Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

FRFI 193 October / November 2006

The tragedy of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon started with their expulsion from Palestine in 1948. Since then there has been a constant worsening in their conditions. According to the United Nations for Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East March 2006, there are 405,452 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, of whom 220,000 live in 12 official refugee camps. UNRWA reports of all the 4.375 million Palestinian refugees they serve in the Lebanon, West Bank, Gaza, Syria and Jordan that those in Lebanon have the highest percentage living in abject poverty. The total population of refugees is estimated at 5.5 million, as there are a further 263,000 internally displaced in 1948 who became Israeli citizens, and 773,000 displaced by the 1967 war.

The Israeli invasion of 1982 and the consequent expulsion from Lebanon of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) resulted in a sharp deterioration in the conditions of Palestinian refugees there. Until that time, the PLO had provided work for about 65% of the Palestinians in Lebanon as well as health and education services. The Oslo peace process in the early 1990s marginalised them further and made their right of return, recognised in the UN Resolution 194 of December 1948 and re-affirmed by the UN over 110 times, as remote as ever as the PLO concentrated its diplomatic efforts on the West Bank and Gaza. The international aid the PLO has received has mainly been invested in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. Budgets of international organisations operating in Lebanon, especially UNRWA, have also been cut down drastically. Finally, the international boycott of the Palestinian Authority following the Hamas victory in the elections in January 2006 has increased their distress.

The latest Zionist war has exacerbated the misery and plight of the Palestinian refugees even further. Hoda Samra, UNRWA spokesperson in Lebanon, told Reuters on 17 September that: ‘Whatever affects the Lebanese affects the Palestinians, given that they are residing in this country. But the Palestinians also lack coping mechanisms. Any emergency affects them even more than other groups, as the Palestinians in Lebanon are vulnerable by definition.’ During the war they were mostly sequestered in the refugee camps where Israeli missiles targeted houses and made even more people homeless. According to Samra ‘Preliminary estimates indicate that 102 [Palestinian] homes or shelters were totally destroyed, 159 were partially destroyed and 755 are in need of minor or major repairs as a result of the conflict.’ UNRWA reported that on 14 August, only one hour before the ceasefire, Abed Al Saghir, a Palestinian who worked for UNRWA was killed in Ein Al Hilwi camp. During UNRWA Deputy Commissioner General Filippo Grandi’s visit on 24/25 August 2006 to Ein Al Hilwi camp, refugees expressed to him their concern at the large quantity of unexploded ordnance in the orchards and fields of south Lebanon where many rely on agriculture for their living. This sector has suffered enormously as a result of the heavy Israeli bombardment and the blockade it imposed on the country.

The decades of exile are aggravated by the systematically discriminatory policies of the Lebanese state. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon do not have citizenship, so they are considered foreigners by law even if they have been there since 1948. Lebanon considers their presence as temporary and has repeatedly stated that it will not accept their permanent settlement. To be able to work legally they need a work permit that is valid for a maximum of two years. However, Lebanese law restricts Palestinians from practising over 70 professions outside the camps: they cannot work as an accountant, engineer, lawyer, pharmacist or even as a concierge, cook or hairdresser. Those few Palestinians who have a work permit are not entitled to social security despite the fact that they pay for it. They can only join a trade union if they have no criminal record, even then they cannot be elected to any office. They are limited to electing a representative who is allowed to defend their interest in the union board.

Palestinians in refugee camps are isolated from the outside world by fences. The camps are controlled by Lebanese soldiers who decide who goes into or exits the camps. Inside the camps there is another layer of control, but this time by armed Palestinians. UNRWA reports that 60% of Palestinian refugees live in poverty and more than 70% are unemployed. Their high level of poverty and inhuman living conditions are a consequence of the discriminatory policies of the Lebanese state. Even refugees living outside the camps can only move about in Lebanon if they inform the Lebanese department that administers the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.

Housing is one of the main problems Palestinian refugees face as the land designated for the official camps remains almost the same as it was in 1948 despite the substantial increase in the population. According to a 2005 Amnesty International report, more than 10 persons share the same room in some houses. Since the late 1990s the Lebanese authorities have prohibited the entry of building materials into the camps in the south of Lebanon which has resulted in further deterioration. The situation in the unrecognised camps is worse as the houses there are mostly built of corrugated iron which is sensitive to climate change and which as a result does not provide adequate protection. The Lebanese authorities prevent refugees from replacing the corrugated iron dwellings with bricks. Palestinians who have gone ahead anyway have been fined and in some cases had their brick houses demolished. These small illegal ghetto-camps are not recognised by UNRWA and are therefore left without aid.

Lebanese authorities prohibit the Palestinians in refugee camps from using Lebanese government hospitals and other public health services. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society suffers also from limited budgets as a result of a cut in PLO funding. Refugees are therefore totally reliant on UNRWA health services that in turn are insufficient to meet the needs of the growing number of impoverished refugees. Despite all the hardship, the refugees do not leave the camps in large numbers. Um Fadi, from Ein Al Hilwi, the biggest camp of 45,337 Palestinians, told Le Monde Diplomatique in July 2006, in response to the internal conflict between the different Palestinian factions ‘often there are deaths and people are afraid. But they don’t want to leave, because the camp still symbolises our long wait for return and the struggle for our rights’.

Manal Darwish