Without a political and legal solution, Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon will remain impoverished and at the mercy of international aid organizations who seek to depoliticize their suffering, according to experts on the crisis in Lebanon’s camps where they say the Palestinian people have been abandoned.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are among the most disadvantaged groups in a country suffering from a catastrophic economic crisis: 73% of Palestinian refugees live in poverty, in contrast to 45% of Lebanese, according to a United Nations survey conducted in July 2021. The situation is even worse for Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS), 90% of whom live in poverty. Yet, despite these daunting statistics, little to no attention has been turned to the 12 refugee camps in which roughly 400,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon.
The issue was quickly sidelined when an explosion, followed by a shooting that killed four civilians, rocked the Burj al-Shamali camp in December, sparking fears of all-out warfare. At the time of the chaos, I was told by Mohammed Khatib from the Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp that “the violence exists because the Palestinians live in an unbearable environment in Lebanon.”
A history of subjugation, exploitation, and betrayal
Palestinian refugees have lived in Lebanon since 1947-48 when Zionist militias drove them from their homes in historic Palestine and forced them to remain in exile. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), along with smaller Palestinian factions, eventually set up their base inside Lebanon in the 1970s, during which decade Palestinians in the camps were recruited for various guerrilla campaigns against Israel and were granted robust political representation. However, in 1982, an Israeli invasion of Lebanon eventually forced the PLO to withdraw from the country, leaving the refugees abandoned militarily and, to a large extent, politically. Massacres then commenced, such as the infamous Sabra and Shatila mass execution of up to 3,500 people. This was then followed by a PLO civil war in 1983, in which Fatah Party dissidents such as Said al-Maragha led a rebellion against PLO loyalists supporting its chairman Yasser Arafat. Then came the 1985-87 “war of the camps,” in which Syrian-backed groups and the Syrian Army itself attacked the PLO’s forces in Lebanon.
International organizations, Palestinian parties and NGOs, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and others have since provided aid to those in need in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, but there has been little political representation. On top of which, Palestinians in Lebanon are banned from most job fields, barred from owning property and from formal public education. On August 17, 2010, the Lebanese Parliament amended Article 59 of the Lebanese Labor Law and paragraph 3 of Article 9 of the Lebanese Social Security Law, which was supposed to allow greater Palestinian rights to work and to social security in Lebanon, but this reform has never been properly implemented.
With divisions running deep in Lebanon as a result of the Lebanese civil war and the post-1982 era of tensions, the PLO pursued a different course of action – one in which the PLO would occasionally attempt to use its people in Lebanon in order to extract better terms on political issues and to get a seat at the negotiating table with both the Israelis and United States. The result has been that providing a real vision for those in the camps has been, at best, a secondary focus. In addition to this, discrimination against the Palestinian refugee community has persisted both in the law and on the part of many Lebanese.
“A political tool”
Osama al-Ali, a UNRWA school teacher living in Baddawi camp, told me that “the Palestinian refugee issue is used as a political tool by the PLO, but not in a positive way” and that “this has resulted in Palestinians feeling a sense of instability in the country.” He added:
The Palestine issue and the refugee problem is a political one. Palestinians cannot purchase property and do not feel a great sense of belonging to Lebanon, due to the limitations. It is also humanitarian, [which is how] UNRWA addresses it, but we cannot forget that it is a political issue as well. If we were to look at it through a humanitarian lens, we would ask that some of these issues be resolved but not all of them and that’s what’s happening now.”
UNRWA is a major factor in aiding Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is now running into another deficit in funding and in January made a plea for funding to the international community. Commenting on this issue, al-Ali told me:
UNRWA’s help, when it comes to health, is in constant decline. This has made the financial hardships worse, and security is also lacking due to the lack of stability in the country. In general, young people of the [Baddawi] camp and their families are experiencing a sense of hopelessness from the poor living conditions here in Lebanon… With this is of course an insistence on returning to Palestine someday.”
Ignoring the political
Mahmoud Hashem, director of the Palestinian Chess Forum in Shatila refugee camp, blamed international donors and NGOs for pressuring Palestinian refugees to completely ignore politics and focus solely on the humanitarian side of the Palestinian refugee issue, also criticizing the Palestinian Authority/PLO for its lack of a unified position. He stated:
There is not a unified Palestinian position by Palestinian organizations and associations in Lebanon on foreign aid. Some organizations, and they are the minority, refuse this aid [from influential Donors] because it comes with political conditions that contradict our principles [in the refugee camps], especially on the issue of liberating Palestine.
Some organizations in Lebanon do not want to jeopardize their credibility by getting aid from foreign organizations. Of course, after 1982 in Lebanon, some organizations were subject to pressure by international NGOs, such as Save the Children. If support is not coming with conditions and is dedicated to art and cultural aspects in particular, this support is generally welcome. What makes this pressure possible is the Palestinian leadership’s disregard for Palestinians in Lebanon after 1982, and especially after 1993 and the Oslo Accords. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are no longer a priority for the Palestinian leadership.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Palestinian living in Nahr al-Bared camp told me:
International organizations come here and are seeking only to make a profit sometimes, I have witnessed organizations who use us for funds and then run away… There has also been an effort to make sure we do not rise up here in the camps and form a unified Palestinian front with a clear vision.
The donors to the NGOs want us to remain as victims; they fear us being instrumental in the struggle for liberating our country. Look who funds the NGOs – do you think Western imperialist powers care about us? Do you think billionaire Zionists care about us? No, they want to control our lives and our actions; they hate us and need us to be poor and broken and the PA [Palestinian Authority] allows this. “
An expert’s view
To get to know more about the ongoing crisis in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, I spoke to Jaber Suleiman, a researcher/consultant in Refugee Studies and co-founder of Aidoun Group & the Centre for Refugee Rights. Suleiman said that, since the Lebanese economic crisis began in 2019, the Palestinians that were “the worst affected have been those living in the camps, but they had already been suffering their own crises prior to this and are routinely subjected to various forms of marginalization – economic, social, cultural etc.” He explained further that “according to a survey conducted by the American University of Beirut jointly with UNRWA, the percentage of Palestinians living in poverty was 65%, while unemployment was 56%; [and] this was all prior to the [Lebanese financial] crisis.”
Suleiman then pointed out that:
Palestinians are mainly getting paid in Lebanese pounds, so with the depreciation of the currency their wages have gone down… the Lebanese pound [having] lost about 90% of its value. Accordingly [with the crisis], many Palestinians were expelled from their jobs in many companies because these companies were getting rid of employees and Palestinians were of course at the top of this list and represented the top category of those fired from their jobs. This meant that many Palestinian households lost their source of income.”
Suleiman says that a coping mechanism, devised among those in the Palestinian community in Lebanon, was to change their types of consumption and create needed foodstuffs inside their own homes. Backing this up, according to the United Nations, 58% of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have decreased the amount of meals they consume on a daily basis. He argues that, despite the ability to depend on each other, “in general this is not sufficient to fulfill their needs.” I was then referred to a strategic assessment paper Suleiman wrote, in which it is noted that the onus is on three primary players to resolve the current crisis: UNRWA, the PLO/ PA, and finally the Lebanese state itself.
The PLO’s different factions and Palestinian NGOs have different types of programs to provide aid and support to the most vulnerable, Suleiman told me. Nonetheless, he stated:
The situation is very difficult and extremely harsh… Palestinians are excluded from any provision of the Lebanese state – for example, provisions that have been provided funding by the United Nations for those suffering in Lebanon – because of the fact that Lebanon sees the UNRWA as being solely responsible for the Palestinians and so the Lebanese state has freed its hand from this responsibility.”
The long aftermath of Nahr al-Bared
Intrigued by some of the more recent conflicts that may have contributed negatively towards the handling of the Palestinian refugee camps, I then asked Suleiman how he thinks the Nahr al-Bared conflict, the debates surrounding it, and the so-called Vienna document have played a negative role in shaping attitudes and policy, internationally and domestically, towards Palestinian refugee camps.
The Nahr al-Bared conflict took place in 2007 and was one of the most violent clashes since the Lebanese civil war. The camp, located near Tripoli in the north, turned into a war zone when militants belonging to the Fatah al-Islam group confronted the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF); it eventually ended with the Lebanese army taking full control of the camp. In the conflict’s aftermath, the absence of a unified central representative body for the Palestinian refugees created major hurdles. Suleiman commented:
Nahr al-Bared was an outstanding issue in deepening the cracks between the camps and their Lebanese surrounding community. Given that, you must know that Nahr al-Bared was a central market for the surrounding Lebanese villages… The economy of Nahr al-Bared was the most prosperous of any compared with other surrounding camps.”
Suleiman continued: “We can’t deal with the fight in Nahr al-Bared against Fateh al-Islam as a local issue…we should envisage it inside the wider framework,” which he went on to say was representative of the situation throughout the country. He explained:
The Nahr al-Bared crisis was used to deepen hostilities [between Palestinians and Lebanese] because many Lebanese soldiers and civilians were killed and even neighboring villages were affected by the bombings, [including those] committed by the Lebanese army itself. It’s also not only the Nahr al-Bared crisis…because prior to this there were already many misconceptions tied to Palestinian refugees.”
Suleiman said these were caused by many Lebanese parties portraying Palestinian refugee camps as a threat and a burden on the security of the country. He concluded:
Before the Nahr al-Bared conflict, the Lebanese-Palestinian relationship witnessed a good period, after the reopening of the PLO office in 2006 and the upgrading of Palestinian representation… This was interrupted by the Nahr al-Bared conflict and was exploited to ruin Palestinian-Lebanese relations.”
No legal or political protection from UNRWA
Suleiman pointed out to me an aspect that had been stressed by several other Palestinians living in Lebanon: UNRWA’s program offers no legal or political protection to Palestinians. He maintained:
This policy is reflected in the aid programs provided by international organizations (including the programs of UNRWA), a policy of making the issue purely about humanitarian issues… The aid provided by international donors to the NGOs is dictated by that donor’s policies and not by the needs of the people.”
This point is that foreign influence runs contrary to Palestinian national aspirations, which are then undermined. If the Palestinian people in Lebanon are dependent upon NGOs to survive and the NGOs are dependent upon donors, then this gives the donors a virtual carte blanche to determine what is going to be happening on the ground.
Suleiman says that this is why organizations like Aidoun and others that support the Palestinian Right of Return – UN General Assembly Resolution 194 – are not supported by any other NGO and won’t receive the backing of major donors. “They say that this [the Palestinian legal and political demands] is not a primary concern, sometimes even supporting other issues that aren’t needing the funds, such as gender issues, which don’t constitute a priority for those suffering,” he told me, noting that this is also reflected in the donor policies of UNRWA, which will never focus on Palestinian political issues like liberation or self-determination.
Suleiman also says that the Palestinian Authority is not doing enough, “given the donations they have received,” to provide for those enduring the financial crisis in the refugee camps, which he believes is an obligation not being fulfilled.
Perennial chaos in the camps
If the Palestinian refugee situation in Lebanon is going to be solved, it’s clear that political and legal rights have to be put on the table but, according to those living in the camps, that is not happening. With the violence that erupted back in December came the threat that civil unrest could escalate into something much bigger inside Lebanon as a whole. Some appeared eager to bring that about. Samir Geagea, for example, is a former warlord and leader of the Lebanese Forces, a far-right militia party that received backing from Israel and Saudi Arabia to fight Palestinians and Lebanese leftists. His weighing in on the explosion taking place in Burj al-Shamali refugee camp, and later the killing of four civilians by Fatah gunmen, provides reason to believe Palestinians could be used once again to spark civil war.
The reality is that without political representation and both legal and political solutions provided for the refugee question, which has been put on pause by the Palestinian Authority based in the occupied West Bank, chaos is perennially inevitable in the refugee camps in Lebanon. According to all the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, the primary issue for them is returning to their home country, and they say they will not achieve this, or anything else, without a unified political program and representation.
Feature photo | A woman looks through the broken facade of a shop damaged in an explosion in the Burj Shamali Palestinian refugee camp, in the southern port city of Tyre, Lebanon, Dec. 11, 2021. Mohammed Zaatari | AP