Right to return

Leah Williams recently visited a refugee camp in Lebanon, where she met Palestinians still waiting to return to a homeland many of them have never seen.

Children play in the rubble surrounding their home in a Palestinian refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. Too young to remember the civil war, Palestinian children grow up surrounded by destruction, a constant reminder of the massacres their people suffered during the Lebanese civil war from 1975 - 1990.

Leah Williams

There was a sense of renewed hope when Barack Obama recently attended a meeting of the quartet on the Middle East, comprising the US, Russia, the EU and the UN, to try to move discussions forward and address the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Reports have focused on the negotiations over freezing the expansion of settlements (or the even more innocuous term used in the US: ‘Israeli Neighbourhoods’) and lifting the blockade on Gaza. Then, usually following discussion of the aforementioned issues, the term ‘right to return’ is slipped into news reports, with little explanation of what this ‘right’ – and the denial of it – really means to those involved. I went to Lebanon to talk to Palestinian refugees in camps there, and to learn more about their history and their struggle.

Living as refugees

There are an estimated 14 million Palestinians worldwide. Around 5.5 million live in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel; the other 8.5 million are dispersed throughout the world. Half of all the Palestinians in the world are refugees. These 7 million people are at the centre of the right to return issue. Living as refugees, without any citizenship or statehood, these people cling desperately to the hope that they will be granted the right to return to their original homes, which are now in the state of Israel.

For the Palestinians in Lebanon the injustice goes beyond the painful past and seeps into an uncertain future, because for generations born in Lebanon there is no promise of life getting any better

Two UN resolutions have been passed, recognizing the Palestinians’ right to return. UN General Assembly Resolution 194, passed on 11 December 1948, stated that those wishing to live at peace with their neighbours should be allowed to return to their homes as quickly as possible. Those choosing not to return home, or those with homes too damaged to return to, should be compensated by the authorities responsible. This right was reiterated in 1974, when in UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 the right to return was described as an ‘inalienable right’. However, 61 years after the first resolution was passed, little remains of the homes the refugees want to return to: their hope of returning is surely dwindling. Historically, Israel’s position on resolving the Palestinian refugee ‘problem’ was that the Palestinians who fled should be resettled in other states. The Palestinians’ position is that they must return, not only because of the principle and the two UN resolutions that stipulate that it is their right, but because existing as refugees is intolerable, both individually and as a people.

Exile and injustice

Nowhere is the sense of exile and injustice felt more than in Lebanon, the tiny country to the north of Israel with a population of only 4 million, from 18 different religious groups. Lebanon is the unhappy host to nearly half a million Palestinian refugees, who do not figure in population statistics because they are not allowed citizenship, or even official residency. The presence of the Palestinians in Lebanon is an added pressure in a country that has enough conflict and division born of its own soil.

Children play in their school playgroud in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. With barely enough space to house their growing population, there are very few open spaces for children to play in the camps.

Leah Williams

The Palestinian refugees live largely in camps dotted around the country. These camps were shoddily constructed to house the mass exodus after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the ensuing conflict. Six decades later these camps stand on the same ground, the people living within them third generation refugees. The small crumbling buildings, encased by barbed wire fencing, are home to an ever-growing population without a homeland.

People live among the ghosts, knowing the place where they sleep at night is the site of a massacre of defenceless people

As well as being massively overcrowded (Ein El Hilweh camp is around two square kilometres and houses over 70,000), access to the camps is controlled by often hostile Lebanese troops who confiscate building, educational and medical supplies as they wish. Because of building restrictions, homes are constructed with what can be smuggled in. A family of 12 living in one room is common. The sewage systems, where they exist, have never been renewed and they regularly flood people’s dwellings. Many camps have no running water; where it is available it is rarely clean. Schools are so overcrowded that they have two sessions – one in the morning, another in the afternoon – and still classes of fewer than 50 are unusual. Palestinian flags fly from the dangerously fitted electricity wires and maps of the British Mandate of Palestine, as it existed in the early 1940s, hang from corrugated metal walls.

For the Palestinians in Lebanon the injustice goes beyond the painful past and seeps into an uncertain future, because for generations born in Lebanon there is no promise of life getting any better. In Lebanon, allowing Palestinians to gain citizenship would tip the religious balance further in favour of the Muslims and force the imbalance in political representation, currently in favour of the Christian minority, to be addressed. For this reason they remain refugees. Palestinians are not allowed to gain professional employment; those who manage to get a manual or unskilled job are subjected to unregulated working conditions, are badly paid, forbidden to join unions and are not entitled to employment contracts. For them, qualifications guarantee nothing. With professional unemployment within the camps at around 80 per cent, the prospect of ever escaping the barbed wire-enclosed ghettos is bleak. Even if they did, it is illegal for Palestinians to own property in Lebanon, so they would never have a home to call their own or to leave to their children.

Unworthy of inheritance

The man who organized and facilitated my trip is an inspiring Palestinian, born in a refugee camp, who runs a charity called Palcare, which aims to improve Palestinian-Lebanese relations. He is married to a Lebanese woman and they have an apartment outside the camps in his wife’s name. However, their two children can never inherit the property because their father is a Palestinian, deeming them unworthy of inheritance and ownership rights. They, like their father, are issued refugee papers and are denied any rights as citizens of a state that exists only in history books and in the hearts of its dispossessed people.

Of all the camps, Sabra and Shatila are the saddest examples of the vulnerability of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. In 1982, during the Lebanese civil war, the area within which Shatila and Sabra refugee camps lie was occupied by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), with Ariel Sharon as the Israeli Defense Minister. The Palestinians claim that the IDF agreed to protect the refugee camps, if all the men (considered to be potential paramilitaries) left, therefore guaranteeing there would be no Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. However, the Israelis permitted the Phalange militia – Lebanese Christian paramilitaries who in 1975 attacked a busload of Palestinian refugees, thus sparking the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war – to enter the camps, in which only women, children and the elderly remained. The refugees were savagely massacred. Women, children, old people, even animals were slaughtered in what was later recognized by the UN as an act of genocide.

Rocks and rubble

New inhabitants moved to the camp after the war. Life still goes on there, children play in the rocks and rubble of the buildings destroyed in the fighting. People live among the ghosts, knowing the place where they sleep at night is the site of a massacre of defenceless people. There is a memorial garden, the site of a mass grave, just outside the camp. The small grass field has three billboards in it, displaying photos of streets littered with bodies of murdered women, naked from the waist down, throats slit, their children lying by their side, lifeless. The Christian Phalangists escaped the majority of international condemnation for the massacre they committed, and Israel bore the brunt of it. The Kahan Commission was established by the Israeli Government to investigate how a massacre by Christian militia could have been carried out in an area under Israeli Defense Force control. It found Ariel Sharon to be personally responsible for ‘ignoring the danger of bloodshed... and not taking measures to prevent bloodshed’ and recommended that he should not hold public office again. Ariel Sharon resigned from his ministerial post, but as we know, went on to become Israeli Prime Minister.

‘We’re not wanted in Lebanon and I don’t blame the Lebanese for that. Lebanon was created a divided country, France gave unequal political power to the Christians. They already have their own problems’

I asked a room full of Palestinian teenagers if they would chose to remain in Lebanon, if they were granted the right to return. Only one girl said she would have to think about it. She’d only ever known Lebanon, she said, she had Lebanese friends, her life was tough, but maybe returning to Israel as a Palestinian would be worse. Everyone else said they would go home, even though they have never been there. ‘We’re not wanted in Lebanon and I don’t blame the Lebanese for that,’ one eloquent young man said. ‘Lebanon was created a divided country, France gave unequal political power to the Christians. They already have their own problems. Civil war could happen at any time, and they would blame us, like they did the last time. We’re not safe here, we have no rights here. In Lebanon we have no future. We must return to Palestine.’

Vision of a homeland

The Palestine they talk of no longer exists. Palestine is now two strips of occupied land, with a population in turmoil and an uncertain future. Where the refugees residing in Lebanon would go if they were given a right to return is unknown. It is unlikely that they will be allowed to return to their ancestral homes, the keys to which they still wear on chains around their necks. The Palestinians hope to create a state, but it is unknown whether it would be able to absorb up to seven million currently stateless people.

The camp wall paintings display a vision of the homeland most have never seen. Desperate to cling to their identity, the refugees have created a false memory of home. They all know the name of their village, they can describe their ancestral house, they have a perfect vision of the life they are being denied and yet they have never stepped foot in the place they call home. One man described to us how he travels into the hills, where he can look over the border to a country that in his lifetime changed from his homeland to the state of Israel. He can see his town, abandoned and forgotten by Israel, of so little value to its new occupiers. For this man, his children and their children, every hope they have hinges upon someday touching a place they have only ever known at a distance.