“Before the intifada children used to mock me when I mentioned Palestine. They would say that Palestine was lost, that I was dreaming, that Arafat forgot about us,” remarks Rabi’ Zaaroura, 15. “Now they have become interested in politics.” In the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila in Beirut, the revival of hope and politics is inscribed on the walls. Murals of Muhammad al-Durra — the boy whose televised shooting death at Netzarim crossing in the Gaza Strip became an icon of the new intifada. Pictures of Jerusalem and maps of Palestine fill every available space. Slogans demanding the right of return, refusing “naturalization” in Lebanon and protesting the Oslo process are scrawled in the alleyways, and Palestinian flags fly on the rooftops. Nationalist songs considered old-fashioned only six weeks ago are now breaking sales records. Among Shatila teenagers, the hatta (the headdress also known as the kaffiyeh) and T-shirts bearing the likeness of Hasan Hasanein are now the fashion.

Hasan Hasanein is Shatila’s “martyr of al-Aqsa,” as one alleyway inscription describes him. Hasanein was shot, along with Shadi al-Anas from Burj al-Barajneh, at the Lebanese-Israeli border on October 6, when hundreds of refugees from the camps in Beirut headed south. They went “to protest the death of our people in Palestine, to participate in its liberation and to tell the world that we are still Palestinians and will never forget our homeland,” declared Abu Muhammad Daoud. Pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, in collaboration with Hizballah, organized the trip. Hizballah “paid for the buses, and awaited their arrival at the Marwaheen gate with an ambulance and TV cameras, brought us food at noon and ordered us to leave at three o’clock,” according to Usama Abu al-Sheikh, a 16 year-old refugee from Shatila. The same day, Hizballah engineered the dramatic abduction of three Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area.

Underlying the pride of Shatila residents to have contributed to the uprising lay nagging feelings that Hizballah, the Palestinian struggle’s loudest supporters in Lebanon, had betrayed and abused them. “Is it fair that two young men died in vain? At least Hizballah should have organized [the abductions] with us. We would have felt we were part of their success,” said a tearful Layla al-‘Ali during Hasanein’s funeral in Beirut. Around 20,000 Palestinians marched in the funeral procession, calling for the right of return and chanting: “Where are you, Arabs?” Hasanein’s funeral and a larger demonstration in Beirut marked the first time refugees had marched outside the camps in 18 years.

Usama Abu al-Sheikh joined in all the daily marches inside the camp. “I always say I won’t participate,” Usama explained. “But when they call for a march, I find myself in the middle of the crowd, crying out slogans I always think we’ve been repeating for ages in vain. It is my need to let out my feelings [of] depression from our lives in the camp. We are suffocating here.”

Very few Lebanese attended the funeral, though the mufti prayed for the martyrs. “Look at them watching us from their verandas,” grumbled Umm Walid, rolling her eyes upwards as she marched through a Lebanese residential neighborhood. When the protesters returned from the south October 6, journalists came to interview the returnees, but no other Lebanese came to pay their condolences. The refugees realized then that Lebanese support for the intifada in the Occupied Territories — expressed by political leaders and the press — does not mean the refugees’ plight in Lebanon will improve.

The 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanon suffer the harshest conditions of any Palestinian refugees. They are denied civil rights, and prohibited from working in around 70 professions, leaving them only the option of menial jobs. The departure of the PLO in 1982 and cuts in UNRWA funding have worsened conditions, and created feelings of helplessness and despair among refugees. When the ex-prime minister praised the intifada and proclaimed sympathy with the right of return, Abu Hasan al-‘Isa complained: “They support our return but they conspire with the international community to pressure us to accept any solution offered to us by denying us our human rights! How can we believe them? Don’t think that any compassionate or altruistic motives are behind these statements.”

Lebanese politicians, regardless of political or sectarian affiliation, agree that Palestinians cannot be made Lebanese citizens. During the September elections, every politician spoke against “naturalization,” but not one spoke of Palestinians’ civil rights. President Emile Lahoud declared there was no difference between 1948 and 1967 refugees, making clear that all Palestinians were equally unwanted on Lebanese land. Though the Palestinian protest on the border was orchestrated by Hizballah, Palestinian calls on Lahoud to open the borders for them have sown fear and deep distrust among many factions in Lebanese society. In an article published in an-Nahar, Jubran Tuwayni criticized the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, emphasizing that Lebanese are not ready for “more sacrifices for Palestine.”

Palestinian feelings of loneliness and abandonment reached their peak during the opening ceremony for soccer’s Asia Cup 2000 in the Sports City near Shatila. The celebration coincided with the first day of Israeli air raids on the West Bank and Gaza. As usual, Shatila residents were gathered around TV sets in the alleys, following the news from Palestine minute by minute. While they watched the bombardment on TV, Lebanese helicopters roamed over the camp, and soon fireworks exploded over the soccer stadium. Fearing that the Israelis had invaded Lebanon, people fled the alleyways to their homes. Finally, a speech from the mosque’s loudspeaker explained they weren’t hearing Israeli bombs. The refugees went back to the alleys to watch the news alone. Asked 15 year-old Ismail: “How could they celebrate when children are dying in Palestine? I wonder how they felt when the world was celebrating the World Cup while Lebanon was under siege in 1982. I’m sure they felt as I do now, lonely and sad.”

How to cite this article:

Mayssun Sukarieh "Shatila Dispatch," Middle East Report 217 (Winter 2000).

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