Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
A Vulnerable Yet Vibrant Community

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Nahr al-Barid

A typical Palestinian refugee camp, Nahr al-Barid , in northern Lebanon , winter 1948.

Institute for Palestine Studies, Photograph Collection

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live on the fringe of Lebanese society. Since 1948 their experience has been one of constant pressure, crisis, and turmoil. Lebanon has given the refugees a mixed package of advantages and hazards that has given rise to the Palestinian resistance movement in the 1970s and 1980s and to its repression as well. In 2014, half of the 455,000 refugees registered with UNRWA live in twelve overcrowded camps, initially established to house their grandparents who fled from Palestine following the 1948 Nakba. They face severe social and legal discrimination in employment, property ownership, construction within the camps, and ability to form civil associations. In short, they live in physical misery, fear, and insecurity. 

During the Nakba, 110,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon. The majority was from the northern part of Palestine; the villages of the Galilee; and the coastal cities of Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre. Their integration into Lebanese society was dependent on their religious community and class. Middle and upper class Palestinians settled in towns and cities. Christians and wealthy Muslims could obtain citizenship if they wished. However, rural and poor city refugees had no choice but to settle in one of the fifteen official camps and a number of rural agglomerations. Three of these camps were destroyed in the Lebanese Civil War (197590) and Lebanon currently hosts twelve refugee camps – five in the south, three in Beirut, three in the north, and one in the Biqa‘ Valley.

The Lebanese government’s treatment of Palestinians changed over time. Until 1958, the refugees were mostly welcomed by the population, who viewed their displacement as temporary. Following the Lebanese turmoil of 1958, however, President Fouad Chehab used the Army’s Intelligence Bureau (also known as the Deuxième Bureau) as well as the police to control the camps. For about ten years, Palestinians were severely restricted in all aspects of life. They needed permits to visit other camps, meetings of nondomestic nature were not allowed, listening to the radio or reading the newspaper was forbidden, and building or repairing homes required a permit that was impossible to obtain. There were no private bathrooms or drainage systems and everyone, whether young or old, male or female, had to walk, night and day, to reach public latrines. Finally, refugees were not allowed to discard washing water out into the open street drains; they had to walk to a designated area to dispose of their used water. Added to these practices were the daily harassments, humiliations, extortions, arrests, and sometimes torture at the hands of police officers.

This situation in exile exacerbated their dispossession from Palestine and helped to create the revolution in the 1960s. (So too did the increase in education levels, due to UNRWA’s services, which created a generation of teachers and young professionals who would lead the revolution after the defeat of 1967.) In an unplanned revolt in 1969, residents across all camps chased out the much-hated Deuxième Bureau. The liberation of the camps helped Palestinians to regain their self-respect, pride, and dignity. They felt back in control of their destiny and struggling as part of a mass movement to return home.

This mass uprising of Palestinians in Lebanon’s camps led to the signing of the Cairo Accord in 1969 between Yasir Arafat, who was soon to chair the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the Lebanese army commander. The accord granted Palestinians the right to manage their own camps and to engage in armed struggle in coordination with the Lebanese army. As the Palestinian resistance movement developed into a major force in Lebanon, it increased its military operations against Israel, which responded with massive air, naval, and ground attacks that caused heavy Lebanese and Palestinian civilian deaths and often minimal losses to PLO combatants, presumably the targets of the attack. This Israeli tactic was designed to alienate the Lebanese from the PLO and increase Palestinian-Lebanese tensions. Right-wing Christian militias posed another threat. In 1976 these militias laid siege to the camps of Tal al-Za‘atar and Jisr al-Basha, and residents were massacred when the camps fell:  in Tal al-Za‘atar alone more than 4,000 Palestinians were killed over the 7-month siege, including 1,500 camp residents who were killed when the camp surrendered.

Allying themselves with the Lebanese National Movement, Palestinians were drawn into the Lebanese Civil War. With the breakdown of the Lebanese state, the PLO continued to grow in influence and was accused of forming “a state within a state,” until 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon and expelled PLO forces from it. In September 1982 the Phalangist militia backed by Israel massacred more than 3000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the Sabra-Shatila camp. This was followed by a series of intense sieges and fierce bombings by the Amal militia of several camps in Beirut and in the south from 1983 to 1987. As a consequence of these repeated assaults in the 1980s, much of the PLO and the civilian infrastructure were destroyed.

The end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990 brought an increase in the insecurity and marginalization of Palestinian refugees. They were evicted from squatter areas and suffered from a reduction in UNRWA’s services. Additionally, in 1994, the Oslo Agreement was signed between the PLO and Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created as an authority over the West Bank and Gaza and had no official ties to the refugees in Lebanon. Starting from that date, funding to the PLO was severely cut, with both the Palestinian leadership and the international community shifting funding and focus from the PLO to the PA. The refugees, formerly the core of the national movement, were now pushed to the sidelines. Feeling betrayed, they feared that their leadership would renounce their right of return to historic Palestine. Additionally, almost all PLO-created organizations collapsed, creating an important service gap and reducing the employment opportunities for Palestinian refugees. The community responded by creating many nongovernmental organizations that provided basic social services such as childcare, tutoring, vocational training, and supplemental health services as well as advocacy and legal rights training.  

Despite their longstanding presence in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees have been excluded from key aspects of social, political, and economic life in the country through the principle of reciprocity. According to the terms of this principle, the treatment of a foreigner (e.g. Palestinian) in Lebanon was determined by the treatment of Lebanese nationals in the foreigner’s country of origin (e.g. Palestine). Considering that there was no Palestinian state that could treat Lebanese in any way, this method was used to exclude Palestinians from the labor market and to prevent Palestinians from owning property. Defined in law as foreigners, Palestinians have been barred from practicing in more than thirty professions, including liberal professions. Amendments in labor regulations made in 2010 have yet done little to change this.

Restricted to illegal employment and unable to achieve a minimum of stability in the form of home ownership, Palestinians were pushed to emigrate. A 2010 survey found that only half of the refugees registered with UNRWA resided in Lebanon, the rest having sought work in the Gulf countries and Europe. Additionally, Palestinian refugees had to live with the constant fear that even the precarious lives that they had painfully built for themselves could be taken away at a moment’s notice, and with impunity, as the 2007 Nahr al-Barid conflict taught them. The 100-day conflict, which pitted the Lebanese army and a non-Palestinian group named Fatah al-Islam, destroyed the second largest camp in Lebanon and rendered its 33,000 residents homeless. As of 2014 less than half of the camp has been rebuilt.

Despite these restrictions, Palestinians refugees in Lebanon have contributed in important ways to the Lebanese economy and cultural life. It is estimated that they account for roughly 10 percent of Lebanese private consumption, that the volume of remittances sent from Palestinians abroad is about $62 million a year, and that 91 percent of households have at least one member actively working (albeit without a valid permit). They provide skills in construction, agriculture, industry, trade, transportation, information technology, education, and health. Additionally, wealthy Palestinians have established many enterprises, including major banks and construction companies, which have created jobs and expanded the Lebanese economy. They also contribute to the intellectual life of the capital by founding research centers and publishing houses.

Selected Bibliography: 

Chaaban, J., H. Ghattas, R. Habib, S. Hanafi, N. Sahyoun, N. Salti, K. Seyfert, and N. Naamani. Socio-Economic Survey of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 2010.

Khalidi, Aziza, and Riad Tabbarah.  Working Unprotected: Contributions of Palestinian Refugees Residing in Camps and Gatherings to the Lebanese Economy. Beirut: The Right to Work Campaign, 2008.

Sayigh, Rosemary. Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon. London: Zed Books, 1994.

Sayigh, Yezid, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement 1949–1993. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies; Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Suleiman, Jaber. “The Current Political, Organizational, and Security Situation in the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Lebanon.Journal of Palestine Studies 29, no.1 (Autumn 1999): 6680.