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Sunday, 26 June 2022
The Forgotten Refugees
James Denselow
If Lebanon is a country whose crisis is so multi-layered, complicated and fast moving that experts struggle to track change from one day to the next, then what must it be like for those refugees trapped in limbo as the State continues its death spiral? Lebanon’s refugee communities are a testimony to the wider region’s unresolved conflicts. Whilst there is an obvious focus on Syrian refugees in the country, afraid or unable to return and seeing the pillars of international aid and humanitarian support slowly decline, the smaller numbers of Iraqi refugees who’ve fled at various points in the country’s bloody modern history or finally the most established of them all, the Palestinians of Lebanon.

Nobody really knows how many Palestinians are in the country. Registration with UNRWA, the agency set up in 1949 in response to the mass exodus of Palestinians across the region in 1948, doesn’t give the whole story as many remain registered but have left the country whilst others are unable to register. Population surveys in Lebanon are an incredibly sensitive issue and the country famously has not had a census since 1932. A Lebanese Government survey in 2017 did manage to settle on their being 174,000 Palestinian refugees in the country, but other Rights organisations predict a larger range of between 260,000 to 400,000.

Many, perhaps 50% of this population, live in twelve refugee camps scattered across the country. As ever it takes tragedy and violence for the presence of the Palestinians in Lebanon to make the headlines and for a wider awareness of their continued hardships in the country. Over the weekend four members of Hamas were killed in armed clashes in the Burj al-Shemali Palestinian refugee camp in Sur. The clashes followed a funeral of another Hamas member killed in an explosion whose origins are not clear.

The Lebanese army has no jurisdiction over the camps which have almost become isolated islands of Palestinian identity in the complex sea of Lebanese politics. Whilst the camps in Beirut blend into the city and would perhaps not even be distinguished by the casual observer from the surrounding housing, those in the south are more demarcated and often visitors have to pass a Lebanese military checkpoint before passing a checkpoint manned by lightly armed Palestinians.

Islands of Palestinian sovereignty have become contested political spaces with strong links to the Palestinian politics as played out in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians in Lebanon used to be the home of the PLO and its famous leadership of the 1980s. Today the legacy of the Civil War has seen the Palestinians marginalised, isolated and largely forgotten. As Lebanon’s economy has deteriorated, they have been joined in poverty by other Lebanese but with the wider peace process paralysed, talk of rights of return or even a more formal naturalisation in Lebanon are not on the table.

With ‘big’ politics not in play, smaller far more localised issues become what dominates the camps and the Palestinian politic in Lebanon. Patronage, links to diaspora factions or sources or other sources of funding become major issues. Likewise, whilst there are not supposed to be any heavy weapons left in the camps, access to what weapons there are and recruitment to militia groups who operate in the camps are again traditional devices of power that can also be at the roots of violence disagreements.

Popular Committees are responsible for the day to day running of the camps, but whilst some have a more uniform political identity (Hamas or Fatah for example) in the larger camps they may be split resulting in territoriality within the camps themselves and regular use of violence to resolve disputes. In the past these disputes have taken the form of running battles in the densely populated urban sprawls, posing huge risks for civilian populations trapped nearby.

Ultimately resolutions and ceasefires put out the large fires but rarely address the underlying issues that are products of the fundamental political cycle that Palestinians in the country are trapped in. With few advocates on the global stage and living against the backdrop of chaos both in Lebanon and further afield, Palestinians in the country remain forgotten and isolated.

James Denselow,

BY: James Denselow