Palestinian Refugee Camps: ‘Perpetual Hell’

By Stuart Littlewood

A delegation of parliamentarians has returned from a tour of the refugee camps in Lebanon and made its report.

It was led by former British government minister Sir Gerald Kaufman MP and included four members of the European Parliament and three of the British Parliament. The delegation’s purpose was to assess the humanitarian situation faced by Palestinians living in Lebanon’s refugee camps, and it was able to raise issues at the highest level with the Lebanese in a series of meetings.

The UN Refugee Agency describes the plight of Palestinian refugees as "by far the most protracted and largest of all refugee problems in the world today".

Three-quarters of the 11 million Palestinians are refugees. Their plight is at the core of the 63-year struggle against Israel. All other issues, political and humanitarian, arose as a consequence of Israel’s denial of the right of refugees to return to their land.

The report reminds us that a whole host of international treaties and conventions recognise the right to return including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. The Right of Return for refugees is guaranteed under Humanitarian and Human Rights Law and countless UN resolutions.

And the UN has affirmed the right of return through its Resolution 194 on no less than 122 occasions.

But to the international community none of this is worth the screeds of paper it is written on. Law and principle are utterly meaningless to the great, civilised powers, who just fidget and whisper sweet nothings in Israel’s ear.

Meanwhile, over 400,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon’s 12 ‘official’ (UNRWA-run) refugee camps and its many ‘unofficial’ camps, amounting to approximately 10 percent  of the country’s population. They are politically marginalised, without basic social and economic rights, trapped in often squalid surroundings, and without hopes for the future.

Palestinian refugees, says the report, suffer more in Lebanon than in any other country that hosts them.

Europe should “Balance out” America’s Role

President Suleiman told the delegation: “Lebanon does not have the capacity to absorb 400,000 people; we simply cannot offer them a good life. The truth is that we will not see peace in the Middle East without the implementation of the refugees’ right of return.”

Foreign minister, Dr Ali Chami, said: “It is not acceptable that Palestinians have been living outside their own state since 1948. The half a million in Lebanon are in complete misery and a very dire situation. The clear solution is the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital”. He also spoke of the Israelis’ intransigence: "Since 1978, according to UN resolutions, Israel has violated Lebanese sovereignty every day, while the international community has failed to deter them."

Referring to Israel’s invasions and occupation of Lebanon, Deputy Speaker Al Zain said: “Lebanon has endured a lot for the Palestinian cause… It is high time the West liberated itself from double standards and stopped supporting satellite regimes that do not respect Palestinian rights.”

A Hezbollah MP remarked: “More than two million people have been killed because of this cause. There are millions of Palestinian victims around the world and the international community has paid out billions of dollars, but there is still no solution”.

Another MP added: “There needs to be seriousness in dealing with Israel and an end to backing dictatorships. Palestine had free elections in 2006, but the West conspired to undermine the results. If this corruption isn’t corrected the West will face the biggest upheaval in the region since 1948-49.”

On Europe the Deputy Speaker said: “The world needs another power to balance out America’s role, Europe should fulfill this role.”

Recalling the Sabra and Shatila camp massacre of at least 800 in 1982 while Beirut was under Israeli occupation, British MP Jeremy Corbyn reflected: "The pain of the Sabra and Shatila massacres… never goes away. It was a poignant moment for the delegates to be able to lay a wreath at the memorial. It was sad to see the continued poverty in those camps nearly 30 years on, but we were inspired by the people. The description by Mohammed Omar Deeb, an elderly survivor of the massacres and his determination that one day he would see his village in Palestine and that all his family would see a free Palestine is typical of the enduring spirit of the Palestinian people."

Two inquiries held Israel indirectly responsible and Ariel Sharon was especially implicated.

Refugees Centre of All Peace Talks

After their visit the delegation concluded…

• he Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are victims many times over.
• They are denied access to their homeland.
• They are the victims of Lebanon’s civil wars and the numerous Israeli
invasions and occupation.
• They are victims of the unwillingness of the international community to
secure justice and the unwillingness of the Lebanese authorities to grant
them their basic human rights.

Their recommendations are…

• The international community, including Israel, is responsible for guaranteeing the rights of Palestinian refugees and providing them with protection.
• While Lebanon and many members of the United Nations offer appropriate
rhetoric, this must be matched with concrete steps to tangibly improve the lives of the refugees in Lebanon and put an end to the catastrophic conditions in which they live.
• An appropriate solution is needed that restores and protects the human rights of the refugees, including their right to return to their land.
• In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees have a status that falls far short of even second class citizenship. This should be corrected without delay.
• All parties should respect and enforce United Nations General Assembly
Resolution 194 which calls for the return of the refugees.
• As Israel has shown no inclination to respect the rights of Palestinian refugees under international law, it is incumbent on the international community to enforce a resolution.
• The European Union and its member states, including the United Kingdom, should significantly increase their funding to UNRWA to allow the agency to fulfill its remit.
• Negotiators, politicians and activists should ensure that Palestinian refugees remain at the centre of all peace talks.
• Lebanon’s position on the refugees is woefully inadequate. The 17th August 2010 law should be implemented immediately as a first step to normalising the lives of Palestinian refugees by improving human, civil and property rights and lifting restrictions on the professions available to Palestinians.

On housing, all restrictions that limit the right to adequate housing for Palestinians should be removed, including any legislation that discriminates against Palestinians who are not officially citizens of a recognised state. A degree of security of tenure should be guaranteed and restrictions on bringing building materials into refugee camps should be removed, including the fines or penalties imposed on Palestinians for attempting to make their homes habitable.

As regards the environment, minimum levels of sanitation and access to clean water for all Palestinian refugees should be ensured.

As regards employment, restrictions on Palestinian access to all professions should be
lifted and the process of obtaining work permits eased.

As regards education, Lebanon should ensure that all children under its jurisdiction have access to education equal to that enjoyed by Lebanese nationals.

As regards non-ID refugees, their status in Lebanon should be regularised and refugees provided with identification documents.

It’s altogether a shocking situation. Congratulations to the delegation for seeing it from the refugees’ angle and making their findings public.
 
“Real Culprit is Israel”

Sir Gerald Kaufman, who led the delegation, summed up. "When I went to Gaza in 2010 I thought I had seen the worst that could be seen of the appalling predicament of Palestinians living in conditions which no human being should be expected to endure. But what I saw in the camps in Lebanon is far worse and far more hopeless.

“The conditions are unspeakable, but for over 400,000 of our fellow human beings this is their life: today, tomorrow and for a future that cannot even be foreseen. At least in Gaza, frightful though the situation is, the people are free within the confines of their blockaded prison. In the camps of Lebanon they are not free and this is, to a very considerable degree, the responsibility of the Lebanese government which could allow conditions to improve and could allow the victim freedom of movement, but specifically refuses to do it.

“Yet, culpable though the Lebanese government undoubtedly is, the real culprit is the Israeli government, which by refusing to come to a settlement with the Palestinians, is directly and horrendously responsible for the plight of those immured in the camps.

“It makes me more determined than ever to fight for the rights of the Palestinian people and to campaign against the deliberate decision of the Israeli government to perpetuate the hell in which so many Palestinians are living".

There speaks one of the few honourable, decent men in the cesspit of Westminster politics… and a Jew.

At the time of Israel’s appalling blitzkrieg on Gaza’s civilians, Sir Gerald famously told the House of Commons: "My parents came to Britain as refugees from Poland. Most of their families were subsequently murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow.  A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.

"It is time for our Government to make clear to the Israeli Government that their conduct and policies are unacceptable, and to impose a total arms ban on Israel. It is time for peace, but real peace, not the solution by conquest which is the Israelis’ real goal but which it is impossible for them to achieve. They are not simply war criminals; they are fools."

Kaufman tells it the way it is, as do many brave Jewish peace groups – Jews for Justice and the like – and all credit to them for standing against the cruel Israeli regime.

So why cannot other Jews around the world, who reckon themselves to be well-informed and able to tell right from wrong, also speak up? What say all those making their fortunes here in the UK and living in luxury in Hendon, Golders Green and Manchester?

Are they not for justice?

– Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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