No Place Like Home
issue 258 - August 1994
No place like home
The world’s media are heralding a new era for Palestinians.
But, as Nikki van der Gaag explains, Palestinians
in Beirut are faced with new threats instead.
Miriam was 16 years old when her home was razed to the ground in 1976. Many of her neighbours and friends were slaughtered and she herself was injured. Her family survived but had no food, water or shelter. They were moved to a house which had been shelled and had no doors or windows. They were given food. They put plastic on the windows to keep out the cold and the rain, and made the place their home for six years, until advancing Israeli tanks and shells forced them to flee once more...
Miriam’s crime? She is a Palestinian in Beirut. Her home in 1976 was in Tel-el-Zaater – a name which still strikes fear into Palestinians hearts – when Christian right-wing militias massacred 2,500 men women and children. Today she lives in Shatila, in the camp where a similar massacre occurred in 1982 – this time under cover of invading Israeli troops.
Today, at last, the war has ended. The militias are disarmed, the Israelis have withdrawn – at least from Beirut and its environs – and Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho have autonomy. Palestinians in Beirut should finally be safe. It should be time for people like Miriam to be able to feel some measure of security.
But the Government of Lebanon has other plans. Palestinians are no longer welcome in the new-style Beirut. Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Faris Buwayz has made it plain that Lebanon wants its Palestinian refugees to leave.
This is easier said than done. Palestinians have been in Lebanon since 1948, when the creation of the State of Israel forced them to flee north. The international community created UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Committee) to provide for the needs of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The refugees were given tents and later they were allowed to build camps on the outskirts of the major Lebanese towns. Registered refugees were entitled to education, health and other benefits – though the unregistered refugees who came after the lists were closed in the early 1950s have always been non-statistics, making it very difficult to know exactly how many Palestinians there are in Lebanon.
Over half the registered Palestinians still live in such camps, in crowded and often unsanitary conditions, vulnerable to any opponent. They have had many such opponents over the years – the Israelis and the right-wing Christian militias who carried out the massacres in Tel-el-Zaater in 1976 and in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Shatila and Sabra were virtually flattened during the long-drawn-out siege by the Shi’ite Amal militia in 1985. Both camps have been shelled and then rebuilt more times than most people can count.
But now they are to be pulled down permanently to make way for a huge sports stadium. It will replace the old Sports City, destroyed during the 1982 Israeli invasion. The Saudi Government has promised $20 million for the project.
So where are the inhabitants of the Beirut camps – some 50,000 people – and the other 300,000-odd Palestinians in Lebanon to go? Some might be able to go to the new Gaza-Jericho state, says Buwayz, others to whichever countries will have them – Denmark, perhaps? At present Libya is the only country accepting Palestinians and most other countries are tightening up on immigration. The rest will have to go to other places in Lebanon. They must leave Beirut. The Government is quite clear about this. Shabby Palestinian camps have no place in the rebuilt city with its elegant shops and wide walkways. Maybe they could go to the Beq’aa. They can’t go south – it was the Palestinian presence there that caused the Israeli attacks in the first place. The latest idea is that they might be able to build on land still owned by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Palestinians themselves are sceptical. Difficult as their situation is, most have lived all their lives in Beirut and have no desire to uproot themselves once again. By January this year people in Shatila had started to repair the damage caused by the war. Work to repair water pipes, sewerage, electricity and roads had begun. People were rebuilding their damaged homes, some helped by grants of $5,000 from the Central Fund for the Displaced.
Then Hariri ordered all reconstruction to stop. When I went to Shatila in March I saw many of the breeze-block houses in a half-constructed state, some with the scaffolding still erected. One house was swarming with workmen in defiance of the ban. But there was no electricity and the drainage systems were still in a parlous state. The narrow alley-ways that interlace the camp had been flooded by rain the day before and we had to pick our way through the mud. When it rains hard they are virtually impassable.
I was visiting a vocational training centre where young people were learning skills – typing, computers, hairdressing, English. Kids who had missed out on their education because of the war were being helped to catch up. The place had a busy hum about it.
There was good reason for this. Learning such skills is an economic necessity; Palestinians are virtually banned from any skilled employment and so have to try and eke out a living in the camps. With high inflation and funds from the PLO and UNRWA drying up, many families face real financial hardship. In Miriam’s family only she and her brother are working. They have to support parents, brothers, sisters and other assorted relatives. Her father is sick. But she feels that they are lucky in comparison with most other Palestinians in Shatila.
In the past, many Palestinians went to work or study overseas. Almost every family I knew had someone abroad. But the Gulf is now out-of-bounds because of the decision by the Palestinian national leadership to support Saddam Hussein, and grants – which were mostly study grants for former Eastern bloc countries – have dried up. In any case, those who do leave are now in danger of losing their residence rights in Lebanon. Some 20,000 Palestinians with other passports have been taken off the Lebanese lists – another way of making them ‘disappear’.
So what of the hopes that Palestinians had for a state of their own? Palestinians in Lebanon have suffered more than most in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and national independence. They did so in the belief that one day they would return to their orchards and villages in Palestine. Over 10,000 have been killed, three camps destroyed and four camps badly damaged. Yet old ladies still keep the keys to the homes they left almost half a century ago, and young people are brought up to believe that their real homes are in Haifa or Galilee. Many of the camps are still organized into areas which correspond to the original villages from which people came.
So when the Palestine National Council, their Parliament in exile, proclaimed a Palestinian state on 15 November 1988 and called for a UN-sponsored peace conference, Palestinians in Lebanon thought the time might finally have come to go home.
It was not to be. The Palestinian leadership made a number of concessions that led eventually to the setting up of the Gaza-Jericho state. Jericho is a small city; Gaza is the most densely-populated place in the world. There is precious little room for those already there, let alone for those from outside.
Palestinians I met were extremely concerned about this and about the precariousness of their situation in Lebanon. All of them had lived in hope that some day there would be change for the better. But few could see a way out of this latest dilemma. They are also feeling the pinch economically. As Miriam put it: ‘Even the war was better than this. A bomb can kill someone but if we have no money and no food lots of people will die.’ She has her bags already packed in case the family has to leave once more.
There are still some obstacles in the way before this happens. The UN would protest at such drastic measures. The Lebanese Parliament would have to participate in the decision and influential people there have already voiced their opposition; people like Walid Jumblatt, Minister for the Displaced, and Nabih Berri, Speaker of Parliament. Hariri himself seems to be behind the drive to get Palestinians out of Beirut, but may be less influential on this matter – as on others – because his popularity is on the wane. And Palestinian leaders say that despite their difficult situation, people will resist the demolition of the camps – just as they have resisted all manner of abuses in the past.
Singing in Shatila
Umm Rajab is one of many Palestinians in Beirut who have no near family. A son somewhere in Eastern Europe is ‘good’ (in camp language this means that he occasionally sends his mother money). She has two married daughters in Jordan but hasn’t been able to see them for 24 years. Hunched by rheumatism, wounded during the Amal sieges between 1985 and 1987, Umm Rajab moves around the four square meters of her home by holding on to bits of furniture. Like other Palestinian women of her generation, she has had a life full of loss and hardship. She was widowed by the age of 30 and three out of her four sons are now dead. Besides rheumatism she has heart problems. Neighbours do her shopping. Abu Muhammad, a neighbouring shop-keeper, brings her a couple of gallons of water from a street tap.
The doorway is the only source of light. Public electricity hasn’t been restored to Shatila camp since the battles of the mid-1980s. The people of Shatila say that the Government is withholding electricity because ‘to give light to the camp would be to approve of its existence’. This connection was underlined in a meeting between Lebanon’s current Prime Minister Hariri and Palestinian leaders in late February this year, when the Prime Minister warned them that Shatila would have to go – it was an eyesore which would not be tolerated in the new Lebanon.
Umm Rajab talks readily about her life before 1948. She lived in a village near Jaffa, inside the current borders of Israel. Village women worked hard outside and inside the house. But she remembers with great pleasure outings to Jaffa and picnics by the sea. She gives me a list of recipes of special foods village women used to cook for Ramadan. In 1948 war drove her family to a refugee camp on the West Bank and then in 1970 to Lebanon. She has been in Shatila ever since.
When another neighbour, Umm Subhi, visits with shopping from the market we talk about weddings and wedding songs. Umm Rajab doesn’t remember the songs of her village, but Umm Subhi comes from Majd al-Kroom, whose people have kept up their customs for over 40 years of exile. I ask her to sing. She apologises, saying that as it’s Ramadan and she is neither eating nor drinking during the day, her throat is too dry to sing. Umm Rajab’s curiosity is aroused, however. Sharp as a sparrow, accustomed – like many old people here – to getting her own way, she presses and urges the other woman to sing. Umm Subhi yields with good grace and gives us a few Majd al-Kroom trills.
In the camps people still mostly follow the old customs of neighbourly solidarity. There are sayings that re-affirm this such as: ‘Joy is for all, and mourning is for all’; ‘The neighbour who is near is more important than the brother who is far’; ‘No-one should sit down to eat if his neighbour is starving’. I’ve heard stories of people who, during the sieges, shared their last grams of milk powder or tea with neighbours.
Yet camps are seen as ‘slums’ by the Lebanese Government and current plans for post-war reconstruction threaten many of them with partial or complete dismantlement.
Palestinians in Lebanon face an unknown future as pressures on them to migrate increase. As someone who entered the country after the official refugee registrations in the early 1950s, Umm Rajab doesn’t have residence rights in Lebanon. She hopes to be reunited with her children either in Gaza/Jericho or in Jordan, but if and when depends on how a final settlement works out. Others here, the exiles of 1948, who have never known any ‘home’ but Lebanon, face an even greater degree of uncertainity. They have no papers to leave the country – even if they have the money to do so – and nowhere to live but the camps. With no clear provisions for Palestinians in exile the current precarious agreement between Israel and the PLO has intensified their insecurity.
Rosemary Sayigh lives in Beirut and has written extensively on the Palestinian issue, including most recently Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon, (Zed Books London 1994).
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.