The Palestinian refugees of Lebanon

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Burj el Barajne, Lebanon Photo:Magne Hagesæter

It’s a tragic tale of refugees meet refugee camp.

Palestinians expelled from their homes, blotted out by occupation; their native land pillaged and possessed. Israel’s occupation of Palestine has created a myriad of damage to Palestinian society – from denying Palestinians their right of return to destroying entire villages, ethnically cleansing the land of its indigenous inhabitants, so that Israeli settlements can take their place, so that cities carrying Arab names can be dismantled and forgotten.

In a most recent case, Israeli soldiers, accompanied by a bulldozer, destroyed all the buildings in a Bedouin community near Anata, northeast of Jerusalem in the West Bank:

“People are somber, traumatized, and griefstricken,” says Itay Epshtain of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. (ICAHD) who operate a center on the site called Beit Arabiya, which was also destroyed. “Nearly 100 people are out in the elements now on a cold night. Children, babies, mothers, fathers. Some of us from ICAHD did try to block the bulldozer, but we were beaten back by soldiers.”

The total registered Palestinian refugees number some 4.62 million according to the United Nations, as of 2008; according to UNRWA the number of Palestinian refugees registered in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria are as follows:

Jordan: 1,983,733
Lebanon: 425,640
Syria: 472,109

These figures, though staggering, do not include unregistered Palestinian refugees.

A large quantity of Palestinians became refugees after they were expelled from their homes, some leaving out of fear for their safety due to direct military assaults on their towns and villages by Zionist forces before the creation of the state of Israel. Still to this day, Palestinian refugees constitute the world’s oldest and largest refugee population, making up “more than one-fourth of the entire refugee population in the world.”

United Nations resolution 194, passed on December 11, 1948 and reaffirmed annually since 1948, states that:

“…the [Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

Despite the UN declaring, and reasserting annually, that “…no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”, acknowledging that Palestinians have a right to return to their homeland, Israel denies the Palestinian right of return and officially denies any responsibility for the Palestinian exodus; the Palestinian exodus, i.e. Al Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, referring to the expulsion of approximately 711,000 to 725,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes, the massacres of civilians, and the razing to the ground of hundreds of Palestinian villages by Zionist forces in 1948.

In my native Lebanon, where I volunteered last winter in a number of Palestinian refugees camps such as Burj el Barajne, I saw first hand the immense level of deprivation Palestinians face as refugees in Lebanon, where they are prevented from the right to work, from joining any Lebanese trade unions, from owning property and even denied social security.

Dalal Yassine, a lawyer and advocate for gender and human rights for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, in a piece for the Electronic Intifada, writes that “…as there is no state of Palestine with official diplomatic relations and reciprocity agreements with Lebanon, this immediately creates an obstacle that prevents Palestinian refugees from obtaining work permits, especially within professional associations.”

There is something I find bitterly humiliating, in entering a Palestinian refugee camp. The crowded buildings, pressed ever-so-close, creating inside you a disturbing sense of claustrophobia; the men, women and children forced into bosomy flats, stockpiled atop one another. I felt ashamed of myself, as I stood hugging walls of Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps with my backside, as a car attempted to fit through the small space between adjacent homes. I felt ashamed of myself. 

I left the camps with an inflexible sense of repulsion circulating within me, one that has not dissipated; a repulsion targeting my own society, Lebanese society.

Yet to this day it is difficult to put into words all of the emotions I possessed within me as a Lebanese citizen, walking into the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon.  I rarely spoke during my primary encounters with any Palestinians, but especially the Palestinian children, who I would sit and watch with child-like curiosity. How can I describe what it is like to listen to a young girl, who has just returned from school, tell me she wishes to be a doctor, knowing that if she were to remain in Lebanon it would be nearly impossible for her to find work? Or, to listen attentively to a little boy, not even 10 years of age, tell me he wishes to liberate his homeland when he matures. There is no denying that the children born out of the folds of Palestine’s occupation are strong of will, sharp of mind and persevering of soul. Though, just as Palestinians suffer the unyielding brutality of Israel’s colonization of their homeland, they endure the wrath of Lebanese society, which refuses to recognize their existence outside of the camps.

Lebanese society, as a whole, has long justified the discrimination perpetrated against the Palestinians; this perverse discrimination is institutionalized, rationalized and maintained. The Lebanese government has a duty to abide by international law, in respect to safeguarding the civil rights of all refugees in Lebanon and in this they have been thoroughly neglectful.

As Israel continues in its audacious refusal to abide by international law so does Lebanon.

And in this respect, “Palestinian solidarity activists must recognize that the achievement of Palestinian human rights in Lebanon is not mutually exclusive from or at the expense of achieving Palestinian human and political rights in Israel-Palestine. Indeed, they are inextricably linked.”

(Crossposted on Roqayah Chamseddine’s blog The Frustrated Arab)