War exacerbates Palestine refugee conditions

Palestinian children play in Rashidiya camp, whose population was hard hit by the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. (Serene Assir/IRIN)

TYRE - While Lebanese southerners bore the brunt of casualties and destruction to infrastructure during the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah, the pre-existing vulnerability of Palestine refugees living in Lebanon has also been greatly exacerbated.

“The main problems that the Palestinians have to cope with, particularly in the south, are socio-economic,” said Hoda Samra, spokesperson for the Beirut office of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

“Whatever affects the Lebanese affects the Palestinians, given that they are residing in this country. But the Palestinians also lack coping mechanisms. Any emergency affects them even more than other groups, as the Palestinians in Lebanon are vulnerable by definition,” she added.

UNRWA defines Palestine refugees as people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. Descendants of such people are also, by default, defined as Palestine refugees.

Approximately 405,000 Palestine refugees live in Lebanon. About half of them live in and around the southern cities of Sidon, 40 km south of Beirut, and Tyre, 80km south of the capital.

Just over half of the Palestinians in southern Lebanon live in ‘camps’ - specially set up residential areas that are controlled by Palestinian authorities. While having concrete buildings and infrastructure, the camps are typically overcrowded and utility services are limited.

The rest of the 1948 Palestine refugees live among the general Lebanese population.

Another 13,000 to 15,000 Palestinians, displaced during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, are registered with the Lebanese government, said Samra. Though not technically defined as Palestine refugees, many face extreme poverty and, as such, receive assistance from UNRWA.

One reason for this is that most Palestine refugees in Lebanon have not been granted Lebanese nationality and so are not allowed to work in around 20 syndicated professions, according to Samra, despite the fact that the government eased restrictions in June 2005.

“Some professions are completely closed to Palestinians, while others carry their own restrictions. So mostly they are left to work in manual labour and semi-skilled professions that do not require a work permit,” she said.

Many Palestinians, especially in southern Lebanon, work in agriculture. This sector has suffered severe losses as a result of Israeli bombing, a blockade on the country and the presence of thousands of unexploded ordnance (UXOs) - bombs and bomblets dropped or fired which have failed to detonate.

While hostilities ended on 14 August and Israel’s blockade was lifted on 7 September, UXOs continue to hinder the recovery of farming in Lebanon. A direct result of their presence is that Palestinians, whose income was severely compromised by the war, are not able to return to work.

“I used to be a day-worker in the fields near Tyre,” said Ahmed Hussein Khalifa, a Palestine refugee living in Rashidiya camp. “I used to make about US $8 a day before the war. Now, it’s been two months since I’ve made any money at all.”

Another war scar for Palestine refugees is the physical damage sustained to some of their homes by Israeli bombs. Rashidiya, Ain Al-Helweh near Sidon and Burj Al-Shamali near Tyre - all refugee camps - were hit by Israeli shelling.

“In addition, outside the camps, preliminary estimates indicate that 102 [Palestinian] homes or shelters were totally destroyed, 159 were partially destroyed and 755 are in need of minor or major repairs as a result of the conflict,” said Samra.

Compounding the predicament of these refugees is the deteriorating situation in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). A considerable number of Palestinians in Lebanon used to receive financial assistance from the Palestinian government until an international trade and aid boycott took effect in March.

This was in response to Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by the West, winning democratic elections in January.

“Until this year, my family used to receive some money from the Palestinian government, which didn’t come to much but certainly helped a little,” said Hisham, a refugee in Rashidiya who requested that his surname be withheld.

“Now, with the economic situation in Lebanon becoming worse and worse, we are all finding it very hard to make ends meet.”

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