Amid heightened tensions, Palestinian refugees walk Lebanon’s sectarian tightrope.
Beirut, Lebanon – In a country riven by ethnic, religious, and political tensions since its founding, staying neutral in Lebanon can be a challenging feat.
Palestinian refugee camps here are isolated communities, alienated from their surroundings. In the collective memory of the refugees, the camps’ history consists of nothing but sieges, destruction, and massacres. Life for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon means to be deprived of basic human rights, and discriminated against by political parties and government policies.
The support of the roughly 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon has long been sought after – and exploited – by Lebanese groups seeking to further their own ends. But although Lebanon has become increasingly unstable and divided in recent months, the vast majority of Lebanon’s Palestinians have remained neutral.
Throughout their 65 years of exile, Palestinian refugees have become champions of survival. For Palestinians in Lebanon, though, that does not just mean food and shelter, but also staying away from the toxic potion that is Lebanese politics.
Palestinians in Lebanon are struggling to secure their camps and stay out of the way of internal clashes in order to avoid being made scapegoats once again, as they were during the Lebanese civil war from 1975-1990, and in 2007 when Lebanese security forces shelled and besieged the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli.
On a Friday afternoon in the narrow streets of Shatila, Adel al-Ali, 36, scrubbed pairs of used tennis shoes to be sold on the streets later. Adel looked up, dragged on his cigarette and smiled. “There isn’t lower than this job. I just want to make a living in peace away from political money.”
More than 70 fields of employment are closed by law to Palestinians living in Lebanon, and Palestinian refugees are also not allowed to own property.
Ali is not the only one struggling to steer clear of Lebanese politics. In his office in Harat-hreik, in a Hezbollah-dominated suburb of southern Beirut, Rafat Morra – who leads Hamas’ relations with Lebanon – describes the “No for sedition” campaign he is directing.
“Our aim is to prove that Palestinians living in Lebanon only want to live in safety, to receive humanitarian and social aid, and to continue our struggle through resistance until we fulfill our right of return,” he said. The campaign aims to stop the publication of inflammatory articles in the Lebanese media against Palestinians living in the country.
One major Lebanese newspaper ran a front-page headline alleging that missiles fired into southern Beirut originated from a Palestinian camp, while another accused Palestinians of sheltering 5,000 fighters from Hamas and 5,000 fighters from hardline Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Angry at false accusations, the Hamas representative snapped, “This is disinformation, it’s not freedom of expression anymore. This is sedition!”
“The tense regional situation, followed by rhetoric full of sectarianism and sedition, inspired us to start this campaign against organised attacks, which some Lebanese media outlets are directing at Palestinians in Lebanon,” he said.
Palestinian groups across Lebanon have been shoring up their defences. Recently, rival factions in the Ain el-Helwi camp agreed to an unusual and much-needed act of unity, which kept their camp from being caught in the crossfire.
Abu Ahmad, a former Fatah security leader and a member of Ain al-Helwi’s security committee, proudly detailed ongoing cooperation with Lebanese authorities against two non-Palestinian Islamist groups fighting in support of Salafi Sheikh Assir against the Lebanese army.
“We are coordinating with the Lebanese army to control Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam,” Abu Ahmad said. “There is an agreement between the political factions in the camp to not turn the camp into an arena for Lebanese political parties to settle their differences”.
Morra said Lebanese political groups want to pull Palestinians to their side to confront rivals.
“For example, I completely reject our people in Shatila shooting from one side at the Sunni Future party, or shooting from the other side at the Shia Hezbollah Party. Shatila camp falls on fault lines between Sunnis and Shia,” said Morra.
Recent revelations of the Shia militia Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria have angered Lebanese Sunni supporters of the Syrian opposition, which is heavily Sunni. Syria’s government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, draws many of its members from Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and is supported by Hezbollah.
The news of Hezbollah’s role was followed by sectarian clashes across Lebanon. Fighting intensified in Tripoli, home to the Bedawi Palestinian refugee camp, which has historically struggled to stay out of sectarian fights in its surroundings. Fighting also reached the Beqaa Valley and the southern city of Sidon, which is home to the most populous camp in Lebanon, Ain el-Helwi.
Unlike those living around them, the more than 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon’s camps have proved largely immune to sectarian conflict. “Thank God we Palestinians don’t have the sectarian epidemic,” said Morra, the Hamas representative.
Near a maze of narrow alleys in the Borj Barajnehcamp in southern Beirut, Adnan sits on a ledge waiting for a job opportunity. Adnan, 23, works as a freelance plumber, and hasn’t seen his home since he fled Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Syria six months ago. His shop there was destroyed by fighter jet shelling. He also lost the keys to his Palestinian home, given to him by his grandmother who fled to Lebanon in 1948.
When asked about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, Adnan said: “You know, we don’t see it as you Lebanese see it. To us Palestinians, Hezbollah is not merely a Shia party, but a successful example of resistance. If I, as a Palestinian, disagree with their involvement in Syria it is because I have no respect for an Arab regime that kills its own people with weapons that were never directed towards Israel.”
Amid recent news of a fallout between Hamas and Hezbollah, a senior Hamas member, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said the situation remains the same.
“We are still based in the dahiya [Beirut’s southern suburbs], and our relations and security coordination with Hezbollah hasn’t changed in Lebanon. Only our opinions on Syria have varied, and that’s normal.”
He quickly changed the topic to the situation of the Palestinian camps. “There are some in Lebanon with regional connections who are trying to settle their differences in the camps, using the camps as a scapegoat … There are attempts by different parties in Lebanon to try to recruit Palestinians to be involved in their Lebanese political adventures.”
Syrian war ‘mistake’
Back in the dimness of Shatila, Adel has just finished washing a pair of used tennis shoes. “If we could forget the bruises and back-stabs by the Lebanese, life in Lebanon wouldn’t be so bad,” he said.
Asked about Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, Adel added: “Hezbollah made a mistake involving itself in Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah could’ve remained a resistance against Israel. We praise their victories in 2000 and 2006, but why go into Syria?”
To many Palestinians in Lebanon, Hezbollah is different from the rest of the country’s political parties. Respected for its resistance against the Israelis, the party has remained largely respected by those living in the camps.
Salah, a freelance translator in his early 30s who lives in Beirut, gives an impression of being already packed and ready to return to Palestine.
“I know that some in the camps are agitated by the involvement, but they don’t hate Hezbollah,” he said. “They [Hezbollah] gave us [Palestinians] a lot. They gave us a few hundred prisoners. Until now, Palestinian refugees from Syria in the camps are still welcoming and receive donations and aid by Hezbollah.”
Palestinian camps have their own security systems that police their camps. But during times of sectarian and political strife, opportunist Lebanese parties can often be seen like eagles circling their prey, looking to employ Palestinians to further their cause.
This is a troubling thought for Salah who shrugged and said: “I worry about the camps. They are surrounded by both Lebanese rivalries who are preparing for their next battle.”
Follow Moe Ali Nayel on Twitter: @MoeAliN