They can take away our land; they can take away our rights; they can even take away our right to live; but we are Palestinians, and with God’s help, we will survive.
The above statement encapsulates the spirit of Palestine and its people. The speaker was an elderly man sitting in a cramped temporary shelter provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in an area “adjacent” to the Naher Al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. I met this dignified gentleman today with some of his colleagues from the Camp’s Popular Committee during a field visit organised for me by UNRWA on behalf of Interpal.
Naher Al-Bared was destroyed by the Lebanese Army in 2007 in a stand-off with around 300 armed “Islamic fundamentalists” who were, it is alleged, intent on taking control of the camp. It took 11,000 regular soldiers, helicopters and bombs to dislodge the group; 35,000 Palestinian refugees were made homeless, again, as a result of the army’s complete destruction of their community. Almost five years later, the first tranche of refugees has been allowed to move into newly-built shelters on the site of the old camp; a serious shortage of funds (around $200m is still needed by UNRWA) means that redevelopment is slow, painfully so. Phases 2, 3, 4 and 5 are still incomplete. Nevertheless, progress has been made since my first visit to the site 3 years ago, before which we had to undergo a briefing on possible munitions in the rubble of the camp and give the mine clearance team our blood group in case we stood on an unexploded bomb or picked up a booby-trapped object.
So normality is creeping back into the lives of Naher Al-Bared’s refugees, and that means total control by the Lebanese Army, government restrictions and a sense of hopelessness only just outweighed by the optimistic approach demonstrated by that old man maintaining his dignity despite everything. It was incredibly humbling to be offered hospitality in such circumstances; fruit, Arabic coffee, and even an offer of lunch (which we had to decline).
Today’s problem facing the Committee is this: the cemetery allocated to the refugees has places left for just 16 corpses; with an average mortality rate of around 3 deaths per day, you can see why the Committee members are deeply concerned. “Do we have to leave our dead on the streets before something is done to help us?” asked one man. When I suggested, in all seriousness, that that is exactly what might have to be done to move the politicians in Beirut to help, he nodded in agreement, and with equal seriousness.
The camp that the refugees still call their temporary home – “Palestine is our home, and we will return there one day” – used to be the commercial centre of the whole district. Unlike their compatriots in Syria and Jordan, who enjoy the same rights as the locals, Palestinians in Lebanon do not enjoy Lebanese citizenship. The lack of civil status and rights is a major issue; our driver on the visit was refused entry by the army at the checkpoint outside the camp: “He’s a Palestinian, and that’s a problem”. The Lebanese citizen with us had no such problem. In fact, Lebanese citizens used to flock to the camp for goods and services to be bought at a fraction of the cost outside. That trade has gone, and unemployment blights Palestinian life even further. A Palestinian doctor cannot work as a doctor in Lebanon, except within the refugee camps; the same restriction applies to more than 70 occupations. Although the Lebanese government changed the law a couple of years ago, nothing has changed in practice. Not unnaturally, this makes it difficult to motivate young refugees at school.
But motivated they are, and the three new schools already built in the UNRWA compound area alongside the Mediterranean on the edge of Naher Al -Bared are bustling with activity. One incorporates a vocational training centre preparing young people for jobs that are probably not there, but giving them the skills to compete for those which are, and who knows, to branch out on their own as they help to rebuild their community.
As happens on many field visits to Palestinian refugee camps, when my nationality is mentioned, at least one person will take the opportunity to remind me of Britain’s historic responsibility for the tragedy of the Nakba and the resultant, and ongoing, refugee crisis. The Popular Committee members are well aware of the wider political shenanigans which keeps them bound to refugee status, and although criticism of UNRWA as the closest of official bodies working in the camps is heard frequently, it is tempered by an understanding of reality: “UNRWA’s financial crisis,” said one man, “means that it is unable to fulfil its role properly.” That crisis is created by UN member states not paying their promised donations which are needed to fund UNRWA’s affairs. Amazingly, such funds are voluntary, but even the Arab and Muslim states are very backwards in coming forwards with financial support for the Palestinian refugees. In part, this is possibly due to the focus on “state building” in the West Bank and the disproportionate amount of funding directed to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, none of which filters through to help refugees beyond historic Palestine’s borders.
The message from the Popular Committee in Naher Al-Bared was clear: building the people through economic, social and communal development is just as important, if not more so, than building homes (“shelters” in UN parlance). If not, they are destined to remain dependent on international aid, charitable relief and sympathy. Any visitor to the refugee camps will tell you the same thing; it is that obvious. Sadly, and disgracefully, the likes of Tony Blair, the so-called Middle East Quartet representative tasked with helping to solve the Palestinian issue, has never been to the refugee camps of Lebanon; nor to those in Gaza, Jordan or Syria. In short, he hasn’t any first-hand knowledge or information beyond what his aides tell him, or what his pals in Ramallah and Tel Aviv want him to see and know.
That is the shame of the Palestinian catastrophe, an ongoing Nakba in every sense of the word and deed; the people who are supposed to solve the problem have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to do so. The men, women and children in the refugee camps are left to struggle on in conditions which are an affront to the human rights laws and conventions our countries have signed up to and pledged to uphold. The Palestinians in Naher Al-Bared face the winter cold (there’s snow on the mountains over the way) and heavy rain in little more than modified steel containers, but they are doing so with a determination and courage that is inspirational and puts to shame the international community which allows this to happen. That’s you and I. When will we realise this with sufficient anger to actually do something about it? How about today? Go to it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.