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Lebanon's wall of shame should be torn down

Twenty seven years ago this month, I was in Germany hacking away at a pile of twisted metal and concrete with thousands of others who were celebrating the demise of the world's most infamous wall. Weeks earlier, on 9 November 1989, the real heroes were German citizens from both East and West who clambered onto the Berlin Wall and set about dismantling it with chisels, hammers and their bare hands; it was a breath-taking sight to see ordinary people seize the moment as they ripped down concrete slabs which had kept them apart for decades.

Such walls are repugnant, whether built to keep people in or out. They are monuments of failure to hold dialogue and exhibit a lack of humanity within those who erect these inhuman monstrosities in the first place.

The world's most notorious wall today is being built by Israel in occupied Palestine. When it is completed, it will have snaked its way around more than 400 miles of Palestinian lands confirming beyond doubt the status of an Apartheid structure which is at the heart of Tel Aviv's most racist policies.

It remains to be seen if the hateful Apartheid Wall will be overtaken in notoriety by US President-elect Donald Trump and the wall that he has pledged to build along the 1,989 mile border between the USA and Mexico. He declared several times during the election campaign that his intention is to build the wall and admitted to getting the idea from Israel. Trump has already attempted to draw parallels between the Zionist state's Apartheid Wall and his much touted Mexican barrier.

According to Trump's campaign team, in an hour-long meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in the Trump Tower penthouse, the two men discussed "at length Israel's successful experience with a security fence that helped secure its borders." (A "fence"! Have they seen the concrete monstrosity?) More alarmingly, though, is that while this meeting was taking place in New York, thousands of miles away in Lebanon what passes for a government in Beirut was having similar discussions about building a wall around the country's largest Palestinian refugee camp.

Almost beyond comprehension, the wall has started to be built around Ain Al-Hilweh. The Lebanese army claims that it is "merely a protective fence in some sectors that don't oversee residential areas. The military command affirms that there is no decision to erect such a wall between the camp and its surroundings."

But that's exactly what is being built; a racist wall, a wall of shame with little difference in height or design between the Lebanese version and Israel's Apartheid Wall. The terse official statement noted that intelligence officials and senior Palestinian officials from Fatah had "previously agreed on the matter."

I can only think that if Palestinian officials agreed to such a wall then they must have done so in a moment of temporary insanity; it's hard to imagine what the thought process of the Lebanese officials was who also dreamt up this disgraceful scheme. Thankfully, construction was halted at the weekend following outrage by the inhabitants of the camp who've suffered for decades in the overcrowded hell-hole which is currently home to 120,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees. Thousands contained in the squalor of Ain Al-Hilweh gathered in protest near parts of the wall already constructed; even they called it a wall of shame.

Ain al-Hilweh is indeed an unhappy place and it does give Lebanon a security headache. I visited the camp earlier this year and it is no doubt a problem, but the refugees crowded therein are not at fault. Solving the issues there can only be achieved through dialogue and treating the residents with humanity and compassion.

Throwing a wall around the camp will only serve to increase security issues; the structure will be a clear demonstration of the failure of government policy towards a people who need a helping hand not a wall of shame to contain them. I saw with my own eyes how the Palestinian youth living there are easy prey to siren calls from ruthless gangs and Daesh-style recruiters. Ain Al-Hilweh is based on the outskirts of the port city of Sidon; its name means "sweet, natural spring" but the reality is quite different and is a testament to the failure of the United Nations, the Lebanese government and the Palestinian leadership within the camp.

Although the finger of blame can point in many directions, the roots of all of this misery can be traced back to the Nakba of 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel and the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine. As such, the international community must accept responsibility for the millions of Palestinian lives that have been ruined as generation after generation wait for justice and their legitimate return home. The fact that they are still waiting after 67 years is a global scandal.

By long-standing convention, the Lebanese army will not enter the 12 official UN-run refugee camps around the country, leaving the Palestinian factions to handle security in Ain Al-Hilweh. The camp is also home to several armed and rival groups; tensions are high and can (and sometimes do) ignite over the slightest incident. Just a few weeks before my visit in February, for example, several people were killed when clashes erupted between rival groups, including the Jund Al-Sham Islamists and members of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement.

The rivalry between Islamists and Fatah is ongoing. Walking through the desperately overcrowded camp I could see the different flags and emblems pinned to lamp posts as we passed through each group's turf. With its notoriety as a refuge for extremists and fugitives, and for the settling of scores between factions, in the middle of the toxic mix that is Ain Al-Hilweh are the young people who exist without much hope.

Trying to contain all of this resentment, anger and sense of abandonment by building a "wall of shame" is not the answer. Palestinians living in Lebanon face state-imposed restrictions on their access to mainstream employment opportunities, a reality that has perpetuated poverty and fuelled militant recruitment in camps such as Ain Al-Hilweh.

Instead of building barriers, Lebanon would be better advised to tear them down and open up the property, jobs and business markets to the Palestinian refugees. Providing education, hope, security and sustenance are the real bricks upon which refugee lives should be built. Those within the Lebanese government and Fatah who thought that concrete walls are the answer should hang their heads in shame.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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