As Syria’s war spills over into Lebanon, and Palestinian refugees from Syria pour into Lebanon by the tens of thousands, the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon once again finds itself scapegoated along with Syrian refugees by Lebanon’s media and political elite.
Palestinians and Syrians who have fled to Lebanon have been greeted by attitudes such as that of Gebran Bassil, minister of energy and water and leader of the centrist Free Patriotic Movement: “When we say we do not want displaced Syrians and Palestinians, it is because they want to take our place.”
The minister added, referring to the Palestinian camps in Syria: “isn’t it enough that we already have Palestinians in Lebanon for the rest of the camps to come and settle in Lebanon as well,” proposing that Lebanon should close its borders to those fleeing the violence in Syria, following the moves of Jordan and Turkey.
Bassil’s xenophobic rhetoric echoes that of Nayla Tueni, a member of Lebanon’s parliament, who wrote in her family’s newspaper, the daily An-Nahar, that the influx of Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon “will lead us to find ourselves facing a new reality, and new settlers, and a new burden, returning to our memories of the Palestinian nightmare in Lebanon [in the 1970s],” using the same Arabic word used to describe colonist settlers in occupied Palestine, and referring to Lebanon’s 15-year civil war which erupted in 1975.
During Lebanon’s civil war period, when the Palestine Liberation Organization and their Lebanese allies fought Israel from Lebanon, the country’s Palestinian camps suffered terrible massacres, destruction and expulsion at the hands of various parties.
Israel’s 1982 invasion of Beirut was followed by the expulsion of PLO fighters from Lebanon later that year, which in turn was followed by the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, perpetrated by Lebanese militias under the watch of the Israeli army. In 1985, heavy, bitter fighting erupted in Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut as the Syrian-backed Amal party and Palestinian camp militias vied for control.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have always been looked at with a suspicious eye and treated as a security threat by Lebanon’s political class, eager to deflect from their own incompetence and malfunction by placing blame for the country’s problems on a foreign bogeyman. The refugee community, currently lacking any meaningful protection, has also always been vulnerable to the turbulent political tides in Lebanon.
Crackdown on refugees
Though there is a historic animosity towards Palestinians in Lebanon, they are hardly the only target of resentment in the country today.
The more than 600,000 Syrian refugees now in Lebanon, a tiny country with a population of just four million, are banned from establishing camps in Lebanon and also find themselves prevented from working as anything besides cheap labor.
Lebanon’s social affairs minister, Wael Abu Fawr, announced the crackdown on unlicensed Syrian-run businesses by stating: “They have the right to work to feed themselves on building sites or other sectors but not in trade or in businesses that require a permit.”
Lebanon’s political class can be heard on the TV or radio blaming the unstable country’s problems such as its weak economy, chronic power outages and inter-Lebanese sectarian clashes on the influx of refugees.
This scapegoating results in populist sentiment detrimental to Syrian refugees; the progressive Lebanese publication Al-Akhbar reported last month that “A recent opinion poll found that 54 percent of respondents believed Lebanon should close its doors to the refugees,” adding that “A full 82 percent said that the refugees were taking jobs from Lebanese.”
A recent catastrophe endured by one Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon should serve as a reminder of what is at stake for the vulnerable community.
In the summer of 2007, the once large and vibrant Nahr al-Bared camp near the northern city of Tripoli was destroyed. Nahr al-Bared camp endured three months of fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, a militant Islamic group.
Though Fatah al-Islam is not a Palestinian organization, Palestinian refugees were falsely accused of harboring “terrorists” by the Lebanese security forces, politicians and the media. In Beirut — miles away from Nahr al-Bared — Palestinian men were beaten and harassed by the police, solely because they were Palestinian, as Human Rights Watch reported in 2007.
For the last six years Palestinian refugees from Nahr al-Bared have been preoccupied with the daily struggle to return to their camp and rebuild it. The camp’s formerly vibrant economy vanished with the Lebanese military and internal security forces’ tight control of movement in and out of the camp. Since 2007, of the 27,000 displaced refugees, only a handful of families have been able to return to limited sections of the camp that have been rebuilt.
This summer, another refugee camp — Ein al-Hilwe near the city of Sidon — narrowly avoided a similar fate.
In June, the Salafi cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir called on all Sunni Muslims in Lebanon — including Palestinian refugees — to do battle with the Lebanese army and Hizballah, the Shia resistance organization which had recently become involved in the war in neighboring Syria.
Following the call, members of Fatah al-Islam and another militant group, Jund al-Sham, fired on a Lebanese military checkpoint close to Ein al-Hilwe.
Palestinian factions inside and outside the camp were determined not to take part in attacks against the Lebanese military. Both Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s leader, and Khaled Meshaal, chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, reportedly made contacts with Lebanese political figures to ensure that Palestinians would remain neutral in any fighting within Lebanon.
Despite Palestinian efforts to stay out of the fray, some commentators in the Lebanese media have used inflammatory language when referring to the Palestinian camps, claiming they are “security hotbeds,” “a source of danger,” or “potential fighting reserves.”
In an article published by local daily tabloid al-Balad, associated with the US-supported March 14 coalition, the author blames Lebanon’s civil war on Palestinian refugees.
“It is not enough that Lebanon is home to the Palestinians and their cause and bears burdens that exceed its capacity,” the article adds. “Lebanon is also forced to live with the presence of armed Palestinians in closed security islands that have become a haven for all types of extremism, terrorism and criminality.”
With some of them too busy maligning Palestinians, Lebanese journalists have generally neglected to expose the discrimination faced by refugees on a daily basis. There is little in the Lebanese media about how Palestinian refugees lack basic civil rights, are banned from practicing more than 70 professions and from owning property, or about the dire conditions in the United Nations-administered and unofficial refugee camps.
This is especially the case with Ein al-Hilwe.
Already hosting 80,000 people, Ein al-Hilwe has had to accommodate even more refugees who have fled Syria.
An-Nahar newspaper has a long history of hostility toward Palestinians and over the past few months, it has tried to use the increase in refugee numbers to typecast Palestinians as violent.
After President Michel Suleiman recently spoke about Lebanon’s “burdens,” it was insinuated by the paper that Palestinian refugees were in that category. “For focus has been now turned to the Palestinian refugee camps, which could be transformed once again to explosive hotbeds after an increase in refugee numbers,” the newspaper claimed.
Quite a few inaccurate and sensationalist reports have been published by the media.
New TV, for example, has formed a habit of blaming recent clashes in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp on Palestinians.
As a friend of mine noted, this is a particularly egregious case of shoddy research. “New TV’s building is 500 meters away from the camp,” my friend said. “If they got up on their roof they would’ve seen that clashes were outside the camp.”
The fighting involved the Future party and the Amal Movement, both Lebanese parties, rather than Palestinian groups.
One bitter irony is that Palestinians have been victims of the fighting they have been seeking to avoid.
For the past two years, Sunni and Alawite fighters have been fighting each other in the city of Tripoli. The fighting has taken place a short distance from the Palestinian refugee camp of Baddawi.
While residents of the camp have rejected calls by the rival militias to participate in the fighting, they have not been spared its consequences. A few months ago, a building used by the Palestinian political party Fatah in Baddawi was struck by a missile. One man was killed and three were injured. Then on 29 June, a Palestinian man — Khaled Traboulsy — was shot dead by a sniper’s bullets in Tripoli as he was going home to Baddawi.
The allegations made in the press are echoed by some Lebanese political groups.
The website of the right-wing Christian Kataeb party has published a stream of articles on Ein al-Hilwe which leave the impression that the camp is responsible for the country’s deep-seated problems.
In an article titled “Ein al-Hilwe camp: one kilometer fabricating scenarios to ignite sectarian conflicts in Lebanon,” the camp is described as “a stronghold fabricating security scenarios to ignite sectarian conflicts all over Lebanon which will bring woes to the country.” The article adds that the camp is “considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora and a stronghold for outlaws.”
The party’s site claims that Jabhat al-Nusra, a group linked to al-Qaida, is active in Ein al-Hilwe. The article claims, citing anonymous sources, that there is “an intention by a fundamentalist groups in the camp to create a branch for Jabhat al-Nusra in order to destabilize security in the camp and its surroundings.” This claim is especially dangerous given the history of Fatah al-Islam and Nahr al-Bared camp.
Despite his party’s antipathy towards Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas found time to meet the Kataeb leader Amin al-Gemayel on a trip to Lebanon during July.
Apart from calling on Palestinian refugees not to take part in violence, Abbas has shown little regard for the concerns of his people in Lebanon.
Abbas did not visit any of Lebanon’s twelve official Palestinian refugee camps, opting instead to enjoy the luxury of Phoenicia Intercontinental hotel on Beirut’s waterfront. But Abbas did have the time to present a Palestinian passport and honorary citizenship to the Lebanese pop singer Ragheb Alameh.
Let down by the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are also facing the prospect of fewer basic services.
During July, youth activists in Nahr al-Bared called for daily protests against a decision by the UN Agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, to cease its emergency program for the camp as a result of funding shortfalls. As a result, many Palestinian families will be without shelter, food aid or health coverage from September onwards.
Life is hard enough for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are increasing in numbers as a result of the war in Syria. Baseless allegations of Palestinians taking part in violence that has nothing to do with them — and efforts to push them into the fighting — will make it even harder.
Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter: @MoeAliN.