When Flora Williamson, one of the ‘Medical Aid for Palestinians’ fundraisers, visited one of the NGO’s programs run in Lebanon in December 2014, she documented her visit in a blog post. “Military checkpoints. Restriction on movement. Systematic discrimination,” she wrote, listing her “notes from the field.”
These are usually the characteristics people associate with life for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But as Flora Williamson discovered on her trip, these conditions also apply to Lebanon.
As is the case in neighboring countries, Lebanon has been one of the destinations of Palestinian refugees since 1948, otherwise known as the ‘Palestinian Exodus’ or “al-Nakba” (catastrophe in Arabic.) However, the resolution 194 of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), voted that same year, grants Palestinians the right to return to their homeland if they wish to “live at peace with their neighbors.” Consequently, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) defined the Palestinian refugee as a “person whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” The UNRWA’s definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of male refugees.
Among the 58 refugee camps officially recognized by the UNRWA, Lebanon is a host of 12 sites and 449,957 registered refugees. The camps, systematically built, in different stages of time, are as follows: the Beddawi camp (established in 1955, a host of over 16,500 registered refugees), the Burj al-Barajneh camp (established in 1948, a host of over 17,945 registered refugees), the Burj Shemali camp (established in 1955, a host of over 22,789 registered refugees), the Dbayeh camp (established in 1956, a host of over 4,351 registered refugees), the Ain al-Hilweh camp (established in 1948, a host of over 54,116 registered refugees), the El Buss camp (in use since 1939, hosting Palestinians since 1948 with of over 11,254 registered refugees today), the Mar Elias camp (established in 1952, a host of around 662 registered refugees), the Mieh Mieh camp (established in 1954, a host of more than 5,250 registered refugees), the Nahr el-Bared camp (established in 1949, as of January 2014, 1,321 families, 5,857 residents), the Rashidieh camp (established in 1963, a host of more than 31,478 registered refugees), the Shatila camp (established in 1949, a host of more than 9,842 registered refugees), and the Wavel camp (established in 1952, a host of almost 8,806 registered refugees).
According to UNRWA reports, half of the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon is 25 years of age and younger, rendering the population majorly youthful. Additionally, around 62% of the refugee population are inhabitants of camps, while the remaining 38% are either dispersed around the country or reside in gatherings in the vicinity of these camps, yet they are not part of the official settlements and do not receive the same services registered refugees do.
In 2016, Palestinian camps in Lebanon are reduced to dense and overcrowded sites with no open spaces. Many of the camps are just narrow networks of alleyways, too tight to allow any vehicle and accessible only to pedestrians. In some areas, buildings are separated by less than one meter, making the camps overwhelmingly dark and lacking sunshine, which directly affects the health of the inhabitants – mainly children and pregnant women. These camps allow absolutely no privacy. Moreover, Palestinian mobility counts many restrictions, including Lebanese army checkpoints upon entrances and exits of the aforementioned camps. With no spaces for children to play, no privacy for adults, restricted mobility, and restrictions on many rights (to be mentioned), Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are simply prevented from living their lives like any other resident or citizen of the country. With further restrictions on immigration and travelling, they seem to be stuck in limbo.
Lebanon’s sectarian politics have contributed to the reality refugees face in camps on a daily basis. The Lebanese sectarian power-sharing formula entails the president of the republic to be a Maronite Christian; the prime minister a Smunni Muslim; and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim, in a ruling “troika” representing the country’s three main religious movements. Hence, since the influx started in 1948, there has been a proximate consensus among the different Lebanese political and sectarian factions, that the overwhelmingly Sunni Palestinian population could never be allowed civil rights in fear that their numbers would meddle the balance in favor of an already large Lebanese Sunni population in the country.
The Lebanese law and a myriad ministerial decrees currently deny refugees an automatic right to social security, to work or even to join a union. Palestinian refugees do not have citizenship rights in Lebanon and are considered foreigners or foreign nationals. Yet they do not receive the same treatment as foreigners do. Additionally, 70 professions in Lebanon are banned for Palestinian refugees, among which all jobs in the fields of medicine, law, engineering and pharmacy. They are also barred from owning land or property. However, the BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights reported that in the 1950s, a “small number” of refugees, mostly consisting of Palestinian-Christians, acquired the Lebanese citizenship under the presidency of Camille Chamoun (1952-1958), in order to keep the balance between Muslim and Christians in the country. Lebanon voted against the UNGA Resolution 194, which enshrines the Palestinian right to return. More than it was a principled stance by the political establishment, Lebanon’s reject of the resolution was mainly explained by political concerns and fear of settlement plans.
People still see refugee camps as a security threat, long after the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters were forced, during the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, out of the country towards Tunisia, where the PLO then established its new headquarters. In the 1970s, after the conflict of Jordan’s Black September, when the PLO fought a civil war against the Jordanian Armed Forces and lost, most Palestinian militant fighters relocated to Lebanon under the umbrella of the PLO. During the 1982 Lebanese War, the PLO took up arms and fought Israel from Lebanon alongside Lebanese allies. Palestinian refugee camps were stages for several bloody attacks, crimes and massacres during that period. The perception that the PLO is one of the direct causes of the Lebanese Civil War is still an embattled narrative today, especially among Lebanese Maronites, who as Christians have been Palestinians’ long-time sectarian rivals. Following the Israeli invasion of Beirut and the expulsion of the PLO Lebanese Christian militias, under the watch of the Israeli Army, committed the infamous massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps from 16 to 18 September 1982, killing thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites.
In 1985, after the Israeli withdrawal, the war turned into a civil conflict in what came to be known as ‘the War of the Camps.’ The Shiite Muslim Amal militia, backed by the Syrian troops, besieged the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in an attempt to take control of the city’s camps of Sabra, Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh. In May of that year, the Sabra camp and most of the Shatila camp fell, while Burj al-Barajneh remained under siege. Up until today, the death toll remains uncertain, but is likely to have been high among Palestinians, who were outnumbered and out-equipped by the Amal militia.
In 2007, the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in the north of the country endured a major catastrophe. In the summer of that year, a non-Palestinian militant Islamic group known as Fatah al-Islam, took over the camp and announced its open hostility to the Lebanese government. The camp endured three months of fighting between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam. Constant fights eventually destroyed the it, rendering it uninhabitable. Palestinians refugees who lived there paid a hefty price: first of displacement, but also of consequent harassment by the security forces and the Lebanese people.
Heavily armed Lebanese army checkpoints can be seen today at the entrance of Palestinian refugee camps like Nahr al-Bahred and Ain al-Hilweh. One of their functions is to prevent the refugees from bringing building materials into the camp; this includes anything that might improve the dilapidated housing conditions and the refugees’ lifestyle. With more now fleeing the violence in Syria and seeking refuge in Lebanon, the camps’ living situation is getting even worse. In November 2016, the Lebanese government started building a wall around Ain al-Hilweh, the country’s largest camp, in order to “prevent jihadists from infiltrating”, according to Lebanese military sources. The Lebanese government justified the building as a mere security measure, after security forces had arrested fugitive terrorists who had taken shelter in the camp earlier that year. However, it suspended work on the wall after protests from camp residents and Palestinian groups.
Thus far, more than 61,000 Palestinian refugees live in Ain al-Hilweh, including 6,000 who fled the war in Syria, according to the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.