The events following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon have not discernibly changed the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon. While a surprising government edict has made it easier for Palestinians to get clerical and manual jobs, calls for disarming them and permanently settling them in Lebanon grow louder.

The state of relations between the Lebanese state and the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon often can be gauged at the gates of the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in the coastal city of Sidon, halfway between Beirut and the Israeli border. Toward the end of July 2005, the Lebanese army erected roadblocks at most of the entrances to the camp, taking the names of anyone entering or exiting and causing long traffic delays. The pretext for the checkpoints was a search for the would-be assassins of newly reappointed Defense Minister Elias Murr, who had survived an attempt on his life on July 12. Murr claimed to know that the perpetrators were “hiding inside Palestinian refugee camps.” No one in Ain al-Hilweh or elsewhere has been arrested in the case.

In subsequent press interviews, unnamed officials said that the checkpoints were put in place to catch insurgents returning from Iraq. The Palestinian refugees themselves saw the measures as an intensification of routine harassment, a possible commencement of their permanent “settlement” in Lebanon or even the beginning of efforts to disarm the militias who call the camps home. The refugees suspect that UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which in September 2004 mandated the “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” has a much better chance of being enforced than the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 194, which way back in 1948 affirmed the refugees’ right of return to homes in what is now Israel and their right to compensation for lost property. The road closures in Ain al-Hilweh and the subsequent whirlwind of accusations and rumors are typical of what Palestinians have faced in Lebanon since fleeing there as refugees in 1948 — and what they continue to face after the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon’s “Independence Uprising” and the rapid departure of Syrian troops in 2005. If anything, the eventful spring of 2005 has underscored the ways in which Lebanon’s complex sectarian politics, US military adventurism in the Middle East and the uneven application of UN resolutions have adversely affected Palestinians throughout their long exile in Lebanon. It is an exile whose present remains fraught with painful exclusion and whose future remains profoundly uncertain.

Eternal Scapegoats

Lebanese questioned about the origins of the 1975–1990 civil war frequently point the finger at “outsiders”—by which they mean, first and foremost, the Palestinians. [1] On the day after a bomb killed Hariri and 19 others, an Islamist militant named Ahmad Taysir Abu ‘Adas took responsibility for the carnage in the name of the hitherto unknown Jama‘at al-Nusra wa al-Jihad (Party of Victory and Jihad) through a videotaped message. The young man’s Palestinian background added to the atmosphere of suspicion against Palestinians, even if most Lebanese had already decided on Syrian culpability for the crime and considered Abu ‘Adas’ announcement to be specious.

In the coming weeks and months, Palestinians were blamed for any number of ills by almost all Lebanese political sides. When on March 8, 2005, Hizballah organized a massive demonstration against UNSC 1559 and “thanking” Syria for its help in maintaining stability in Lebanon, right-wing Maronite members of the anti-Syrian opposition immediately accused the party of padding its numbers with bussed-in Syrians and unidentified and uncounted Palestinian refugees. [2] These accusers ignored the enmity the Syrian regime has shown toward independent Palestinian political organizations over several decades, as well as the contempt refugees feel for the Syrian regime because of its role during the civil war. Because Syria sent troops into Lebanon in June 1976 on the side of the Maronite Phalange Party, Palestinians hold Syria partly responsible for the Phalangists’ overrunning of the Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp after a 58-day siege later that summer. At least 4,280 Palestinian and Lebanese camp residents perished in Tal al-Zaatar. Between 1985 and 1988, the Shi‘i militias of Amal — allied to Syria — placed the camps of Beirut and southern Lebanon under intermittent sieges during which the camp residents resorted to eating cats and donkeys and over 3,000 Palestinians died.

At the peak of the Independence Intifada, one could hear grumbling blaming Palestinians for political disturbances and accusing them of supporting the Syrian regime’s military presence in Lebanon. While the memorial wall for Hariri in downtown Beirut features mostly anti-Syrian slogans, one can also find statements against Palestinians interspersed with the more sentimental odes to the late prime minister. Ironically, even politicians loyal to Syria — like Murr — have been willing to scapegoat Palestinians.

In fact, the demonstrations of the spring highlighted the ease with which the oft-touted reconciliation between Lebanese Muslims and Christians — embodied in recurring images of beautiful young men and women holding a crucifix in one hand and a Qur’an in the other — occurred through the construction of an “other” against whom the previously warring factions could unite. In this sense, enmity against Syrians could be the common denominator between groups who had little else in common. But Palestinians, who over previous decades had been blamed for everything from strikes and economic breakdowns to the civil war itself, have been considered as provocateurs or a proverbial “fifth column” by a substantial percentage of Lebanese, and it is in opposition to them that Lebanese political actors from across the spectrum find common cause. Indeed, one suspects that fervent support for the Palestinian right of return — shared vociferously by almost all Lebanese — is less about principle than about eviction of Palestinians from Lebanon.

What has made this exclusion even more excruciating for Palestinians is the manner in which this new “unity” erases Palestinian suffering from the Lebanese story. [3]  When various victorious opposition groups decided to choose a day to celebrate Lebanese unity, they settled on April 13, 2005. This day marked the thirtieth anniversary of the start of a brutal civil war that resulted in over 150,000 deaths and the rending of Lebanese social fabric. But what occurred on April 13, 1975 to precipitate the war was that Phalangist militiamen stopped a bus carrying some 30 men and women home in the Beirut suburb of Ain al-Rummana, and slaughtered them all. The day of national unity was celebrated with ceremonies and portentous speeches full of hope and joy, but void of the concrete details which make April 13 such an ironic date for celebration of Lebanese unity: the great majority of those massacred on the bus were Palestinian.

Most Lebanese narratives of the civil war similarly efface Palestinian suffering, or focus on the undisputed wrongdoing of Palestinian militants when they wielded some power in the south or in the camps of Beirut. The myriad fratricidal atrocities committed against Palestinians by the Lebanese —  massacres and sieges that left tens of thousands of Palestinians dead and tens of thousands more twice or thrice displaced — are forgotten in the interest of the same post-war amnesia which refuses to name culprits of the war and goes so far as to celebrate murderers and elect them to high office. The Phalange Party’s former military commander Elie Hobeika, the man who directed the infamous 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, became a government minister after the civil war. Samir Geagea, who as the subsequent head of the Lebanese Forces was responsible for the murder of many Palestinians and many more Lebanese, was amnestied in July 2005 to great adulation. The one massacre of Palestinians that is publicly commemorated, that at Sabra and Shatila, has in a sense been appropriated by Hizballah, which maintains the massacre site as a memorial, holds rallies there and weaves rhetoric about the massacre into its political declarations. [4]

Dire Conditions

The attempts at erasing Palestinians physically and figuratively from the landscape of Lebanese politics have translated into dire material conditions for the refugees. Some 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), slightly over half of whom reside in 12 official refugee camps. [5] UNRWA and several local and international NGOs provide education, vocational training and health services to the refugees (particularly those residing in the camps). Nevertheless, both inside and outside the camps, Palestinian standards of living are severely vitiated by the paucity of UNRWA and NGO resources, the decrease in PLO funds allocated to the diasporan communities, the degree to which public services in Lebanon have been privatized and the Lebanese restriction of Palestinian rights. For example, while Palestinian refugees in both Jordan and Syria have the right to work, until recently the refugees in Lebanon were prohibited from engaging in over 70 manual, clerical and professional careers. Even today, Palestinians do not have the right to own or inherit property. [6] Nor can they partake of Lebanese primary or secondary education. Palestinians cannot petition to gain Lebanese citizenship [7] and, in fact, may have their citizenship revoked. [8] They must endure a difficult process to obtain housing repair or construction permits, [9] cannot establish NGOs solely dedicated to Palestinians, [10]and must pay a substantial fee to attend Lebanese universities. [11] 

The political affairs of the camps are administered by Popular Committees composed of representatives of various Palestinian factions. Where, once, political factions used to shape and direct camp lives, today, NGOs surviving on European or Australian funding are the most prominent socio-political organizations in the camps, providing basic assistance to supplement the ever dwindling UNRWA services.

The camps, especially in and around Beirut, often do not have potable water, and their electricity is either provided by donated generators, or when connected to the Lebanese grid, subject to long blackouts. The camps have open sewer systems, and their labyrinth-like alleyways do not allow for open public spaces. Because the camps are not allowed to expand beyond their small surface area, they have been built up vertically and in what cannot be a very safe fashion. Because Palestinians have been unable to find jobs or start businesses outside the camps, they have modest shops providing goods and services in the camps, which are often used by both residents and neighboring Lebanese. Living conditions in the camps are so dire, in sum, that Ghassan al-Khatib, a visiting Palestinian Authority minister, declared himself “stunned” and added that “even in camps in Gaza and Nablus in the Occupied Territories, the situation is better than that of the camps in Lebanon.” [12]

Most camps have been in place so long that they have become part of their surrounding built environment, and although the density of buildings and the difference in posters and slogans often signal the camp boundaries, they are otherwise indistinguishable — at least to unfamiliar eyes — from the Lebanese slums amidst which they have arisen. In fact, many poor Lebanese — and, until recently, many Syrian workers — also live in the camps. The camps in the south, where armed men belonging to the factions guard the entrances, are much more distinguishable as Palestinian. This is most true of Ain al-Hilweh, which has not only very prominent Palestinian checkpoints at each entrance, but also is the camp most subject to occasional cordons and searches by the Lebanese security apparatus.

Ain al Hilweh, the largest Palestinian camp with some 45,000 residents, is also the most scrutinized, perhaps because on occasion militant Lebanese Islamists have taken refuge there. In the wake of the Syrian withdrawal and the ominous accusations about Palestinians, all camps now see Lebanese soldiers posted at entrances, but Ain al-Hilweh is under special surveillance. The entry procedures to the camp are so time-consuming as to turn away possible visitors who may want to use the camp’s shops or mechanical services. While local politicians call Ain al-Hilweh a “security enclave” or, less politely, an “island of lawlessness,” US diplomats have accused the camp of harboring Syrian intelligence agents. [13] Palestinians see these accusations and the intensification of Lebanese security surveillance of Ain al-Hilweh as signs that the Lebanese might try to disarm the factions whose role is to guard the camps.

Disarming the Camps

In response to Law 88 of March 20, 1991, Palestinian armed groups, along with other militias — with the exception of Hizballah and the Israeli proxy South Lebanese Army — surrendered their heavy weapons. However, in adherence to the Cairo Agreements signed between the PLO and the Lebanese government in 1969, which guarantee self-administration for the refugee camps, the camps continue to be policed by Palestinian armed groups.  The extraterritoriality of the camps and the armed status of Palestinian militias have long been contentious issues in Lebanon, and since the end of the war, almost all Lebanese are united in wanting to reestablish control over the camps. In contrast to the early 1980s, when PLO guerrillas were highly visible combatants in the war, armed Palestinians are today confined to the camps or remote places. In rural areas, some Lebanese see the handful of tattered Palestinian military training camps as encroaching on their farmlands, but in most of Lebanon, ordinary Lebanese have little, if any, interaction with armed Palestinians.

Nevertheless, the mythology persists that Ain al-Hilweh and other camps are havens of lawlessness, and the Syrian military withdrawal has only intensified the antipathy toward the Palestinian armed presence. A recent poll found nearly 80 percent of the Lebanese demanding Palestinian disarmament. [14] The institutionalization of these calls in the UNSC 1559 has meant that Palestinians interpret any restrictions on their movement or lives as a sign of impending disarmament.

Most Palestinians see disarmament as a twofold threat. On the one hand, they often invoke the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, when they were left exposed by the evacuation of PLO guerrillas and, despite the promise of protection by the international community, thousands of men and women were slaughtered by the Phalange militia in cahoots with the Israeli military. On the other hand, disarmament would decisively spell the end of Palestinian refugees’ autonomy over their affairs and pave the way to dreaded tawtin (“implantation” or permanent settlement) in Lebanon. In the absence of citizenship rights, such a move would mean that Palestinian refugees would become minorities completely devoid of any protection or rights in a country that does not want them.

Compromise Without Consultation

What increases Palestinian refugees’ anxiety is the ease with which Mahmoud Abbas, their nominal president in the Palestinian Authority, has been willing to cave in to Lebanese — not to mention US and Israeli — demands and abdicate the refugees’ rights with no consultation. In the first official visit to Lebanon by a Palestinian leader since the 1982 evacuation of the PLO, Abbas met various Lebanese officials in July 2005 and promised that he would “back any decision” of the Lebanese government regarding the implementation of UNSC 1559 in the Palestinian camps. [15] The response in the camps was muted but defiant: even youths belonging to Abbas’ Fatah faction declared that they would immediately rearm themselves “even if it cost $1,000 to buy a gun.” [16] Almost all raised the specter of Sabra and Shatila as their reason for wanting to continue holding on to their aged Kalashnikovs and handguns.

The news coming from the PA in recent months has alarmed the refugees. In the spring, it was reported that Abbas was going to step back on demands for the right of return and settle for compensation for the refugees’ lost property instead, in order to strengthen his hand vis-à-vis final status negotiations. [17] When Abbas later called for citizenship for Palestinian refugees in their host countries, the activists among the refugees were highly critical. [18] Although ostensibly one cannot complain about the rights and protections that come with citizenship, accepting the citizenship of another Arab country (and even more so, being forced to take citizenship of another country by the PA) is seen as the initiation of procedures to resettle the refugees. The situation is complex: on the one hand, in an ideal world, Palestinians would want to accept citizenship in order to facilitate work, travel and property ownership, among other things, but such a solution brings to an end their transitory refugee status, which despite its many shortcomings, has the benefit of leaving open the possibility of returning to their homes or settlement in the future Palestinian state.

Glimmers of Hope

The news is not all bad, however. Subsequent to Syrian withdrawal and indirectly related to it, two events have proffered the refugees a glimmer of hope. After months of negotiations between civil society organizations and various political organizations — members of the PLO, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad — Shatila camp held its first ever elections in exile, in which 11 members of the camp’s Popular Committee were chosen by some 1,500 voters (the other 11 members of the Committee are appointed by the factions). A “crisis of trust” had precipitated the elections, as most camp residents were unhappy with the administrative capability and competence of the extant Popular Committee. [19] The participation of camp members in choosing their representatives was considered significant by the refugees not only because it allowed them a voice in the management of their local affairs, but also because it augured the possibility of participation in broader Palestinian politics through channels other than the factions, which do not invite the same enthusiastic support today that they did in the PLO’s heyday in Lebanon.

Perhaps more important to the great majority of the Palestinians has been the memorandum by the new labor minister, Trad Hamadeh, issued at the end of June, which removes prohibitions on Palestinians working in manual and clerical jobs. Previously, over 70 jobs were unavailable to Palestinians, and most had to find work illegally, or become reconciled to unemployment or under-employment. [20] The memorandum still forbids Palestinians from acquiring professional jobs and still requires them to register with the Labor Ministry, but it also means that some of the most vulnerable Palestinian job seekers can now look foremployment without fear of being outside the law. The decision is significant because, in a sense, it is an unintended consequence of Syrian withdrawal. On the one hand, the number of Syrian manual workers in Lebanon has dropped precipitously after Hariri’s assassination, leaving many construction contractors short-handed. Allowing Palestinians to engage in manual labor, then, allows Lebanese businesses to tap into an under-utilized resource sitting at their doorstep. On the other hand, Hamadeh is a Hizballah sympathizer, whose accession to the Labor Ministry has been a result of the extensive negotiations that went on after the Syrian withdrawal, as well as Hizballah’s electoral victory in the May–June parliamentary elections. His willingness — and Hizballah’s — to give the refugees the right to work fits with Hizballah’s previous calls for Palestinian civil rights and is part of the party’s larger strategy to consolidate its hegemony as the legitimate spokesperson for the dispossessed in the region.

Despite the extension of participatory politics into the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon and the sudden expansion of their socio-economic rights, the horizon for Palestinian refugees remains clouded. Some see these accumulated changes as a prelude to disarmament and resettlement. While Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were never particularly close allies of Syria, the withdrawal of that country’s military and an ascendant Lebanese nationalism — which, like all other nationalisms, requires an excluded “other” to overcome its internal fractiousness — adds to their unease and ambivalence about the future.


[1] See Elizabeth Picard, Lebanon: A Shattered Country (New York: Homes and Meier, 2002),
pp. 180–181 and Simon Haddad, The Palestinian Impasse in Lebanon: The Politics of Refugee
(Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2003), pp. 84–89.

[2] Al-Nahar, March 9, 2005.

[3] See interviews with Palestinians in al-Nahar, February 27, 2005; Daily Star, March 8, 2005;
Daily Star, April 25, 2005; Daily Star, May 9, 2005; Daily Star, June 30, 2005.

[4] See Laleh Khalili, “Places of Memory and Mourning: Palestinian Commemoration in
the Refugee Camps of Lebanon,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle
25/1 (2005).

[5] The UNRWA registry does not include 1967 refugees, or refugees displaced from other countries
(e.g., Jordan after 1970–1971). In addition to the 12 official camps, there are a number of
unofficial encampments of Palestinians, some of which receive services from UNRWA. Finally,
the number of refugees actually present in Lebanon is open to controversy: some estimate
them as far less numerous than the UNRWA registry would indicate, while others — among
them the Lebanese government — inflate the number of refugees beyond the UNRWA rolls.
See Rosemary Sayigh, “Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Implantation, Transfer or Return?”
Middle East Policy 8/1 (2001), p. 101.

[6] Property Law 296, published on April 5, 2001, is specifically designed to disinherit
Palestinians (rather than other aliens residing in Lebanon) of properties they own.

[7] In 1994, a deal between Amal leader Nabih Berri and Sunni political notables facilitated
the naturalization of 15,000–20,000 Palestinians, some of whom were Shi‘i and the others
Sunni; they mostly belonged to seven villages in the Galilee near the border between Israel
and Lebanon and to which Lebanon lays claim. The naturalization of Shi‘i Palestinians was
part of confessional/demographic maneuvering by the political leaders, rather than a sign of
humanitarian concern for the Palestinians.

[8] A recent court ruling in Lebanon has declared illegal the 1994 deal described above, and
the Lebanese government has seized on this ruling in order to declare a “review” of the
naturalization of Palestinians.

[9] The Lebanese state has varying housing policies vis-à-vis Palestinians in different locations.
Whereas reconstruction in the southern camps is usually allowed pending UNRWA approval
and processing, all repairs and reconstruction of camp housing in and around Beirut camps
are prohibited.

10 All NGOs have to be registered with the Lebanese government and meet state-set quotas
on hiring and serving Lebanese citizens.

[11] These fees are now 700,000 Lebanese liras (approximately $500), beyond what most camp
students or their families can afford. Since the imposition of these fees, many Palestinian
students have dropped out of universities or have put their university plans on hold.

[12] Daily Star, October 14, 2004.

[13] Daily Star, July 30, 2005.

[14] Al-Nahar, July 28, 2005.

[15] Daily Star, July 9, 2005.

[16] Daily Star, June 30, 2005.

[17] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 14, 2005.

[18] Daily Star, July 12, 2005.

[19] See al-Safir, May 21, 2005 and al-Safir, May 24, 2005.

[20] Al-Safir, June 28, 2005.

How to cite this article:

Laleh Khalili "A Landscape of Uncertainty," Middle East Report 236 (Fall 2005).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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