Since the summer of 1982 everything has changed. The Palestinians’ lives have been transformed in a way which touches all the details of everyday existence and comes to seem almost “normal.” They were refugees then. Now they have become pariahs. Life today remains at ground level. The forces of order impose their strict limits—here the Israeli occupation, there the Lebanese government of Amin Gemayel. There is no more “terrorism,” no fedayin, no PLO—only the civilian population which sought refuge in Lebanon 35 years ago. For these people, the funeral corteges and massive destruction are now things of the past.

The great test of strength of the summer of 1982 shattered the Palestinian community and stripped it of all its institutions: medical, social, educational, everything. Each household was affected in the most intimate way, for its active men were taken. Dead, handicapped, jailed or missing, almost all are still not able to assume their responsibilities in this traditionally rural society. Only women, children and old people are left, alone and vulnerable.

Deprived of internal equilibrium and external support, the community is exposed to rumors and unrestrained conduct. In the occupied south, “macho” collaborators take the law into their own hands, with guns in their belts. In the camps around Beirut, some satisfy personal vendettas by making anonymous denunciations to the authorities. Such a gangrenous atmosphere adds treachery to despair. It becomes impossible to help one another or even to talk together without running a risk.

The sources of income have dried up. Not only are the men absent, but it is nearly impossible to get work. Invading Israeli fruits and vegetables have disrupted the traditional agriculture of the Tyre region. Around Sidon, the Christian militias have wantonly murdered Palestinians, compelling everyone to work inside ‘Ayn al-Hilwa camp; there the reconstruction of shelters remains the main activity at present. In Beirut, a work permit is required, but it is nearly inaccessible due to bureaucratic intrigue and excessive cost. The threats against Lebanese who employ Palestinians are not empty. Those who ignore them have bombs explode at their places of business.

Those Palestinians lucky enough to have an emigre parent manage to get out. For those with a relative working outside Lebanon, the economic situation is bearable. This is not the case for most people, especially those who live on meager savings or on the rations distributed by UNRWA, if they are fortunate enough to be registered for its services. Those women who still possess traditional gold bracelets, necklaces or earrings sell them one by one, while waiting for a husband or son to be freed from the jails or prison camps. All must put off dealing with even the most urgent matters while struggling for a livelihood, from one day to the next. Such an existence allows no real perspective on the future.

The Refugee Camps

Where to live? Some have been lucky enough to have recovered their shelter, or at least their site. But they are few, compared to the thousands of others, dispersed into buildings once used for other purposes, turned into squatters, or forced from their households under threat.

Some refugee camps in Lebanon existed before 1948, temporary homes to previously dispossessed communities, notably the Armenians. Such is the case of Rashidiyya, south of Tyre. But 1948 brought an unprecedented and unanticipated number of refugees, the populations of entire towns and rural areas of northern Palestine as far south as Acre and Jaffa. Religious institutions offered Mar Ilyas next to Beirut and Miyya Miyya, above Sidon. The Lebanese government furnished lands. Here and there, lands were rented to UNRWA.

Lodged at first in makeshift tents, the refugees were later authorized to live in shelters limited to one story, with roofs of corrugated iron. Both Lebanese and Palestinians accepted this as a temporary solution. Over the years, population growth diminished living space inside the camps. Each square meter had its function, each street became a narrow vein, dug with a ditch carrying out sewage. For lack of land, construction had to be directed upwards, despite strict surveillance of the camps by Lebanese police.

The Cairo agreement of 1969 gave the PLO responsibility for the camps. Most restrictions on construction were removed. But other constraints developed. In the south, Israeli bombardment of Nabatiyya camp after 1974 forced the Palestinians to abandon it. All the camps situated in Phalangist areas (and sheltering Christian Palestinians for the most part) were gradually emptied. The survivors of Nabatiyya made their way mostly toward Sidon, where they occupied an old church here, an ancient mosque there, or the decaying buildings of the Rijal al-Arba‘in quarter. Many refugees from Tall al-Zaatar settled in Na’ama, not far from Damour. Many others, from Dubayya or Dakwana, occupied buildings and rooms in west Beirut.

Even before the Israeli invasion of 1982, the problem of refugee camps had become especially grave. The Lebanese government of Elias Sarkis decided to set up a new camp at Bisariyya, south of Sidon. Parliament voted a budget and allocated the sum, but the local Lebanese population occupied the place to prevent the installation of the camp. After September 1982, the Gemayel government soon declared its policy with respect to Palestinians in Lebanon: Only those who arrived in 1948 and their descendants were authorized to live there. The government authorized UNRWA to undertake the reconstruction of Nabatiyya, in the Israeli-occupied zone. This would prove impossible, considering the hostility of the local Lebanese populace. In the camps of Sabra, Shatila, Burj al-Barajna and Mar Ilyas, reconstruction remained practically prohibited.

Certainly whoever is in charge in Lebanon today faces a difficult and complex situation. Nevertheless, the absence of a decision on the camps hides a policy which plainly exists. Consider the situation in Baddawi, the Palestinian camp five kilometers north of Tripoli, where the population has grown steadily since the summer of 1982 from the influx of refugees from the south. The head of the “October 24 Movement,” Farouq al-Muqaddam, offered one parcel of his land adjacent to the Baddawi camp to accommodate incoming refugees. At the end of June, after several months, Lebanese authorities refused to authorize the construction of shelters on this space. Here is a decision which says more than all the speeches from the presidential palace in Baabda.

For about the last year, Christian militias have tried to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the Sidon neighborhoods of Abra and Wadi Zayni. Their summary executions and daily harrassments have forced Palestinians to flee toward the refugee camps. At ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, al-Buss, Burj al-Shamali and Rashidiyya—all major targets in the summer of 1982—reconstruction is going ahead at full speed. Every available hand is mixing cement, carrying and lifting the building blocks. But reconstruction is not always possible. Lebanese owners from whom land was formerly rented now want their land back. They have begun court cases to reclaim the land, some urged on by the Christian militias, others for their own economic reasons. While the owners await a favorable judgement on these cases—which they have already gotten at Miyya Miyya—the lots have been surrounded by barbed wire. Those with a shelter there can neither reconstruct, nor can they move elsewhere. The available space in the camps has decreased as all the Palestinian population in the area is forced to live there.

In the camps around Beirut, reconstruction must take place within a formal legality of construction permits and rules established at the beginning of exile in the late 1940s. The bureaucracy persistently insists that they will authorize only one-story shelters with corrugated roofs. The police constantly patrol the camps to check on the application of these rules. Reconstruction is thus impossible without enormous bribes to these representatives of the law. No one can add a floor to their house, however great their need. At night, when people need to stretch out, the shelters are jammed with people. But doors and windows cannot be opened, for the camp has been invaded by rats.

Palestinians Without Identities

Thus variations on the theme of “forbidden” are woven into the everyday life of the Palestinians, at least to the extent that they can claim officially a Palestinian identity at all. This problem usually passes unnoticed, because it is essentially about non-existence. It afflicts some 50,000 Palestinians today, whether they live in Lebanon or have emigrated with Lebanese travel documents issued before the fall of 1982.

The September 1982 announcement of the new Lebanese government that allowed as residents only those Palestinian refugees who immigrated in 1948 and their descendants excluded all those who arrived after 1948 from places such as Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. Before September 1982, the legal status of Palestinians living in Lebanon—including identity cards and travel documents—had been handled by the Special Department for Palestinian Refugee Affairs (DAPR) within the Ministry of Interior. The files of this office were considerably disrupted during recent years—”in the period when there was no state,” as they say in Beirut. The Gemayel regime says it cannot rely on the files of the DAPR. To know who is a refugee from 1948 and who is not, one must turn to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), created in December 1949 by the UN General Assembly to provide services to refugees from 1948 and only to them.

The UNRWA files today number 239,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. These do not account even for all who could claim status as refugees from 1948. When UNRWA began its work in 1950, it applied refugee status only to those who had lost both their home and their work. The refugees who had found employment between 1948 and 1950 could not register for UNRWA services. Others who had enough income to avoid seeking charity did not even apply. Other exceptions are more unfortunate. Children orphaned by the 1948 war were sheltered by their extended family—often peasants, who did not consider registering them in a system that was totally foreign. Those children today are adults, and they have no identity. These and other unregistered refugees from 1948 were included in the official DAPR records.

Those who work in foreign countries now have travel documents that are no longer valid. This past June, the Lebanese press told of a Palestinian working in Abu Dhabi who wanted to return to Lebanon to renew his passport. Neither country would accept him, and he had to fly back and forth between the two airports for several days! The Lebanese authorities refuse to acknowledge the general problem and insist on dealing with each case individually. UNRWA has transmitted its entire “Lebanon” file to the authorities, and confines its role to the formal limits of its mandate.

The era of high-technology arms in south Lebanon has passed. It no longer serves the enemy’s purpose to strike indiscriminately from the sky. Rather they can let things take their course on the ground. Every individual is affected, remorselessly. Everyone feels isolated, caught in a trap. In this way they are pushed to abandon their last remaining heritage—their memories and the identity that they contain. Everyone has only one aim: to survive.

Translated by Jim Paul and Andrew Schlosser

How to cite this article:

Marie-Christine Aulas "Palestinian Life at Ground Level," Middle East Report 119 (November/December 1983).
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