Back Interviews Palestinian exile, identity and conflict in Lebanon's refugee camps

Palestinian exile, identity and conflict in Lebanon's refugee camps

Palestinian exile, identity and conflict in Lebanon's refugee campsEXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Palestinian historian Salim Nazzal was born in Lebanon to a Galilean Palestinian family exiled by the Israelis. His main research areas are history and social anthropology. He has contributed extensively to furthering knowledge and awareness about the Middle East, with particular focus on identity and education in Palestinian exiles. In this interview, Dr Nazzal elaborates on the struggle for Palestinian identity by focusing on history, education and identity. Palestinian refugees have been sidelined by their host country and attempts by the United Nations to restore their rights have been repeatedly shunned by Israel, since General Assembly resolutions are not binding. Thus, the community continues to struggle within a reality which is mostly obscured within international oblivion.

Describe the concept of education within Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Can you tell us how it has evolved, keeping in mind the volatile political situation?

Teaching in a community which lives in exile is a challenging job in many ways. Palestinians are educated until age 16 at UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools, which were established in 1949 to help the refugees. Pupils wishing to continue their studies move on to Lebanese school, if the family can afford the fees. However, the PLO established secondary schools in the 1980s, so the need to use Lebanese private schools was reduced. In later years UNRWA expanded teaching up to the Baccalaureate level. It is difficult to go into all the ramifications faced by Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps, but it is possible to point out to the major difficulties and challenges.

UNRWA schools lack equipment as well as space; they are overcrowded, lack a proper fuel supply and have a shortage of resources. A shift system is used to allow as many children as possible to have access to the school; some attend in the morning session, while others go in the afternoon. The schools follow the Lebanese curriculum. Hence, Palestinian children's identity is fragmented by certain assimilation to the Lebanese perspective of history and other subjects which could and should be used to strengthen their national identity. This is challenged by Palestinian teachers who do their utmost to impart Palestinian history to their pupils.

Can you elaborate further about education and citizenship with regard to the way history is taught to refugee children?

When children are taught history which represents only a fragment of their own reality it must have an effect on them. I haven't seen any research on this so it's hard to say how much they are affected but, as Peter Berger wrote about the construction of social reality, this community lives its reality with all its miseries. The problem is harsher for Palestinians living in Lebanese cities who came originally from Haifa or Jaffa. These Palestinians do not live in camps, but those who were displaced from villages do. Quite a few also speak Arabic in a Lebanese dialect rather than Palestinian. With regards to identity, they are surrounded by contrast, differences and discrimination. It is particularly visible in children. A three year old child arrives home happily waving the Lebanese flag but at home, the Palestinian flag is displayed proudly as the family's identity. There is definitely confusion in terms of identity.

How effective is UNRWA in its work with Palestinian refugees?

UNRWA was established specifically to help Palestinian refugees after the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948, when about two thirds of Palestinians were expelled from their homeland by Jewish-Zionist terror groups. There was no assumption of an indefinite exile; many refugees believed that they would be able to return in a matter of weeks. However, the state of Israel established by Jews who came mostly from Russia and Poland has never allowed Palestinians the right to return to their own land. Israel issued a law in 1951 which enabled any Jew in the world to go to Israel and obtain Israeli nationality upon arrival.

Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are all covered by UNRWA's services in more than 60 recognised refugee camps. There are also "gatherings" of refugees which are not recognised by the Agency. UNRWA provides refugees with food and healthcare; Palestinians are critical about this because the provision is regarded as inadequate and ineffective, although UNRWA justifies what it does by citing budget shortfalls; the Agency depends almost entirely on voluntary donations from UN member states. Palestinians are suspicious about this, believing it to be a sign that the international community is withdrawing slowly from its obligations, not only to provide for the refugees but also to facilitate their return under UN Resolution 194.

Arguably, though, the best thing that UNRWA has done in the eyes of many Palestinians is that it has educated Palestinian refugees despite the obvious failings of the system.

What are the ramifications of history and identity with regard to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon?

The Palestinian community in Lebanon has been the fuel for all of the conflicts in the country, whether with Israel or internal forces. This explains why the death toll among refugees is higher in Lebanon than in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

From 1948 until the PLO took control of the camps, they were run by Lebanese security forces, which often dealt with the refugees as a security problem rather than a humanitarian issue. In 1969 and 1970 the PLO took control of the camps until 1982 when the Israeli invasion led to teh dispersal of the PLO across many Arab countries. Prior to that, despite the wars, the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon was much better because the leadership of the PLO was established in Lebanon as its sole base following its expulsion from Jordan in what is known as 1970's Black September.
The PLO enhanced and rebuilt Palestinian identity through various political, social and cultural activities. A new philosophy emerged, which changed Palestinians' identity from that of observers of the freedom struggle into participants. The generation born as refugees has taken the struggle further, in contrast to what Israeli leaders believed would happen   that the older generation would die and the newer generations would lose their attachment to their land.

When the PLO leadership left Lebanon in 1982, ordinary Palestinians felt deserted. The Sabra and Shatila massacres of September 1982 when Israel's Christian allies murdered 3,500 Palestinian civilians in these two camps saw the beginning of a new era of anguish. In 1985 the pro-Syria Shia Muslim militia launched a war against the camps which lasted two years (called the War of the Camps) in which Palestinians had to fight for their survival.

How are Palestinians perceived by the Lebanese? Can you discuss any ideological differences between the two?

Until 1923, which saw the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Iraqis were all Ottoman subjects. The Western powers occupied the region under the pretext of liberating the Arabs from the Ottomans, which was a lie. The region was divided into several parts by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, with the purpose of admitting European Jews to Palestine. In this period, the new Middle East was forged; the borders and nationalities we see today were created by colonial powers.

Lebanon differed from Syria, Jordan or Palestine before the Zionist occupation due to the fact that it is based on religious groups. This had a negative impact on displaced Palestinians. Since most Palestinians fleeing to Lebanon were Sunni Muslims, Lebanese Christians feared that they would lose their power if the refugees acquired Lebanese citizenship; Lebanon's Shia Muslims were of the same opinion. Nevertheless, the general relationship between Palestinians and Lebanese is still good despite all the problems and sensitivity created by the conflicts. Both communities have much in common in terms of culture and history, and there are thousands of families built on inter-community marriages.

The Palestinian refugees' main demand is to obtain civil rights in Lebanon and no more. They emphasize at every opportunity that they wouldn't exchange the right to their land in Palestine even with paradise. This is to no avail, however, and government policy in Lebanon is still based on sectarian politics. Despite claims by the Lebanese government that it will do something to improve the condition of the refugee camps almost nothing has been seen in practice.

The relationship between Palestinians and Lebanese people was good until the civil war, during which the Lebanese left-wing forces sided with Palestinians; these parties are the traditional friends of the Palestinians. At the moment, Hezbollah is the major power in southern Lebanon, where almost half of the Palestinian refugees live. Hezbollah is considered by most Palestinians as a friend and ally, although the current conflict in Syria, which is also viewed by some as a conflict between Sunni and Shia, has made Palestinians in Lebanon fear for their future. Some believe that the conflict in Syria will have serious repercussions for Lebanon. The last thing I heard was that about 600 Palestinian families from Syria have fled to their relatives in Lebanon. It must be noted that most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are originally from the Galilee region close to the Lebanese border.

The problem is that this community -three generations of refugees, and growing - live in a country that gives then no civil and political rights. Their situation poses serious questions about the purpose of struggling for higher education with no hope of employment at the end of it. Wars and displacement have worsened the already precarious situation. Four refugee camps were totally destroyed, one in the south by the Israelis and the others in East Beirut due to the civil war. In 2007, Nahr al-Bared camp in the north was destroyed by the Lebanese army.

To this turmoil, add the practical problems found in schools, such as overcrowding, the shift system and the shrinking UNRWA budget for school improvements. Education faces major obstacles and may be ineffective when faced with such conditions.

Can you shed light upon sources of conflict encountered by Palestinian refugees, as well as factors which exacerbate these conflicts?

Palestinians living in Lebanon are distributed into 12 registered refugee camps. The number of registered Palestinians is 450,000 although this may be fewer in reality due to migration following the wars and massacres.

The camps are overcrowded as their physical size has not increased to cope with the population increase. The camps are guarded by the Lebanese Army, transforming them into open prisons rather than residential areas in all but name. Palestinians can go outside the camps to work, for example, in simple agricultural jobs. However, officially, they are prohibited from working in more than 70 occupations outside the camps.

When I was living in Lebanon, the conditions were much better due to the existence of PLO institutions, which were destroyed following the Israeli invasion in 1982. When the PLO moved back to Palestine after the Oslo Accord in 1993, it focused on activities in Palestine. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon felt they were forgotten and left to face their destiny alone.

These days I have heard about a lot of conflict in the camps in the form of family disputes, which reflects, in my opinion, the insecurity felt by the younger generation due to the absence of any real prospects. About two months ago, in the camp I know best - Burj el Shimali in south Lebanon   about 50 people were injured after a dispute escalated into armed conflict. In my view, more security is not the solution to the problem, as the roots of the problem are political and social. As I said before, the camps in Lebanon are surrounded by the Lebanese army, which transforms them into prisons rather than living areas. The local Palestinian police are not empowered to impose law and order. I asked a Palestinian police officer in the camp what he thought of the situation. He said hundreds of young people in their twenties have nothing to do. Even sports activities are limited due a lack of resources. They are frustrated and have lost hope. They have no aspirations due to the perceived hopelessness of their situation.

In my view the main problem is the insecurity among refugees because of the instability; they cannot plan a future. They know very well that they are not on solid ground and that the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation are better off, relatively speaking of course. The fact that they are still in their homeland gives them moral strength despite the occupation and oppression. With the refugees in Lebanese camps you have three generations of displaced people living in a country which deprives them of all rights. Palestinians in Lebanon are not only deprived of working in the public sector, but also in most of the private sector. They even have no right to own property; I doubt such a law exists anywhere else on earth.

This situation naturally weakens the motivation to educate the younger generations: "Why should I invest money to educate my son or daughter who has no prospect of finding a job afterwards?" is the obvious question. Even so, there have been thousands of graduates from the community who have been able to find work in the Gulf States. However, such opportunities have diminished over time, because of security problems and competition from other Arabs wanting to work in the region.

The situation in Syria influences Lebanon greatly since the countries are neighbours. The fighting in Syria is starting to resemble a sectarian conflict. The Shia-dominated Iraqi regime and Iranian-backed Hezbollah support the Syrian regime, whilst the Sunni Arab countries and Turkey support the opposition to Bashar Al-Assad. Palestinians are divided on the issue. Some support the Syrian regime while the Islamists amongst them support the revolution. Even the left wing is deeply divided about this conflict, which is poisoning the whole region. Naturally it will affect the Palestinian refugees who are the weakest party in all of this. Palestinians living in Al-Yarmouk refugee camp in the Damascus suburbs have been attacked several times.


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