EXCLUSIVE ARTICLE FROM MEMO
By Mahan Abedin
Situated deep inside the Bekaa valley, a stone's throw away from the historic town of Baalbek, sits the Jalil Palestinian refugee camp, the most idiosyncratic of all the eleven Palestinian camps still inhabited in Lebanon. Poor, remote and subject to the harsh local weather, Jalil – also known as "Wavel" still manages to accommodate arguably the widest range of political organisations in all the camps. A journey through this largely forgotten camp provides the deepest of insights into the Palestinian experience in Lebanon. It is also a lesson in how proper institutional arrangements are the key to promoting deeper political and social cohesion inside the country's refugee camps.
It is believed that the alternative name of the camp, Wavel (used all the time by the UN Relief and Works Agency – UNRWA responsible for its operation) refers to the British Field Marshal Archibald Percival Wavell, who was posted to Palestine in 1937 to quell growing unrest during the British mandate. Perhaps it was in recognition of the fact that Field Marshall Wavell sent a force to invade Syria and Lebanon when it was occupied during the Second World War by Vichy French authorities in league with Germany. Whatever the reason, the camp was originally a French army barracks, its origins still clearly visible to this day.
Formally established and taken under UNRWA's wing in 1952, Jalil's population stands at around 3,500 registered refugees, most of whom hail from the village of Jalil in northern Palestine (now part of Israel). Roughly the same numbers of refugees live around the camp, due to the overcrowding and miserable conditions which prevail inside. In the past two decades about 7,000 people have left Al-Jalil and the surrounding area and emigrated to Denmark, Sweden and, to a lesser extent, Norway. This mass migration has given rise to the nickname "Denmark camp". Virtually every camp resident has a connection to Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries and rely on their expatriate family members for financial support.
While the camp has generally been spared the devastation inflicted on others in Lebanon during Israel's military incursions, it has not escaped altogether. In 1984 fourteen residents were killed during an Israeli airstrike. More recently, at least two residents and a Lebanese soldier were killed in September 2002 when the Lebanese army tried to enter the camp in force, ostensibly to detain members of the notorious Abu Nidal organisation.
Notwithstanding the extreme poverty prevalent in the camp, Jalil has arguably one of the best schools in the entire network of Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Rashid Haj is the head teacher of the Kastall Secondary School and the Tabaria (Tiberius) Primary School. He has 330 pupils in his care, supported by 24 teachers and funded entirely by UNRWA. Although both schools are co-educational, Mr. Haj claims that the mixing of the sexes doesn't lead to any problems, and is in any case widely accepted by both parents and pupils. His greatest worry is for the future of the youngsters being educated in his schools, for he admits readily that should they stay in Lebanon their future prospects – in terms of higher education and decent long-term employment – are bleak.
Virtually every Palestinian political organisation has a visible and active presence in this remote camp. Moreover, the factions are less secretive in Jalil than in other camps, a sure indicator of low-level communal tensions and generally good coexistence. Furthermore, the location of the camp near to the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek, gives the factions and ordinary residents alike an added sense of reassurance and security, for Hezbollah is respected and trusted by every Palestinian political organisation.
Like most Palestinian camps in Lebanon, the popular committee in Jalil is no longer unitary, being split into Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Tahalof (Cooperative) structures. The former is dominated by Fatah and the latter by the Islamists, in particular the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).
The head of the Tahalof popular committee in Jalil is Karim Mahmoud, a frail and austere man in his late 40s. Formerly a fighter, Mr. Mahmoud received multiple wounds in various battles against Israeli and Lebanese forces. Affiliated to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, he has held his current position at the apex of the Tahalof structure for two years. Mahmoud is keen to underline the role of the PFLP General Command in the Gaza War of 2008-2009. He claims that 40 of its members embedded in Hamas-run Gaza Strip security structures were killed during Israel's 22-day offensive. Naturally talkative and effusive, Karim Mahmoud complains bitterly about the lack of appropriate UNRWA intervention in Jalil.
Mahmoud's complaints are echoed by Abdul-Karim Taher, the leader of Hamas in the camp. In his early 30s, Taher is no less talkative than his colleague and political ally. Asked about why there is little political tension in the camp despite the high visibility of political organizations, Taher credits the remoteness of Jalil and the collective misery endured by residents.
The head of the PLO popular committee is Abu Khaled, a taciturn and modest man with nearly forty years of administrative and managerial experience. Born in the northern Palestinian town of Sohmata in 1942, he has been living in Jalil since 1955. A former soldier, he was wounded in a skirmish with Israeli forces in southern Lebanon on 12 May 1970, when he lost his right eye. Abu Khaled joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) on its founding in 1967. Previously he was a member of the Harakat al-Qawmiyyin al-Arab (Arab Nationalist Movement), the precursor to the PFLP. The movement was founded by George Habash in 1953; Habash was also the founding leader of the PFLP.
According to Abu Khaled the good relations between the PLO and Tahalof popular committees is "unique" to Jalil. Aside from regular meetings between top representatives from each popular committee, he claims that familial and social ties also help in keeping violence at bay.
In contrast to other camps, the PFLP plays a pivotal (perhaps even central) role in the PLO popular committee. The head of the local PFLP is Ahmad Shaheen, a large and avuncular man in his late 40s. Displaying an impressive command of the English language, Shaheen comes across as more of an academic than a political organiser. At the time of the interview Shaheen was busy preparing for the 42nd anniversary of the founding of the PFLP. He was unable to explain the reasons behind the PFLP's strength in Jalil, apart from underlining the group's focus on "social" issues as well as more political matters.
Fatah – which is usually keen to be as visible as possible in the camps – is seemingly content to take an understated role in Jalil. The Fatah representative is Khalid Othman (Abu Jihad), a stocky man in his early 40s. Othman is overshadowed by Hassan Abu Zeid, the Fatah military commander in the Bekaa area. Plump and over-confident, Abu Zeid is keener to explain the Fatah political-military structure across Lebanon than to allow Othman to answer questions relating to more local issues. The thinly-disguised tension between the two men may go some way to explain Fatah's peculiar lack of influence in this camp.
Notwithstanding the inevitable political bickering, the stability and calm which prevails in Jalil deserves greater attention, especially by the Lebanese media, which is prone to negative reporting on issues relating to the Palestinian camps. The Lebanese media often focus on inter-factional fighting inside the camps and armed clashes between Palestinian factions and Lebanese soldiers and other member of the Lebanese security forces. While both phenomena are legitimate (indeed vital) subjects for media reporting and analysis, this often comes at the expense of reporting more positive or even neutral developments in the camps.
Broadly speaking, the stability in Al-Jalil is a reflection of robust institutional mechanisms – woven into the fabric of both popular committees – which enable regular cross-party consultation and counselling. Whilst the remoteness of the camp has enabled more idiosyncratic institutional developments, nonetheless the Jalil model can be adopted by other camps with a view to promoting greater political and social cohesion.
Finally, the geopolitical location of the camp – in one of Hezbollah's strongholds – is an important factor underpinning its stability and socio-political cohesion. Hezbollah's over-arching political-security presence in the Baalbek area is generally considered as a source of stability by locals and Palestinians alike. It is also another reminder of the failure of the Lebanese government to create conditions conducive to greater security inside the Palestinian camps in areas where the state exercises undisputed authority. The most striking examples are Tripoli where prolonged fighting broke out in the Nahr El-Bared camp in May 2007 (during which the entire camp was destroyed and 35,000 refugees were made homeless again) and Ein Al-Hilweh in Sidon, where underlying tensions constantly threaten to escalate into armed confrontation.
Notwithstanding the chaotic situation of the Palestinian diaspora, there are many reasons why the refugees in Lebanon can be considered exemplars of resolute determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Perhaps Fatah in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza should take heed from the Palestinians in Jalil-Wavel camp to learn how national reconciliation could become a reality.
Mahan Abedin is a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. Previously he has worked with numerous think tanks, including the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and the London-based Centre for the Study of Terrorism. He has also been active in journalism, having worked for the Beirut-based Daily Star and most recently the Irbil-based AK News Agency where he was chief editor of the Persian and English sections. Born in Iran, but raised and educated in the United Kingdom, Abedin is a frequent traveller to the Islamic Republic where he is a consultant to independent media.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.