As with every crisis that befalls the Palestinians in Lebanon, the Lebanese army’s siege of the Nahr al-Barid refugee camp impelled hundreds of people to pitch in with the relief effort. After fighting broke out in late May, and over 30,000 Nahr al-Barid residents fled to the nearby Baddawi camp, volunteers ferried food, blankets and medicine to the displaced. Such “humanitarian assistance,” along with petitions and open letters calling for protecting civilians, was all that pro-Palestinian Lebanese and international activists could think of to do as the army lobbed shells into the camp outside Tripoli. The needs of the displaced are indeed great, but many Palestinians wish their supporters would focus their energies elsewhere.
What should they do? “Well, listen,” says a Shatila social worker involved in Nahr al-Barid relief, “most of the people in the camps are jobless. We really do not need a hand in doling out rice and sugar. We have plenty of youth, old people and women sitting around. What is needed is a movement against the conditions of the Palestinians in Lebanon. This we can’t work on ourselves, and it would be good if these people could help with that. They are more equipped to do it.”
She adds: “NGOs operating in the camps are experts in [relief] now, and sometimes the people who come to work on relief hinder our work and become a burden. Unaware of the intricacies of work in the camp, and the social codes as well as the politics, they sometimes accentuate existing conflicts without knowing it.”
“It feels a bit condescending to get these outsiders coming in to ask what sorts of things we need,” agrees a Nahr al-Barid resident now displaced to Shatila. “Although it is called humanitarian work, it strips me of my humanity, and I feel lesser in their presence, someone who is remembered as just a needy person with whom they like to take photos while handing out relief.” Palestinians do not recall this sense of dehumanization from the period of the civil war (1975-1990), when, they say, activism on their behalf emphasized not only their basic human needs, but also their belonging to a nation with a history of struggle and a cause. As Nadya, also displaced to Shatila, puts it, “We are not pets in need of portions of food every day.” “We do not need more UNRWA workers,” continues middle-aged Khalid from Shatila. “We need al-Katiba al-Tulabiyya”—the student unit formed of Lebanese and Palestinians who “considered the plight of Palestinians to be their plight.”
Khalid’s wish seems unlikely to come true at a time when the Palestinians have lost their image as freedom fighters and leaders of the broader Arab liberation movement, and have become instead a group of refugees fighting, as in Gaza in June, over a Palestinian Authority devoid of actual authority. These days, activism is led by depoliticized NGOs whose tactics and message are dictated by the neo-liberal language of humanitarian intervention. This brand of activism—or “re-activism,” perennially reacting to crises and never addressing their roots—often functions to reduce the storied Palestinian cause to counting the pallets distributed from the aid warehouse.
The war on Nahr al-Barid, once again, has laid bare the Palestinian condition in Lebanon. Twice, thrice or more times displaced, isolated and discriminated against, the Palestinians need much more than relief. They need a campaign for Palestinian civil rights, say residents of the camps, built on the cornerstone of the right of return. (This sentiment was at the root of a day-long “relief strike” called by the Nahr al-Barid displaced in Baddawi. “We do not need your boxes [of aid],” the strikers said. “We want our right of return.”) Such an effort cannot succeed in the absence of extensive public education to change the perception of the Palestinians among Lebanese. The discourse accompanying the war on Nahr al-Barid reveals that there is much to change, particularly among the younger generation. Palestinians are not a suspect bunch who harbored a “terrorist organization.” They are a people with a cause. They have a right to return to their land, but until then they should enjoy full civil rights in Lebanon. Humanitarian work in the camps would be a natural component of such a comprehensive political campaign, and the petitions and letters that now feel like verbal masturbation would be more effective.
As it stands, Palestinians in Lebanon view the summer’s outpouring of concern for their welfare with an ambivalence bordering on cynicism. “We are forgotten until we are in the news,” says Abu Hisham, 70, from Shatila, “and remembered just as people in need, not as people with a cause. We will be forgotten again and abandoned until we are in the news again, during yet another crisis.”