Spotlighting the Palestinian National Movement in Lebanon

The Palestinian National Movement in Lebanon: A Political History of the ‘Ayn al-Hilwe Camp
5 min read
12 January, 2022
Book Club: It has often been said that pre-Oslo, Palestinian refugees of 1948 built a state within a state in Lebanon. In Erling Lorentzen Sogge's ethnographic study, he shines a spotlight on the lived experiences of those within 'Ayn al-Hilwe.
In the aftermath of the perceived betrayal at Oslo, Sogge's ethnography details the ongoing resistive qualities of those within the 'Ayn al-Hilwe camp [Bloomsbury Publishing]

Upon reading Erling Lorentzen Sogge’s ethnographic study, The Palestinian National Movement in Lebanon: A Political History of the ‘Ayn al-Hilwe Camp (I.B. Tauris, 2021), it is possible to see how the refugee camp mirrors, in many ways, the plight of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, where the people are in constant conflict between the Palestinian Authority’s state-building and authoritarianism, and the legitimate right to the anti-colonial struggle.

Sogge’s introduction to the book describes the refugee camp of 'Ayn al-Hilwe as “the last bastion of Palestinian self-determination outside the homeland. It was a matter of existence for the national movement in exile.” The refugee camp, which is the largest in Lebanon, is self-governed.

Lebanon’s own political concerns, together with the government’s inability to control guerrilla groups, had resulted in the Lebanese government reaching an agreement with Yasser Arafat in the 1960s to embark upon the Palestinian resistance from Lebanese soil, “as long as it did not challenge the security of the state.”

"For decades Palestinian refugees were considered to be the bulwark of anti-colonial struggle due to organised resistance"

With the Palestine Liberation Organisation retaining such authority, Sogge notes, “the camps were no longer impoverished urban slums but resembled Palestinian states in the waiting.” However, with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian armed struggle was brought to an end and the Palestinian refugees were marginalised.

For decades Palestinian refugees were considered to be the bulwark of anti-colonial struggle due to organised resistance. Oslo wrought a devastating change. From prominent actors in the anti-colonial struggle, Palestinian refugees found themselves “subsumed by scholarly debates, far removed from the realm of the national movement.”

The book devotes ample space for tracing the intricacies of ‘Ayn al-Hilwe, its symbolism in terms of Palestinian resistance, factional strife and allegiances to various political actors and movements. The camp, however, is also a stark reminder of the oppressive colonial structure which obstructs Palestinian freedom in the occupied West Bank.

Sogge describes how Palestinians retained their identity and social class in ‘Ayn al-Hilwe, and describes the camp as more than “places of transit”. Politically, the camp’s association with resistance and the right of return prevailed, even after the Oslo Accords, where Fatah adherents clashed with the PLO’s political framework.

Camp leaders were instrumental in mobilising Palestinians in the ‘Ayn al-Hilwe camp against the Oslo Accords, causing Fatah and Arafat’s decline in popularity.

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Factions within the camp, Sogge notes, forged alliances that included Islamist forces. Yet the reason behind such allegiances was due to recognition that resistance from exile necessitated support, particularly when it became clear that the PLO was selling out the Palestinians in exile. Arafat’s exploitation of the Palestinian cause and refugees would be a strategy repeated by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas; the latter marginalising refugees in the process of the internationally-funded concept of Palestinian state-building.

Hamas’s presence in ‘Ayn al-Hilwe camp is noteworthy. Traced back to Lebanon in 1991, Hamas filled the ideological gap in a place that was mostly dominated by factions associated with the PLO. Similar to Hamas in Gaza, the movement’s primary focus was on social mobilisation and grassroots organisation – a role for which Hamas is distinguished and which enabled it to present itself as a  viable political alternative to the corruption embodied by the PA.

"The book delves into the prominent role of Palestinian refugees juxtaposed against the more mainstream political processes such as the Oslo Accords, and shows how Palestinian factions in the camps have held to their resistance identity and exhibit no loyalty to the PA, unlike Fatah and the PLO in the occupied Palestinian territories"

The book’s detailed descriptions and in-depth interviews show how ‘Ayn al-Hilwe cannot be considered in a vacuum but rather part of a broader political landscape comprising both the Palestinian struggle, as well as Lebanon. The formation of the Joint Palestinian Security Force in ‘Ayn al-Hilwe, for example, is described by the author as “not only a symbol of Palestinian unity but also a turning point in the relationship between the Palestinians and the Lebanese state.” In other ways, and particularly due to the “states in exile” conceptualisation, the security forces in the camp is also a reflection of the security forces’ role in the occupied West Bank.

As happens in Palestine, allegiances to political factions within the camps are also driven by necessity. “They say we are part of the resistance, but we are not resisting anybody,” one interviewee tells Sogge.

Sogge’s research goes beyond the concept of camps as spaces of humanitarian need and deprivation, although these issues are addressed within the wider framework of politics concerning ‘Ayn al-Hilwe, Lebanon and the Palestinian struggle.

In particular, the book delves into the prominent role of Palestinian refugees juxtaposed against the more mainstream political processes such as the Oslo Accords and shows how Palestinian factions in the camps have held to their resistance identity and exhibit no loyalty to the PA, unlike Fatah and the PLO in the occupied Palestinian territories, for example.

In conclusion, Sogge notes, that Ayn al-Hilwe also mirrors Lebanon in terms of state dysfunction and security. The state of exception, like other fragile political circumstances, is common to both.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law