Palestinians in Lebanon
When the massive explosion in Beirut’s port ripped through the city on August 4, 2020, members of the Palestinian Civil Defense Lebanon sprang into action. Although based in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps and despite entrenched suspicion and bias against refugees, the group immediately rushed to help their Lebanese neighbors. Erling Lorentzen Sogge tells their story.
President Donald Trump’s decision to reduce the United States’ contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to only $60 million in 2018—compared to a total of $364 million in 2017 —has been widely denounced as a brutal form of collective punishment of the Palestinian people.
On May 31, 2017, Fatah commander Col. Bassam al-Saad was juggling three telephones—two mobile phones and one landline—at his office in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh. As the commander of the Joint Palestinian Security Force (JPSF), the defacto military police of the self-governed camp, the colonel was in the process of overseeing the deployment of his roughly 100-strong force. Entering a particularly sensitive area in the war-torn Tiri neighborhood following devastating clashes in April between the JPSF and a local Islamist group, he was also juggling the ratio of police from each political faction to ensure a smooth operation.
Crossing the border at Masna‘, al-‘Abboudiyya or Mashari‘ al-Qa‘a, Syrian refugees entering Lebanon face an immediate choice: Stay in the tented settlements in the north and the Bekaa Valley or make their way to coastal cities such as Beirut and Sidon. Their experiences will vary greatly depending on the choice they make. The tented settlements are exposed to the elements, lack privacy and have virtually no job opportunities, but are accessible to aid providers. By contrast, refugees from Syria often have family connections in the coastal cities. Though Beirut and Sidon are expensive and crowded, there are more varied accommodations, schooling options and limited chances for employment.
Waltz with Bashir (2008) opens with a strange and powerful image: a pack of ferocious dogs running headlong through the streets of Tel Aviv, overturning tables and terrifying pedestrians, converging beneath a building’s window to growl at a man standing there. It turns out that this man, Boaz, is an old friend of Ari Folman, the film’s director and protagonist. Like Folman, he was a teenager in the Israeli army during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And the pack of menacing dogs is his recurring nightmare, a nightly vision he links to the many village guard dogs he shot — so they wouldn’t raise the alarm — as his platoon made its way through southern Lebanon.
Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
Residents of Lebanon might be forgiven for wanting to forget the last 12 months. The month-long Israeli onslaught in the summer of 2006, economic stasis, sectarian street violence, political deadlock and assassinations—most recently that of Future Movement deputy Walid ‘Idu, who perished along with ten others in a June 13 car bomb explosion—have weighed heavily upon the country. It is as if the dismembered corpse of the 1975-1990 civil war—assumed to be safely buried—has been exhumed and reassembled, all the more grotesque. Since May 20, the Palestinians in Lebanon, too, have been made to relive past nightmares.
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.
"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.
Expectations of a regional settlement have exacerbated the always bad security situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Possible unilateral Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon has intensified regional competition to control the "Palestinian card," particularly in the South where more than half the refugee population lives.
After making my way through the rubble and squalor of the overcrowded refugee camp near Beirut’s International Airport, I arrived half an hour late for my appointment with Umm Muhammad, a local living repository of Palestinian folk song traditions.
“A displaced person owns nothing but the spot where he is standing, which is always threatened.” — Murid Barghouti
Israeli power, US backing, Palestinian weakness, Arab complicity — these are the basic ingredients for a coercive settlement of the “refugee problem” based not on refugees’ rights but on their disappearance. The “new Middle East” must be tidied up; states, citizens and borders must correspond; disruptive anomalies must be removed. Because of their centrality to regional instability, eliminating the Palestinian refugees is essential to a pacified Middle East free to fulfill its designated role in the global economy.
Some of the cases are old but certainly not forgotten. The most recent inquiry that I received about a “disappearance” in Lebanon came in April 1997 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The caller was a Palestinian whose brother, Rushdi Rashid Hamdan Shihab, “disappeared” in Sidon in October 1987. “At 10 am, he left his car with a mechanic at a gas station, saying that he would return in the evening to pick it up,” his brother said. Shihab, the father of three who was 42 at the time, did not return to the station that evening. And he was never seen again in Lebanon. Family members traveled to Jordan and Syria, seeking information about his whereabouts, but came up with nothing solid.
As Lebanon’s elite strategizes post-war reconstruction and national reconciliation, the future of the Palestinian community in the country hinges on the outcome of the Arab-Israeli peace talks, particularly the multilateral talks on refugees.  Popular sentiment holds that “peace” will not produce the conditions for return or compensation. In the meantime, Palestinians living in camps in Lebanon face insurmountable odds, including poverty, unemployment and political disenfranchisement.
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 article was written by a special correspondent.
Residents of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon have been cautiously peeking out of their prison-like camps after nearly a decade of sieges and assaults. But looking out is now fraught with anxiety. There is no future in the camps, residents complain, and few means of earning an income where unemployment for Palestinian refugees may be as high as 40 percent.
The dismal outlook is only compounded by the recent PLO-Israel peace accord, which unambiguously signals the final abandonment of the refugees in Lebanon. Ironically, it is this same community that credentialized Arafat and the PLO’s representation of the Palestinian people and were the mass base supporting its operations in exile.
Neither a village nor a suburb, Wadi Zayna is a collection of gray tenements straggling between two roads leading up from the coast road into the hills of Iqlim al-Kharoub, just north of Sidon. Palestinians displaced from camps in the south and Beirut during battles with the Shi‘i Amal movement (1985-1987) have gathered here. Some are old-time residents, people who bought apartments before the 1982 Israeli invasion, investing lifetime savings to have somewhere to retire to outside the camps. Others are muhajirin (war refugees) who rent, or stay with relatives, or “squat” in unfinished buildings.
Rashid Khalidi, Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
Among the many books dealing with the 1982 war in Lebanon, Rashid Khalidi’s stands out by focusing on the perceptions and decisions of that campaign’s main target: the PLO. The book asks a series of questions in order to get to those at the core: Why did the PLO leave Beirut? What were the main pressures influencing the decision first to stand and fight and then to evacuate the city? Which pressures proved successful and which ineffective?
Lebanon is a microcosm of the peoples, cultures and religions found in the Middle East region as a whole. Under Ottoman rule from the 16th century until World War I, that province of mountainous eastern Syria known as Mt. Lebanon was home and refuge for various religious and ethnic communities. Lebanon has a long history of foreign intervention. In the 19th century, European powers established their trade and investment interests under the guise of “protecting” one or another group within Lebanon. The French adopted the Maronite Catholics and Russia the Orthodox Christians of Syria and Palestine, while the British favored the Druze. This insertion of foreign interests occurred in the course of a protracted shift of power in the Mt. Lebanon area from Druze to Maronites and contributed to the tensions among the various communities and ruling clans.