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New Lebanon president says: refugees not welcome

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A note from We Are Not Numbers: As Americans weep over the news that Donald Trump is their new president, Palestinians in Lebanon are sympathizing. On Oct. 31, the Lebanese parliament finally selected the country’s new president, ending a 29-month power vacuum. While most Lebanese residents either sighed in relief or shrugged with indifference, Palestinian and Syrian refugees are disgusted and fearful. Michel Aoun, the new president, is no friend. Mona Bibi, a We Are Not Numbers writer and Palestinian activist in Lebanon, explains.

“Three thousand Palestinian martyrs were absent in the parliament session when voting for Michel Aoun. Perhaps if they were present they would have drawn a ‘NO’ on the walls of the parliament with their own blood, the blood that was shed in streams flowing through Tel Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp. Or maybe they would have shaken the Lebanese conscience from its sleep and reminded them about the heinous crimes recorded in their history but ignored by their inhumanity,” wrote Mohammad Mahmoud Al Sayed, a political researcher, in his article “Aoun as President: Tel Zaatar Did Not Have the Right to Vote.

Aoun’s legacy of blood

Tel Zaatar, known as The Hill of Thyme, was one of the largest and strongest Palestinian refugee camps established in 1948, after the creation of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of its native residents. Located in the northern part of what later became Christian East Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war, it housed approximately 15,000-17,000 Palestinian refugees. The area around the camp was a rural, agricultural area that offered camp residents the chance to work on a plantation—that is, until 1968, industrialization swept through. That’s when unemployment became rampant and Palestinians started forming factions, which then armed themselves.

The right-wing Lebanese Christian parties, primarily the Kataeb and its military wing (also known as the Phalange), considered the existence of such Palestinian armed groups a threat to the stability and security of the country. Fatal clashes erupted between the parties.

The broader Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, and in January 1976, hostilities already brewing in the camp erupted into the Battle of Tel Zaatar. Fighters that included the Phalange launched an offensive on the camp and its residents, imposing a siege that lasted 52 days. Famine spread, forcing some residents to eat cats to stay alive. The Muslim Ulema (a group of Islamic scholars) was asked to issue a fatwah (religious finding) to allow them to eat the flesh of their dead. Meanwhile, around 55,000 bombs were dropped on the camp, killing more than 1,000 Palestinians.

On August 12 of that year, the camp succumbed to the right-wing Lebanese Front militiamen. Mass killings followed; more than 60 nurses were killed, entire families were slaughtered, girls as young as 10 were raped. It’s estimated that around 3,500 Palestinians were killed in Tel Zaatar and many were missing.

Over the next two days, the camp was bulldozed to prevent anyone who fled from returning.

The Hill of Thyme never smelled of thyme and lemon again; it was dominated instead by the acrid stench of blood and flesh. It is this smell that came to the mind of Palestinian refugees when Michel Aoun was elected president of Lebanon.

The army commander, Christian and founder of the Free Patriotic Movement is the warlord who has arrogantly boasted that he was “the mind behind the siege of Tel Zaatar”—not to mention other civil war massacres.

When interviewed, Aoun spoke indifferently about the Tel Al-Zaatar massacre, claiming he planned the siege to persuade the Palestinians to disarm. “Things did not go well,” he said, with no sign of regret. When the Palestinian residents refused to leave, “it was getting boring and irritating,” so his forces “removed” the camp.

Hostile to refugees

The problem, of course, is not just with Aoun. The entire Lebanese governmental edifice is structured around warlords who led their sects in the civil war and took over the government when it was over. Meanwhile, Palestinians are still regarded today as alien invaders who disrupted Lebanon’s peace and caused the civil war as they tried to remake Lebanon into a substitute country after their eviction from Palestine.

Would the Lebanese civil war have erupted if it weren’t for the Palestinians? We will never know. But one thing no one can ever deny is that while hideous crimes were committed by all parties who fought the war, Palestinians were the only ones to pay.

Palestinian shadows

Palestinians live in Lebanon as shadows, barely allowed to exist. We, the third generation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, are paying for a war in which we never fought, while warlords like Michel Aoun rule the country.

The status of Palestinians in Lebanon has not been legally defined; we are somewhere between refugees and foreigners. We are not allowed to work in more than 20 white-collar professions, including medicine, law and engineering. Even for “blue-collar” jobs, we must get work permits and renew them annually or when we change employers. We are prohibited from owning property and are excluded from most social services offered by the state, even though we must pay social security fees to the Lebanese government to obtain a work permit.

The issue of rights for Palestinians refugees has always been controversial in Lebanon, despite the fact that we have been here for more than 60 years, due to the sectarian balance established in the country’s constitution. Fearful of allowing more Sunni Muslims to exercise influence, Christian politicians have rejected all of the laws proposed in the Lebanese Parliament that would grant Palestinians the right to work and own property. Now, Syrian refugees face the same wall of opposition to their presence.

In his inaugural speech, Aoun stated, “There will be no solution in Syria without the return of the Syrian refugees to their country.” He also characterized refugees as a security threat. Aoun’s son-in-law and minister of foreign affairs, Gebran Bassil, is unashamedly open about his racism and antipathy toward Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He has continuously called for closing the borders in the face of Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees fleeing violence in Syria.

“When we say we don’t want Syrian and Palestinian refugees, it is because they take our place,” Bassil has said. A country with “no raw materials” cannot bear the economic burden the new refugees bring with them, he added. “Do we not have enough Palestinians in Lebanon? How can we let the rest of the refugees come to Lebanon too?”

Yazan Al-Saadi, a Lebanon-based Syrian writer and researcher, writes, “My issue with Aoun isn’t only because he’s allying with the Syrian regime. He is misogynistic and xenophobic, which reflects his party. He has done nothing to stop the curfews and discrimination toward Syrian refugees and other marginalized communities in the country. He is a representative of a sectarian, neoliberal, exploitative establishment. I feel this man only cares about the throne and I don’t think he is good for the Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees or migrant workers—and, for that matter, Lebanese citizens.”

No true home in Lebanon

Lebanon has elected a president who is a former warlord. A man who whitewashes the Syrian regime’s crimes to appease Hezbollah, by far the strongest party in Lebanon. A man who represents his party’s xenophobic and racist values, which give voice to the Lebanese “race” superiority.

With Aoun rising to power, the slight hopes of progress in expanding refugees’ civil and human rights seem to be dying. No matter how much I, a Palestinian refugee, love Lebanon, I realize now that it never was and never will be our home, not even an appropriate temporary residence.

It’s really hard to be a refugee in Lebanon. It drains you every bit of passion for life you have. Nothing can ever be more insulting than living in a country ruled by a man who contributed to starving my people to death. Nothing is more insulting for Syrian refugees who have fled Assad and Hezbollah’s terror in Syria than being ruled by their candidate in Lebanon. If we had the option of leaving, we would have left.

In such times I understand why refugees are risking their lives to cross the sea to flee this country. The only other choice is to keep on living silently in the shadows, laying low, trying to be as non-existent as possible.

Mona Bibi

Mona Bibi is a Lebanon-based Palestinian activist and writer who focuses on liberation politics and gender issues. She is studying at the Lebanese American University, majoring in history and minoring in political science and gender studies.

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13 Responses

  1. HarryLaw on November 14, 2016, 5:21 pm

    “Nothing is more insulting for Syrian refugees who have fled Assad and Hezbollah’s terror in Syria” No Mona, I suspect those refugees have fled from the head choppers who are equal opportunity advocates of murder, They promise to chop the heads off everyone not like themselves, including Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Shiites even moderate Sunni’s who have shown considerable support for Assad. It should not be forgotten that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is over 1 and a half million, a quarter of the total population, how would the US electorate act if 80 million refugess came to the US within a short space of time? Also one of the causes of the carnage in Syria, and major funder of the Wahhabi head choppers is Saudi Arabia. Do you know how many Syrian refugees the Saudis have taken in? None.

    • andrew r on November 16, 2016, 12:32 pm

      Regardless of who they’re fleeing directly from, Assad is responsible for starting the war.

      • HarryLaw on November 16, 2016, 2:20 pm

        Sorry andrew r can’t agree with you, the US has been trying to regime change Syria since way before 2011. Robert Ford was US Ambassador to Syria when the revolt against Syrian president Assad was launched. He not only was a chief architect of regime change in Syria, but actively worked with rebels to aid their overthrow of the Syrian government.

      • annie on November 16, 2016, 3:46 pm

        i agree harry with you the US has been trying to regime change Syria since way before 2011. i also don’t understand, at this stage, why andrew or anyone keep inserting who started the war. for at this stage it’s irrelevant and leads to no solution. whereas, who they are fleeing from is (and has always been) relevant.

        this reminds me of a recent excellent interview with patrick cockburn who is based in iraq, near mosel.

        Areas I’ve been to between here and Mosul, most of the villages were uninhabited ever since ISIS took them over in 2014. There weren’t many people living there, so they could bomb these ISIS positions without killing many civilians.

        sometimes when isis moves in people flee. the assumption many people make that all or most syrians are fleeing assad is inaccurate. i have visited southern lebanon twice since the war started in syria and many syrian refugees are there and engaged in lots of construction (laborers). the few i met were fleeing from extremist opposition forces (nusra) taking over or controlling their villages. they were not complaining about assad. but then, this is hezbollah stronghold. everyone i met in southern lebanon (including christians) were pro hezbollah, understandably.

        Nothing is more insulting for Syrian refugees who have fled Assad and Hezbollah’s terror in Syria than being ruled by their candidate in Lebanon.

        true, it’s just that lots of syrian refugees didn’t flee because of assad and hezbollah.

        for palestinians (refugees or not), there’s reason enough due to Aoun’s history to despise him. but palestinians (and palestinian activists) are divided over syria. you can read more about that division in the 2014 article

        “Assad and the Palestinians
        Syria’s civil war has divided the Palestinian resistance and complicated its patchwork of international alliances”:

        The three-year old Syrian crisis presents dire dilemmas for Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and in refugee camps across the Middle East. Given Syria’s traditional role as a sponsor of Palestinian resistance movements and a home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, Palestinian leaders are understandably torn between loyalties to President Bashar al-Assad and his enemies.

        Palestinians have fought in Syria on behalf of both the regime and the rebels. The conflict has deepened ideological and political wedges between Palestinians and complicated their patchwork of international alliances. Moreover, as various proxy battles are waged within Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, the Palestinian refugees there are now enduring an underreported humanitarian crisis.

      • gamal on November 16, 2016, 4:59 pm

        “there’s reason enough due to Aoun’s history to despise him”

        no doubt true but the civil war and its protracted messy aftermath spared few reputations and Auon is from haret hreik in Dahiya (of the doctrine) and is an ally of Hizbullah and the Syrian state.

      • annie on November 16, 2016, 6:21 pm

        thanks for the link gamal, yes i knew he was allies with hezbollah. it’s been a while since i asked my friend in lebanon about him and she explained he has had several political transformations and explained he recently (in relative terms) became aligned with them. he left the country in exile and came back and they became aligned. she also mentioned him visiting samir geagea in jail after his return from exile (geagea recently endorsed him) but i don’t fully understand the significance of that visit, but it was a big deal. i find lebanese politics very confusing — but yes i knew aoun and nasrallah were united and that hezbollah has a maranite christian brigade.

        it’s my understanding that hezbollah, being a people’s army, is virtually everyone in southern lebanon. it’s not an army the way we typically think of an army here. when lebanon is attacked the whole south becomes hezbollah (or amal). that’s the way it was explained to me anyway. or the way i ended up understanding it anyway.

      • andrew r on November 16, 2016, 5:45 pm

        There are times when the US has backed Islamic extremist movements (i.e. 80’s Afghanistan). Syria is not one of them. Nor has Obama pursued any regime change there.

        The US military has committed regime change three times this century. In the case of Libya and Afghanistan, it provided air support to allied local militias who did the dirty work on the ground. By my count, there’s one notorious case of that in Syria, with the YPG in Kobane, and not at all with any rebel group while fighting Assad. For that matter, the USAF had no involvement whatsoever in Syria until the spread of ISIS across northern Iraq in Summer 2014, and only killed Assad soldiers for the first time a few months ago (Accident or not, in the preceding two years the US has only ever bombed enemies of Assad in Syria).

        In fact, here’s a good indication of Washington’s commitment to aiding the rebels. It should be clear to anyone following the situation across Syria and Iraq that the US priority is fighting ISIS, not overthrowing Assad. (And I don’t need a reminder that ISIS exists mainly because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.)

        What’s more, most reportage on the early years of the conflict emphasizes the stinginess of Washington in arming the rebels. In line with that, there’s a little something that GR article neglects to mention: Ford was barely listened to in Washington and is now persona non grata.

        While people were arguing over Syria in Washington, Ford was in Damascus, telling rebel fighters Americans were on their side. Things were promised but never arrived, though, making it hard for him to develop a relationship with them.

        On the other side of that coin, the US also prevented weapons like MANPADS from reaching rebel groups.

        Also, one thing defenders of Assad need to account for, how in the holy hell was the imperialist-backed opposition able to start the war at all? That Assad allowed foreign jihad groups to infiltrate Syria invalidates the reason he’s supported by anti-imperialists. He should be impeached for incompetence. Of course I know the answer: Assad started the conflict by waging military war on his own protesting citizenry, and the jihadists moved in when the opposition started fighting back. There’s no third possibility: Assad either started the war himself or he was too inept to protect Syria. Take your pick.

      • annie on November 16, 2016, 7:21 pm

        (Accident or not, in the preceding two years the US has only ever bombed enemies of Assad in Syria).

        don’t you mean coincidence or not?

        Assad either started the war himself or he was too inept to protect Syria.

        at this point, what difference does it make who started the war?

        the USAF had no involvement whatsoever in Syria until the spread of ISIS across northern Iraq in Summer 2014

        the cia has a budget of a billion a year in syria and it’s covert, whereas the airforce missions are overt. covert is still involvement. and i don’t know where you come up w/this 2014 date, definitely not accurate. here’s an article from 3/2013

        “Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A

        And even as the Obama administration has publicly refused to give more than “nonlethal” aid to the rebels, the involvement of the C.I.A. in the arms shipments —…… — has shown that the United States is more willing to help its Arab allies support the lethal side of the civil war.

        From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.

        …….. Most of the cargo flights have occurred since November, after the presidential election in the United States and as the Turkish and Arab governments grew more frustrated by the rebels’ slow progress against Mr. Assad’s well-equipped military. The flights also became more frequent as the humanitarian crisis inside Syria deepened in the winter and cascades of refugees crossed into neighboring countries.

        The Turkish government has had oversight over much of the program, down to affixing transponders to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey so it might monitor shipments as they move by land into Syria, officials said. The scale of shipments was very large, according to officials familiar with the pipeline and to an arms-trafficking investigator who assembled data on the cargo planes involved.

        “A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment,” said Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who monitors illicit arms transfers.

        “The intensity and frequency of these flights,” he added, are “suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation.”


        The former American official noted that the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions are voluminous.

        “People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge,” he said. “But they burn through a million rounds of ammo in two weeks.”

      • gamal on November 16, 2016, 7:51 pm

        “when lebanon is attacked the whole south becomes hezbollah”

        in times like these that hits like a lightning bolt, every hair on end, you remember the song “when the south stood up to resist”

        amongst the Arabs there is universal respect for Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and Hizbullah are greatly respected, they are our Talisman, many Bedouins in Sinai have been killed in clashes with the army over the last weeks and days and have inflicted casualtues too, someone shot dead a general in elarish the army is conducting operation “martyrs right” like scorched earth, many Arabs like Asad Abukhalil have come to the conclusion ….. .

        a brief exercusus:

        The Universal Arab Government Crime

        My father a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, prior to my birth, broke off relations with them in 1954 but was unable to return to Egypt until after Nasser’s death, he had no passport and travelled on documents issued by his wife’s nationality ie UK until Sadat reinstated his citizenship.

        However and it started with Nasser they directed, this is not to say that these states didn’t face serious threats both internal but most of all imperial, however they repressed the working class left and the left intelligentsia with thoroughness and ferocity that that they did not direct at the “Islamic” groups, why, is complex.

        ensuring that their opposition would become “Islamic”

        Islamic an excursus within an excursus:

        any Muslim knows these guys are not in the least concerned with religion, please that is not what religious Muslims look like however we do know who and what and even why they are, they have been produced by various long processes whose particulars need not detain us, but their ideology is understood as being political, enough. They are fearsome and efficient who can, flees, no one is fully safe in their domain even with compliance, death can come at random, it’s a policy and it ensures aquiescence from the remaining populace.

        what was I saying Nasser so to Assad and the states we feel the states should be torn down all of them at whatever cost we are suffocating under them, they can not protect us, gone are the days Arabs are going to listen to “humanitarian” or emotional arguments, no, as manley hopkins said “no, this is worse” but the main enemy remains America the states have hampered resistance to both the Zionist project and Euro/American plunder, we will fight everybody and each other, i know its the product no other choice, what can you say.

        however depressed everyone may feel in the US now as Saadi said in 95 “We are the drowned dear Lady, Let the waters come”

        we have become nihilists, its the best option available to us currently, now Syria is broken you watch what catastrophe has been set in motion throughout the region.

        i keep thinking of that ras ibuna song “diverse doctrine”,

        when the world is a glowing post nuclear wasteland only the cockroaches and the bedouins who feed on them will survive, we do not worry for ourselves but we will recall you with affection.

      • andrew r on November 16, 2016, 11:31 pm

        don’t you mean coincidence or not?

        So are there anymore instances of US airstrikes killing SAA/pro-Assad militia or not? Based on googling “US airstrike kills Syrian troops” with all the results for the first 10 pages referring to the same incident late in Sept, that would be a no.

        at this point, what difference does it make who started the war?

        I guess you could ask the same question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the years we’ve had many posters explain in painstaking detail how the Zionist movement incremented toward “transfer” based on its desire to possess the land of Palestine, and no one on the anti-Zionist side was asking what difference does it make. Probably because the typical commentator here expects a solution that doesn’t leave the Israeli state intact.

        and i don’t know where you come up w/this 2014 date, definitely not accurate.

        The first US airstrikes in Syria were on 22-23 Sept. 2014; guess what govt. forces were not targeted?

        As for the covert aid itself, I’d say the US role in Syria is more akin to the one it played in the Iran-Iraq war: It wants both sides to keep killing each other without a decisive victory. Hence the shipment of arms that are somehow used up quickly and don’t include anti-tank or anti-aircraft (That stuff the fighters had to loot themselves from their former military as one article I linked above shows). Compared to the swift reaction to the rise of ISIS and the past two years of involvement in Iraq, it only makes the regime change theory in Syria look more flawed.

      • HarryLaw on November 17, 2016, 5:27 am

        This is a proxy war of regime change, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel want the overthrow of Assad the ‘West’ does also. To facilitate this the US supply thousands of tons of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and Qatar like Tow anti tank missiles, paid for by the Saudis and shipped through Turkey to the Jihadis, [by the way there are no “moderate” jihadis] these are all well documented facts. The only reason man pads were not delivered was the close proximity of Ben Gurion airport at severe risk. “Absolutely… Absolutely I would,” McCain said when asked whether he would support the delivery of Stinger missiles to the opposition in Syria.

        “We certainly did that in Afghanistan. After the Russians invaded Afghanistan, we provided them with surface-to-air capability. It’d be nice to give people that we train and equip and send them to fight the ability to defend themselves. That’s one of the fundamental principles of warfare as I understand it,” McCain said.

        Read more:
        “The US government has committed regime change 3 times this century” give it time, here is what it did last century..
        Instances of the United States overthrowing, or attempting to overthrow, a foreign government since the Second World War. (* indicates successful ouster of a government)

        China 1949 to early 1960s
        Albania 1949-53
        East Germany 1950s
        Iran 1953 *
        Guatemala 1954 *
        Costa Rica mid-1950s
        Syria 1956-7
        Egypt 1957
        Indonesia 1957-8
        British Guiana 1953-64 *
        Iraq 1963 *
        North Vietnam 1945-73
        Cambodia 1955-70 *
        Laos 1958 *, 1959 *, 1960 *
        Ecuador 1960-63 *
        Congo 1960 *
        France 1965
        Brazil 1962-64 *
        Dominican Republic 1963 *
        Cuba 1959 to present
        Bolivia 1964 *
        Indonesia 1965 *
        Ghana 1966 *
        Chile 1964-73 *
        Greece 1967 *
        Costa Rica 1970-71
        Bolivia 1971 *
        Australia 1973-75 *
        Angola 1975, 1980s
        Zaire 1975
        Portugal 1974-76 *
        Jamaica 1976-80 *
        Seychelles 1979-81
        Chad 1981-82 *
        Grenada 1983 *
        South Yemen 1982-84
        Suriname 1982-84
        Fiji 1987 *
        Libya 1980s
        Nicaragua 1981-90 *
        Panama 1989 *
        Bulgaria 1990 *
        Albania 1991 *
        Iraq 1991
        Afghanistan 1980s *
        Somalia 1993
        Yugoslavia 1999-2000 *
        Ecuador 2000 *
        Afghanistan 2001 *
        Venezuela 2002 *
        Iraq 2003 *
        Haiti 2004 *
        Somalia 2007 to present
        Honduras 2009
        Libya 2011 *
        Syria 2012
        Ukraine 2014 *

        Q: Why will there never be a coup d’état in Washington?

        A: Because there’s no American embassy there.
        And that was only since the end of the 2nd World War.
        The US government are involved up to their necks in Syrian regime change, the only reason it will not succeed is because Russia wants International law to apply and for the Syrian people alone to decide Syria’s future, not the “democrats” of Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

      • HarryLaw on November 17, 2016, 5:53 am

        Annie. For another take on US involvement in Syria, Robert F Kennedy Jnr penned this excellent and wide ranging article. In it he argues that one of the reasons [maybe the real reason] for the war in Syria is the gas pipe line from Qatar to the Med,
        “In their view, our war against Bashar Assad did not begin with the peaceful civil protests of the Arab Spring in 2011. Instead it began in 2000, when Qatar proposed to construct a $10 billion, 1,500 kilometer pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey. Qatar shares with Iran the South Pars/North Dome gas field, the world’s richest natural gas repository”.

  2. HarryLaw on November 14, 2016, 5:41 pm

    Saudi Arabia has 100,000 empty tents with air conditioning with accommodation for 3 million refugees. Zero Syrians. How long will these Saudi satraps and despots be able to continue their medieval barbaric ways?

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