahr al-Bared refugee camp is not a raid on Palestinians” and that the army is merely practicing “self defense.” It tells them “the Lebanese soldier is your brother” and that he is “only after the terrorists who threaten your security.” As if Palestinians need reminding that Fatah al-Islam has nothing to do with the Palestinian civilians from the camps or Palestinian resistance more generally, it reiterates this point, a point that ironically should be made to Lebanese people. The series of ironies spelled out in this letter tells the people of Nahr al-Bared that “it is for your protection and your families’ protection” that the army is bombing the camp “to stop you from becoming hostages to these terrorists.” The letter promises Palestinians will be able to return to their homes in Nahr al-Bared and that Lebanon will rebuild the camp with international and Arab support, while stating that their larger cause is to support Palestinians’ return to their homes in 1948 Palestine. For this reason the letter also makes it clear that as supporters of a just solution to the Palestinian cause, they do not support “naturalization so Palestinian refugees can return to their rightful homes.” In so doing, it redirects the current tension between Lebanese and Palestinians stating that we should not “lose sight of our fundamental cause [justice for Palestinians in their right of return] and not get drowned in Zionist aspirations.” And yet as an outsider witnessing the level of devastation in Nahr al-Bared and the assault on Palestinians within Lebanon at checkpoints I find this rhetoric empty. When will the Lebanese see that granting Palestinians equal rights in Lebanon as something that does not negate al-awda (Palestinians’ fundamental right of return under UN Resolution 194)? When will Lebanese see that the abject poverty in these camps, which is maintained by Lebanese laws prohibiting Palestinians from various professions, from owning property, from driving proper delivery trucks, as similarly oppressive as many of the Zionist laws in Israel?
The anti-Palestinian rhetoric one hears in Lebanon these days compounds the situation of the Nahr al-Bared and now Ein al-Helweh refugees moving from camp to camp in search of a safe space. After the massacre in Shatila refugee camp and neighboring Sabra, African American poet June Jordan found it difficult to speak about the unspeakable atrocities she read about in the newspaper in her poem “Moving Towards Home.” She ends the poem by telling us she does need to speak, especially about “home” and about “living room”:
I need to speak about living roomThese lines from this poem resonate for me as I watch the mass movement of Palestinians in search of a home, in search of a temporary refuge until the right of return is respected and granted. Where can we make living room for Palestinians inside Lebanon? When will Palestinians be able to live without fear of violence, terror, and destruction? Where can Palestinians feel safe? These questions and these lines from Jordan’s poems haunt me as I listen to stories of friends and refugees from Nahr al-Bared who have been beaten and detained by the Internal Security Forces or the Army in Lebanon. Who are afraid to go to work because they fear this will happen to them. Who are yet again expelled from their homes, who no longer have living rooms or rooms to live in.
where my children will grow without horror
I need to speak about living room where the men of my family between the ages of six and sixty-five
marched into a roundup that leads to the grave
I need to talk about living room
where I can sit without grief without wailing aloud
for my loved ones
where I must not ask where is Abu Fadi
because he will be there beside me
I need to talk about living room
because I need to talk about home
A group of unaffiliated youth from Nahr al-Bared who now reside in Baddawi refugee camp understands this most acutely. Each night they organize candlelight vigils, poetry readings, or discussions about their loved ones who remain in Nahr al-Bared. They organized a boycott of aid relief for one day this week during the heaviest bombardment of the camp, stating, “We are given food to make us forget the hunger of our families and friends in Nahr al-Bared. We are given mattresses to sleep on to forget the sleepless nights of our families and friends in Nahr al-Bared.” The intense media coverage has died down and seems to have forgotten that Palestinians are still being killed in Nahr al-Bared, that tanks are now lined up facing Ein al-Helweh, that Palestinians inside Nahr al-Bared and around the country are hungry, are tired, are scared, are in need of safe homes. We need to simultaneously remember that Palestinians have a right to safe homes in Lebanon even as we fight for every Palestinian’s right of return to their original homes in Palestine.
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.