The Dispossessed

Le Monde's middle east reporter Mouna Naïm details here some aspects of the actual daily lives of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee Camps. She starts with Chatila in Beyrouth, famously known as the place where, in 1982, Israel and Ariel Sharon prepared, watched carefully and helped their Lebanese Christian trained militia massacre Palestinian women and children, after the departure of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Beyrouth under international pressures, leaving behind a defenseless population.

A woman and her child at her door in Chatila Camp. On the walls we can read:
On the right: 'Palestine, we will not forget you'
On the left: 'Massacre of Koubayat, October 13th, 1953, 42 houses demolished, 70 martyrs.'

To accomodate his house for his son who just married, Farhat Farhat had to juggle with the tiny space. He covered the adjoining alley to build an extension for the newlyweds. To pay for the cost he rented a part of his tiny house to two syrian workers. You have to be imaginative when you are an unemployed Palestinian living in the overpopulated camp of Chatila. In the camp, buildings are arranged like Sardines in a can, streets are so narrow that you have your vis-à-vis at arms lenght. The streets are a chaotic space made of electrical lines and counters, cables, drying clothes and water reservoirs.

Farhat knows that his construction won't last. Like other buildings in the camp, it has no foundations but he does not have a choice. Mounir Maarouf, local director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) lives in the constant fear of an earthquake which, he says, is certain to bring about a terrible humanitarian catastrophe in the camps. One local community worker jokes that the buildings, being so close, couldn't fall because they stand as one gigantic bloc.

The streets: Camp Chatila, April, 2006.

After the creation of Israel, the Lebanese government gave land to the Palestinians to set 12 refugee camps in different locations in Lebanon; north, south, east, and center, Beyrouth. Officially, construction is forbidden in the camps, as these are refugee camps. However, the interdiction is not applied and not one government has cared for the conditions in which people live in the camps. In five other camps, the UNRWA succeded in doing some maintenance work on the buildings but they were met with a firm refusal for Chatila, with no explanation from the Lebanese government. Pressures are being exerted by the government on the Palestinians of these camps to control their arms: no arms at all outside the camps and governmental regulation for arms possession inside the camps. In recent history, some extremists Islamists groups have grown out of these camps, manipulated at the time by the Syrians against the PLO.

Lebanese live in the fear (unjustified in my opinion) of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement which leaves out the right of return recognised by UN resolution 194, making Lebanon home to the the refugees of the camps. On the other side, Palestinians in Lebanon refuse to stay if there is a settlement. They instantly identify themselves as Palestinians from such and such village (they name their Palestinian villages of origin) and they take great care in passing on the information to younger generations.

According to UNRWA, between 12000 and 13000 live on an estimated 2 Km2 in Chatila, among them a third are non Palestinians (kurds, Syrians, Sudanese and Egyptians) immigrant poor workers. UNRWA director of information for Lebanon, Houda Samre Souaiby, thinks that some of the Palestinians registered at Chatila do not actually live in the camp but they want to stay registered with the hope of being able to return if a settlement is reached between Israel and the PA.

At the end of the tunnel Farhat had built as an extension to his house a narrowing alley and one stair down sits Oum Nazem (Nazem's mother) in a small room crossed by a thin ray of light coming from the opened door. Oum Nazem's three sons died in Lebanon, two during the civil war and one killed 'by the Syrians'. Oum Nazem is twice refugee; she lived in the camp of Tel-El-Zaatar located in the eastern part of Beyrouth before having to flee the camp when it was attacked by the Lebanese Christian Forces militia in the first years of the Lebanese civil war. Oum Nazem had left her Palestinian village Caza d'Acca (Saint Jean d'Acres) in 1948 at the age of 12. She still say that her true age is 12 because these were the only years during which she lived a real life.

At the red crescent clinic in the camp, around twelve, Dr. Saleh Maarouf is finishing his on call duty. 'Most people living in the camp don't see the sun and live in poor sanitary conditions', he tells Ms Naïm. 'Sewers and other elementary infrastructure are decaying'. 'The recurrent health problems among the camp population are: Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, Diabetes, Anemia, high rate of cancer'. ' We only provide primary and emergency care, we do provide care for poor people from outside the camps and we ask them to pay a symbolic contribution.'

Dr. Maarouf studied Medicine in Cairo, married a Lebanese and succeded the exam the College of Physicians of Lebanon designed as a prerequisite for its membership but Dr. Maarouf was not able to obtain privileges since Palestinians were forbidden from exercising some 72 professions and jobs in Lebanon, this number was reduced recently to 20 maintaining however the exclusion of the liberal professions in a recent generous move by the lebanese ministry of Work , through a memorandum (and not a legislation). Dr. Maarouf works only for the red crescent inside the camp where he is the director of the camp clinic. He has been working for the last 27 years with a monthly salary of only 387 Euros. Palestinian workers in other jobs are not allowed benefits related to social and medical insurances paid for by the employer, even though the employer is actually paying his due to the government for these social benefits.

In the Rachidiyyé camp next to the southern city of Tyre, Hiba is preparing for university where she would like to study law. However, as she cannot work as a lawyer in lebanon, she has to renounce her project and plan a carreer in engineering. Even with a degree as an engineer, she is not sure she will be able to find work easily because Lebanese prefer to hire Lebanese. There is also the immediate problem of the cost of a university degree. Hiba's father works in the fields and earns about 8 dollars a day when he is working (he works seven to eight months a year). His wife earns some money by making embroideries. She makes the bread and is very careful as to provide her six children with the necessary. Both parents value the education of their children. As other Palestinians, they consider that the education of the children is the biggest investment of their lifetime. They want their children to learn english and they worry that the children might be discouraged by not finding a job after a university degree. One of the sons wants to study medicine. The youngest child goes to a French educational Program offered in the camps, Enfants Refugiés du Monde, providng children in the Palestinian camps with extracurricular activites, fun and games. Oum Hassan wishes they can learn english also with this program.

Planted in the middle of the orchards and facing the meditterranean sea, Rachidiyyé is less gloomy than other Palestinian camps. However, inside the small 'houses', families who live on subsidies and salaries from the PLO have not received a dime since January. First, the families started buying on credit but the grocery stores inside the camps, unable to recover their credit, are not renewing merchandise. Children are sorting out the garbage in the hope of finding something worthy to trade on. Some are resorting to theft and grocery owners are staying to guard their shops during the night. Only UNRWA employees benefit from a regular paycheck, all others, including those who work for NGO's, are not receiving any money. NGO's depend on donations and donations to Palestinian refugees are not fashionable these days, explains Abu Kamal...


Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

“Le Monde's middle east reporter Mouna Naïm is a fine journalist” ???


I’m sure you haven’t read her earlier prose: throughout the 1990’s she produced some of the most rabid anti-Iraqi propaganda that put her to the right of Attila the Hun.

Mouna Naïm is a fraud: a Neocon fascist posing as an enlightened center left “democrat”…she’s sort of the French version of Judith Miller!

Sophia said...


No I have not read her earlier prose. I have been reding her for may be three to four years. I am going to do a search. THanks for the info. I am going also to suspend my judgment until later...

Anonymous said...

The camps are stain on Lebanon's thin reputation. Nowhere have the Palestinians been treated with such discrimination and violence by a state outside of Palestine.

The issue has many facets,chief amongst them the sectarianism of the Lebanese state and society. Every Christian Palestinian that I know has been awarded Lebanese citizenship and they live happy and productive lives in Lebanon.

In Lebanon where everyone is protected by a fuedal lord to whom they are required to pay tribute, the Palestinians do not have any protector. They have even been abandoned by their fellow Sunnis , chief amongst them Mr Hariri and Nazek Hariri, herself a Palestinian.

(I threw that in for you Vic since you like me are one of Hariri's greatest fans.)

Lebanon treats every foreigner badly unless they smell of money. It is Lebanon's great equalizer.


Sophia said...

Lebanese society which presents itself as the most modern in the Arab world is in fact a very archaic society and the warlords made sure during the civil war that voices of reason and social progress were shut out.

Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

- Hi ‘Issam,

Good to read your sharp-edged prose again my dear anti-Wahhabist friend!

- Sophie,

Re: Abu Mus’ab death, have you noticed the striking resemblance with Latin America’s most subversive revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara…

Pervasiveness of the proverbial Semitic-Arabian-Iberian “ethnic traits” threatening the integrity of our beloved Western civilization?
Common use of the advanced mortuary toileting techniques in vogue at the CIA?

Allah and Huntington only know…

Since March 29th 2006