Where next for Palestinians in Lebanon?

Where next for Palestinians in Lebanon?
5 min read
27 Nov, 2016
Comment: Lebanese plans to build a wall around the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp should refocus international attention on the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon, writes James Denselow.
Living conditions in the camps will only get worse with further restrictions [AFP]

Towards the end of November the Lebanese government, now with a newly installed president in place, started constructing a concrete wall around the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the county.

The wall is in response to security threats from inside the densely populated camp of Ain al-Hilweh near the southern coastal city of Sidon, with Lebanese military sources explained that it “is not building a prison or a separation wall, but a wall for protection”.

However, its construction has sparked controversy amongst Palestinian political figures with Major General Mounir al-Maqdah, the head of the Palestinian security forces in Lebanon, claiming that the barrier was “causing psychological pressure for the Palestinian refugees”.

Meanwhile Hamas criticised the move arguing that it was part of “the collective isolation” of Palestinians in the country.

One thing it has done, albeit all too briefly, is remind the world about the continued long-term presence of Palestinian refugees in the country.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees remain in Lebanon, enduring the worst humanitarian conditions of the diaspora.

Their long-term presence, the absence of any form of Israel-Palestine peace process and the arrival of large numbers of Syrian refugees has seen Palestinians in Lebanon largely off from international consciousness.

The absence of any form of political process, nor adequate humanitarian services, nor a future that offers much hope is the context for those living in the twelve refugee camps dotted around the country.

Ain al-Hilweh is home to some 60,000 people and its narrow streets are characterised by dangerous electricity cables crisscrossing above uneven pavements that separate housing of questionable safety

Ain al-Hilweh is home to some 60,000 people and its narrow streets are characterised by dangerous electricity cables crisscrossing above uneven pavements that separate housing of questionable safety.

The camp has endured restrictions on it for years having nominally been surrounded by the Lebanese military since the end of the Civil War in the early 1990s.

In 1969 the Cairo Agreements signed between the PLO and the Lebanese authorities gave effective sovereignty over control of the refugee camps to the Palestinians.

Although Palestinian popular committees are nominally in charge of the local governance of the camps the UN agency UNRWA carries the heaviest lift when it comes to providing education, health and welfare services.

The camps have not been immune to the wider politics of the country and the region opening them up to the interests of others.

The most spectacular case of this happening was in 2007 when a militant group entered the northern refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared leading to weeks of fighting with the Lebanese army.

This displaced thousands of Palestinians from their homes and led to vast levels of destruction, which have yet to be fully recovered from.

Ain al-Hilweh has had contested internal politics for years and stories of shootings, car bombs or grenades thrown at one faction or another are a regular feature of the news cycle in Lebanon.

Living conditions in the camps where building materials are limited, unemployment and poverty are rampant will only get worse if a physical barrier joins the other pre-existing controls

The rise and rise of the Islamic State group across the region and a spate of recent attacks that have largely focused on Hizballah controlled parts of Beirut have raised a sense of nervousness amongst the Lebanese authorities around groups and individuals who may be sheltering in the camps.

An inability of the checkpoints controlling entry and exit from the camp to prevent individuals and weapons entering elsewhere is likely what triggered the decision to wall it off.

Again the Palestinian refugees living inside may pay the greatest price for the politics of others.

Living conditions in the camps where building materials are limited, unemployment and poverty are rampant will only get worse if a physical barrier joins the other pre-existing controls.

The UN has expressed their concern and such is the controversy over the project that some reports suggest that construction has already been frozen.

The debate around the wall could and should be used to trigger a wider discussion around the current situation for Palestinians in the country.

Unless a course ahead is charted for a better future the camps will continue to be zones of misery and sources of potential threats.

Whilst much focus has understandably been on the Syrian refugee crisis the more protracted Palestinian refugee situation has been left off the agenda.

International leadership is needed to ensure that camps are not viewed solely as security challenges but rather are representative of the responsibility of ensuring good jobs, safe homes and a sense of a future for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who remain in Lebanon.

This requires joined up thinking between Palestinian leaders, Lebanon’s new administration and international actors which will not be easy, nor will it be as dramatic as building a wall but is likely to be far more durable if agreement over a positive vision ahead can be reached.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.