By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
To this day, 64 Palestinian refugee camps (RC) stand as witnesses to the Nakbah (catastrophe) that afflicted the Palestinian people in 1948, when Zionist gangs uprooted more than 57% of the population of Palestine from their homeland.
Of these RCs, 58 are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), distributed as 19 in the West Bank (WB), eight in the Gaza Strip (GS), ten in Jordan, nine in Syria and 12 in Lebanon. Besides, there are three RCs in Jordan and three others in Syria that are not recognized by the UNRWA. Also, there had been four RCs in Lebanon; three of which were destroyed, while the fourth was closed after relocating its residents.
The number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA currently stands at about 5.4 million by the beginning of 2017. However, this does not include all Palestinian refugees, as many Palestinians refused to register with UNRWA, because they were not in need of its services. Moreover, many Palestinians have not registered because they reside outside UNRWA’s areas of activity, which are limited to WB, GS, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
As of the beginning of 2017, the real number of refugees reached around 8.49 million, representing almost 66.8% of the total Palestinian population, which is 12.7 million. Here we add to the 1948 refugees large numbers of “displaced” people from the WB and GS, who are living outside historical Palestine and are unable to return to their homes. There are also around 150 thousand Palestinians, who were displaced from their homes, but have remained in the occupied Palestinian territories of 1948.
From the start, Palestinian RCs have been among the clearest testimonies to the Nakbah of the Palestinian people, as well as one of the greatest symbols of Palestinian suffering, serving as vivid evidence of the Zionist gangs’ crimes against Palestinians. Similarly, they stand out as some of the greatest signs of Palestinian patience, willpower and steadfastness, insisting that the displacement is temporary awaiting a return to Palestine. Nevertheless, these RCs, especially in the diaspora, have been subject to calamities, while there were some whose practices served to distort the RCs reality, attempting to divert them from their original struggle.
Not all Palestinian refugees live in RCs these days, for since the beginning of the displacement, many have lived outside. Other camp residents have gradually moved to other places, either because their living conditions improved, or they had to move to work in different locations inside or outside host countries, or their RCs were subjected to military attacks and security conditions forcing them to flee. Therefore, the percentage of RC residents out of registered refugees is: 51% in Lebanon, 42% in GS, 30% in Syria, 24% in WB and 17% in Jordan; an average rate of 28.7% according to UNRWA.
In the early days of displacement, many Palestinians hoping for a quick return, refused to convert their tents into buildings; however, the long suffering imposed a new reality on them so they had to gradually adapt to their situation… As a result, RCs took the form of simple, overcrowded buildings, lacking civil organization, infrastructure and services, thus becoming an upgraded version of ongoing daily suffering.
In Lebanon, for example, the number of Palestinians living in the RCs has doubled while the authorities have forbidden border expansion. Palestinians have had to intensify construction inside the RCs, which resulted in one third of the houses not getting sunlight and many of the alleys unable to accommodate cars, or even allow moving furniture, which they have had to do over rooftops. They can barely accommodate one or two people walking casually, with coils of electric cables overhead. The power is cut for long hours, an average of not less than 12 per day. At the same time, about three quarters of the refugees live below the poverty line, while the Lebanese authorities forbid Palestinians from working in many areas of employment and deny them ownership rights.
Despite the fact that RCs have become hotbeds of “poverty and oppression,” they have simultaneously become hotbeds of revolution and rebellion against reality, becoming models of Palestinian dignity and nationalism, while refusing settlement and looking forward to return. Hence, Palestinian RCs have been fundamental fertile ground for the Palestinian revolution and resistance. RC residents have been among the fastest initiators and participators of national action, especially armed resistance.
In 1974, the Israeli air force demolished the entire Nabatiyeh RC, displacing about three thousand of its inhabitants. In the summer of 1976, the al-Kataeb Party (Christian) Forces and their allies besieged the Tel al-Za‘tar RC, eventually destroying it after 52 days of resistance, with three thousand of its people killed, mostly civilians, and around twenty thousand displaced anew. In September 1982, the Sabra and Shatila massacre took place at the hands of the same forces, under Israeli military cover, killing about three thousand Palestinians and Lebanese; this bloodbath became one of the most prominent testimonies to the suffering of the Palestinian people in the countries of refuge.
The internal conditions of some Arab countries and the political agendas of the regimes reflected on the Palestinian communities that found themselves after decades of residence still in refugee “transit” camps. This happened with the Qaddafi Libyan regime, which dealt with the Palestinians, after the Oslo Accords, as “human material” to be used as a pressure tactic during its scuffles with leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Thousands of Palestinians were placed on ships and trucks in preparation for their expulsion… the Salloum Refugee Camp was constructed near the Egyptian border, with the Libyan regime calling it “The Return Camp;” while the Palestinians called it “The Camp of Shame.”
In Iraq, Palestinians paid an enormous price after the US occupation in 2003 and the rising political and security unrest and escalation of sectarian strife. As a result of sinister propaganda and media incitement, many Palestinians were killed and displaced because of their identity. RCs were established for them, mostly on the border with Jordan and Syria, such as al-Awda, Ruwaished, Treibil, al-Hol, al-Tanf and al-Walid. The number of Palestinians shrunk from around 44 thousand before the US occupation to about six thousand three years later.
Nahr al-Bared RC, the second largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where some forty thousand people lived in 2007, was destroyed as a result of a problem the camp itself was not part of. In questionable circumstances, the Fatah al-Islam group, which broke away from Fatah Al-Intifada group, entered the RC. Among their members were Lebanese, Syrian and other Arab nationals. Their behaviour prompted the people of the camp to hold a demonstration in which they demanded the departure of these members.
When Fatah al-Islam’s members attacked the Lebanese army, no political, security or judicial approach was taken to deal solely with the perpetrators of the crimes, instead, the matter aggravated into a military intervention in which the whole RC bore the brunt of the group’s presence. The camp was destroyed and half of its population were forced to leave; about 3,200 houses were partially or totally destroyed after 106 days of clashes, which the people of the camp were not part of.
To date, there has been no real accountability with regard to who is actually responsible for the tragedy of Nahr al-Bared RC, which parties condoned or facilitated the entry of these elements into Lebanon and their positioning in the camp, and why until now—after around ten years—the camp has only been partially reconstructed despite the availability of funding?!
In Syria, the Yarmouk RC in the outskirts of Damascus stands out as one the greatest calamities, which have befallen the Palestinian camps throughout their history. This RC, which is thought to be one of the largest in the Palestinian diaspora, and in which 144 thousand people used to reside according to UNRWA, is now home to only few thousand (three thousand only according to specialists). The people of this camp have suffered enormously as a result of the internal conflict in Syria, and have been faced with difficult decisions due to the polarization between the Syrian regime and its allies and the various opposition factions, as well as the polarization between the different Palestinian factions. As of mid-April 2015, Yarmouk RC suffered 628 days of continuous siege, 728 days of power outage, and 218 days of water outage.
In the context of the Syrian conflict, other RCs also suffered in varying degrees. For example, 70% of the buildings in the Daraa RC were destroyed, while Palestinian refugees in al-Raml, Ein al-Tal (Handarat) and al-Sabina RCs… were subjected to displacement without allowing them to return.
As of a result of the situation in Syria, 175 thousand Palestinians out of 600 thousand have been forced to immigrate abroad, and around 225 thousand have had to move to safer areas within the country itself. As of mid-February 2017, around 3,440 Palestinians were killed in Syria according to data by the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria.
In recent years, the situation is increasingly likely to explode on a large scale in Ein al-Hilweh RC, which is one of the largest camps in Lebanon, and one of their biggest symbols in the Palestinian diaspora. The clashes that occurred in late February 2017 were signs of violence and tension, something the camp witnesses from time to time. About seventy thousand Palestinians live in the camp whose area does not exceed two square metres and suffers from dilapidated infrastructure, poor health and education services and high rates of poverty and unemployment. Since the Lebanese authorities do not exercise their security and administrative powers in the camp, and since the RC is controlled by conflicting Palestinian factions and forces, it has become a place of polarization and conflict, where regional and local parties have tried to settle scores and “exchange messages.” It has also been a destination to fugitives wanted by Lebanese and other authorities. At the same time, the army imposed a security cordon around it to control entry and exit.
So far, the Palestinians have almost succeeded in keeping the camp away from regional conflicts, sectarian strife and local and external divisions, which are reflected with varying degrees depending on rival factions inside the camp and the parties which support and finance them. However, the RC is placed over a “powder keg” that might explode, given the continued fragile security situation as a result of the inability of the forces inside the camp to end the administrative crisis and control its security.
In addition, Lebanese authorities are reluctant to establish their control over it, because they do not want to assume the economic and social responsibilities relating to refugees, and because of the high price and uncertain results associated with an attempt to break into the camp and control it. (For more information, please refer to the Strategic Assessment published by al-Zaytouna Centre in March 2017 about the Ein El-Hilweh Refugee Camp).
Finally, all of the above places a great responsibility on the Palestinian forces, institutions and factions to carry out their duties towards the Palestinian people and their camps. They must not engage the RCs in the internal problems of host countries; maintain the bright image of the camps in their struggle and resistance, while trying relentlessly with the official bodies to provide them with the necessary care, support, infrastructure, employment opportunities and health and educational services.
They must also seek so that the Palestinians be granted their rights to dignified living including the right to work and own property in order to save them from falling prey to unemployment, frustration and extremism, and to prevent the exploitation of their material needs by various forces for their own agendas.
Perhaps the organizers of the Conference for Palestinians Abroad, which has been recently established, are paying special attention to the RCs in the diaspora and their conditions, seeking to develop them and support their resistance.