Palestinians have endured military occupation, deportation, torture, land confiscation, massacre, siege, aerial bombardment and internecine conflict but until this year they had been spared the experience of being boat people. That has now changed with the recent odyssey of a boatload of some 650 Palestinians stranded off the coast of Cyprus.
This latest ordeal was precipitated by Muammar Qaddafi’s decision in early September to expel all Palestinians living and working in Libya. In response, other Arab countries refused to admit them and took measures to prevent any of them from coming in. Lebanon decided that all Palestinians holding Lebanese travel documents — some 300,000 stateless Palestinians whose families had fled to Lebanon with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 — would henceforth require visas to enter the country. The new ruling means effectively that these laissez-passer holders no longer have the legal right to reside in Lebanon, or indeed anywhere else in the world.
When I visited the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut a few days after the visa decision, people were still reeling from this latest development. At the social center which was my first stop, one woman told me that she had sent her 12-year-old son to visit relatives in Amman. She did not know whether he would be able to return before the beginning of the school year, if at all. A social worker who had been to the Beijing women’s conference had returned just a day before the decision was implemented. Some fellow delegates, scheduled to arrive the following day, were stuck in Syria, Cyprus and the transit lounge of Dubai airport.
The visa ruling fits a recent pattern of Lebanese policies which have led to a critical deterioration in the condition of Palestinians in Lebanon. One of the few common denominators among Lebanese politicians is a general contempt for Palestinians, whom many like to blame for the 12-year civil war. Although the visa decision was ostensibly taken in response to Qaddafi’s expulsion, it had the hallmarks of a plan that the Lebanese government had been wanting to implement for some time. As an editorial in the Beirut daily al-Safir put it, “The police state was waiting for a signal to commit this disgraceful act.” In April 1994, Foreign Minister Faris Buwayz told al-Safir quite openly that Lebanon’s eventual aim was to be rid of all Palestinians currently residing there: Twenty percent would be transferred to the area under the control of the Palestinian Authority; another 25 percent would join family members abroad; and the remaining 55 percent would be distributed among “countries of immigration” such as Canada, Australia and the US, as well as the Arab countries which have a “moral, political and racial responsibility” to accommodate them. Shortly before the latest cabinet decision, Tourism Minister Nicolas Fattoush responded to reports that some Palestinians from Libya would be coming to Lebanon by saying that his country would not be a “dump” for “human garbage.”
In the spring of 1994, reports surfaced in the Lebanese press that all Beirut refugee camps were slated for demolition, and that the government had made plans to resettle the inhabitants on a hilltop in Iqlim al-Kharroub, 20 miles south of the capital. The reports led to allegations that the government intended to “patriate” the Palestinians in Lebanon, and the scheme was later dropped, according to a well-informed Palestinian activist I spoke with in Beirut. But the aim of removing the camps remains. Palestinian refugees have no place in the overall plan to “reconstruct” Lebanon and to turn it into a regional service center and playground. Part of the plan consists in constructing a huge sports stadium and Olympic village adjacent to Shatila; some fourteen cranes are currently employed there on a massive building site.
Amna Badr was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1951, three years after her family fled from Lubiya, a village near Tiberias in northern Palestine. She had moved to Shatila with her husband in 1974. When I asked her what she thought of the possibility that Shatila would be destroyed, she looked at me pleadingly. “Are we going to be continually displaced? We’re used to it here. If they’re going to move us, it would be better to send us straight back to our country.” But she was not very optimistic about a return to Palestine.
Amna told me the tiny cement-block house we sat in belonged to her in-laws. Her own apartment had once been upstairs, but it was destroyed during the “war of the camps” which raged between 1985 and 1987, when the Shi‘i Amal militia backed by the Syrian army fought pitched battles with PLO loyalists, hardly sparing a single house in the process. Her two-year-old son Tariq was wounded in the intensive shelling. Now 11, he has a large scar resembling a burn mark on his forehead. The UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) later put up the funds to help rebuild some of the destroyed homes, but declined in Amna’s case, on the pretext that she and her family were accommodated with her in-laws. She had bought the building materials herself and, with the help of her children, rebuilt one of the upstairs rooms. Amna’s husband, permanently housebound with a workplace injury, has never been compensated. When we spoke, her eight-member family was living on her 20-year-old son’s salary of $6 a day as an apprentice carpenter, and handouts for her four younger children from a local non-governmental organization. This came to around $16 a month per child — in a country where, according to a recent UN report, the cost of living for a family of five is estimated at $618 per month at the poverty line.
UNRWA and the PLO had been the main sources of financial support and employment in the camps, but the PLO’s social services and payments have almost completely dried up. UNRWA still runs primary and intermediate schools in the camps and recently added one secondary school, but medical services and other forms of assistance have all but stopped. Schools are no longer completely free; they require registration fees, and books and supplies must also be purchased. UNRWA clinics, which once routinely referred patients to local hospitals at their expense, are now more reluctant to do so. A social worker in Shatila told me that it was now UNRWA policy to refrain from assisting anyone over 60 who required a medical operation. A resident of Shatila, Shahira Abu Rudayni, told me that an acquaintance of hers had recently developed gangrene. After repeated visits to the UNRWA clinic without getting a hospital referral, he finally brought along his young children and a container of kerosene. It was only after he sprinkled them with the fluid and threatened to set fire to them that UNRWA agreed to pay for his treatment.
Wherever I went in the Beirut camps, the refrain was the same: “We have no rights here.” Most pressing of all, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians do not have the right to work in Lebanon. According to official figures, only 7,362 Palestinians out of 300,000 have been granted work permits. This means that most work illegally, restricted to jobs where employers do not demand permits. Ramziyya Khashan told me that her teenage daughter was working illegally in a sewing factory; she is paid less than her Lebanese co-workers, gets no social security benefits, no sick days and no compensation if she is fired. Recently the Lebanese authorities have reportedly been spot-checking workplaces to see whether they are employing Palestinians without permits, and employers may now stop the practice altogether. The Lebanese policy contrasts with the practice of allowing workers from Syria to work without restraint, and of granting permits to workers from East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It has led to waves of Palestinian emigration, and several people told me that they would have considered leaving if they could, but most Western countries were no longer offering immigrant visas to Palestinian refugees even if they could afford tickets and other expenses.
Since the current minister of electricity and water, Elie Hubayqa, is widely accused of commanding the Sabra and Shatila massacres during the Israeli occupation of Beirut in 1982, it may not be surprising that Shatila has no electricity and Burj al-Barajna has no running water. There are a number of artesian wells from which salt water is pumped; several drinking water reservoirs are maintained by UNRWA and the Lebanese Islamist party, Hizballah. But they are not always replenished, and people have access to them on a first-come, first-served basis. Salih Ibriq, head of the “popular committee” that serves as a town council in the camp, told me that the water crisis was getting worse every day and had become “unbearable.” In Haniyya al-Qutt’s house, there is no sink in the kitchen and dishwashing is done in the patch of yard outside, right next to a chicken coop whose egg-laying hens help to supplement the family’s meager income. Haniyya told me her house was built just outside the official limit of the camp because of overcrowding. Since it was not built on land originally leased by UNRWA, it might be bulldozed at any time. She lived for a whole year without doors or windows; rain fell “both inside and outside.” Finally, UNRWA classified her as a “special hardship case” and donated money for fixtures and furniture.
In Burj al-Barajna, perhaps because of the history of shared suffering, community solidarity is high. Haniyya told me that when she finds herself with no food for her children, neighbors will chip in with a few dollars to keep her going. Another Burj resident, Huwayda al-Qadi, said that she set up a kind of insurance policy with ten of her neighbors. Each neighbor contributes around 60 cents a day to a fund which is then given to whomever has the first emergency. When Huwayda’s brother needed a medical operation, an uncle in the US went into debt and sent them $5,000. When I asked Huwayda’s mother if she would consider emigrating, she said: “I’d go barefoot.”
In addition to handouts and remittances, many Palestinians have resorted to desperate forms of moonlighting to make ends meet. Some families send their school-age boys out to sell vegetables after school and during summer vacations. An accountant working for a Palestinian NGO drives his own car as a taxi in his spare time; a hospital receptionist runs a hairdressing shop out of a rented room; a medical nurse who supplements his $60 monthly salary by repairing shoes at home. Palestinian doctors are prohibited from practicing in Lebanon outside the clinics and hospitals run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society. Muhammad &lsquoUthman, who heads the Society in Lebanon, told me that physicians employed by his organization have a starting salary of $120 per month; many must resort to working illegally at other institutions and are paid under the table. But doctors I met would not admit to this practice, probably out of fear of prosecution. The head of a Palestinian NGO told me with exasperation that his organization’s very existence was illegal, since Palestinians are not allowed to form their own associations in Lebanon, and the majority of their employees are laissez-passer holders who work without permits. So far, the government has turned a blind eye to their activities, but that may change in the current climate.
Shortly before the latest cabinet decision requiring Palestinians to obtain reentry visas, senior PLO official Farouq Qaddoumi came to Beirut to discuss the Palestinian situation with Foreign Minister Buwayz. According to a report in the Beirut daily al-Nahar, Qaddoumi asked the Lebanese authorities to allow for the expansion of the overcrowded camps, the issue of more work permits to Palestinians and the reopening of PLO offices shut down after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But Lebanese officials rejected all three demands, while paying lip service to improving humanitarian services. Some Lebanese sources say that the Palestinians are being deliberately strangled both to encourage emigration and to stress the Lebanese refusal to absorb or patriate them in the course of any future Arab-Israeli settlement.