Palestinians in Lebanon | A history of the hapless
Palestinians in Lebanon
A history of the hapless
May 31st 2007 | TRIPOLI
From The Economist print edition
Long the unluckiest of the lot
AFP The howl of Palestinian despair
WITHIN the archipelago of misery made up by Lebanon's 12 Palestinian camps, Nahr al-Bared has been lucky. There were once 15 of the camps, which are not tent cities but dense warrens of breeze-block shanties. Three were flattened in Lebanon's civil war from 1975-90; their residents, descended from Palestinians who had fled the advancing Israelis in 1948, were made refugees twice over. Appalling massacres by Lebanese Christian militias, with the connivance of Israel, at Sabra and Shatila, on the fringes of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, laid waste to those camps. Attacks by everyone, from Israelis to Syrians to Christian and Shia militias, ravaged others. Not only was Nahr al-Bared the only camp spared in those dark times, it prospered afterwards as a de facto free zone whose traders undercut competition by evading Lebanese taxes.
Yet if there was ever an accident waiting to happen, this is it. “When illness attacks a body, it goes for the weakest part,” explains a Palestinian activist. At Nahr al-Bared, where a ten-day long Lebanese army siege of a radical jihadist cult has left at least 80 people dead, the ingredients for violence—already in place in the region, more focused in Lebanon, and still more obvious in its Palestinian camps—are even more concentrated and combustible.
One ingredient is the despair of Lebanon's 420,000 Palestinians (this UN figure is widely disputed, with some saying a quiet exodus has reduced it to 250,000). Not only has the hope of returning to Palestine faded since the collapse of peace talks with Israel in 2000; living conditions have deteriorated too. The lot of the 4m or so UN-registered Palestinian refugees elsewhere in the diaspora—in Jordan, Syria and in the Israeli-controlled territories—has hardly been happy. But in Lebanon their treatment has been notably harsh.
Local laws give Lebanon's Palestinians a raw deal, reflecting fears that assimilating them could upset Lebanon's own delicate sectarian balance, since they are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. They have no right to own property and no right to state schooling or medical care. They are banned from white-collar professions, and even from many unskilled jobs. A Palestinian may own a taxi, for example, but cannot legally drive it. As one Palestinian says of the Lebanese, “They are all with Palestine, but against the Palestinians.”
Recent developments have increased the poverty imposed by such strictures. The budget for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, better known as UNRWA, founded in 1949, has been stretched because of the chaos in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the two Israeli-controlled bits of a would-be Palestinian state. As one result, class sizes in the schools that UNRWA runs in Lebanon have soared.
Those troubles have also slashed spending by Palestinian agencies that once, under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), supported an elaborate bureaucracy and security apparatus in Lebanon's camps. Foreign donors who might have helped out diverted spending towards dealing with the widespread destruction wrought by Israeli bombing in last summer's war.
Making matters worse, the camps have grown more lawless. Lebanese still complain that the PLO, which secured the camps under a deal brokered in 1969 by the Arab League, helped provoke their country's civil war by seizing other parts of Lebanon. But the departure of the PLO's leader, Yasser Arafat, in the mid-1980s, forced by both Israel and Syria, left a power vacuum. It was mostly filled in the 1990s by Syrian military intelligence, whose favoured method of control was to set different factions on each other.
Syria's troop withdrawal in 2005, following huge protests in Beirut, left many camps with no effective administration. The Lebanese had their own security problems, and said that the 1969 agreement absolved them of responsibility. The Palestinians grew more divided than ever. The split between the Islamists of Hamas and Arafat's secular Fatah in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories was not only reflected in Lebanon, but was exacerbated by continued Syrian meddling and by the emergence of more extreme factions.
The camps became a magnet for groups which, in the words of one weary resident, “seek a better future in the next life”. With the failure of the secular parties and even of Hamas to achieve peace, victory or a modicum of prosperity, youths turned to ideologues who had broken away from Palestinian nationalism to invoke instead the power of pan-Islamist fervour.
Many naturally turned to Nahr al-Bared. Not only was PLO influence weakest here, but the camp happens to sit close to the frontier with Syria, which has become the main transit route for jihadists seeking action in Iraq or returning from its mayhem. It is also just outside Tripoli, a large, poor and predominantly Sunni city that has itself become a hotbed of Islamist radicals. Joined by hundreds of militants who flocked to Nahr al-Bared in recent months, very few of them Palestinian, the radical cult that calls itself Fatah al-Islam has vowed to fight here to the death. Nahr al-Bared's luck, it seems, has run out.