By Shafiq Morton
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
When I saw palls of black smoke rising from the over-crowded alleyways of the Nahr al-Barid Palestinian refugee camp outside Tripoli in northern Lebanon, I was not surprised.
Nor was I surprised to see that a small, extremist breakaway group, Al-Fatah al-Islami (the Victory of Islam) had attacked the under-equipped and ill-trained Lebanese army responding to of all things – a bank robbery by the religious group.
With over 60 soldiers, civilians and Al-Fatah al-Islami militants suffering the tragic consequences of the encounters, one can but hope that a swift solution is found to this outbreak of sectarian unrest in one of the most complex, compact and strife-torn Middle Eastern countries.
Sadly, my personal experience of Lebanon – a country traditionally riven with sectarianism – tells me otherwise. There are already multiple international and local agendas at play: Syrian, Israeli, Iranian and American; and, of course, not forgetting that political identity is determined here by the confessional system of a Christian President, a Sunni Prime Minister and a Shi’ah Speaker of Parliament.
Still reeling from the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 and its Pyrrhic (but otherwise disastrous) 2006 summer battle with Israel, the very last thing this already troubled and traumatized country needs is a reminder of its unresolved and festering Palestinian problem.
Nahr al-Barid (which means “the cold river”) and the nearby Biddoui refugee camp, just 30 minutes away from the breathtakingly beautiful Qadisha valley, are both squalid reminders of the reality of the Palestinian Diaspora in Lebanon. Here adjectives such as “disaffected, disillusioned and deprived” are not political hyperbole, but grubby reality.
In over 20 camps spread across the land, nearly half a million Palestinians still chafe in a stateless limbo after 50 years. Forgotten by the long dead Oslo Accords and resented by many Lebanese because of the problems they “imported” over the border after the 1948 Nakba, Palestinians in Lebanon can be said to enjoy something of a cursed existence.
Denied access to over 70 different kinds of jobs, left without municipal services and decent roads, and confined to the lower rungs of Lebanese society, the only hope of prosperity for most Lebanese Palestinians is exile.
I first visited Nahr al-Barid in 2001, and found it to be one of Lebanon’s most sordid camps, its poverty extreme and its unemployment rate well above 50%. With about 40, 000 people crammed onto about 2 square kilometers, Nahr al-Barid could well have meant “cold comfort” instead of “the cold river”.
I interviewed many of its residents, including the 82 year-old Muhammad Zaruha, who had fought the Israeli Haganah (the forerunner of the Israeli Defence Force) in 1948 under Abu ‘Ali Zaruha, a famous Palestinian unit commander from the Galilee town of Safuriyyah.
Leaning over a stick and proudly wearing a Palestinian scarf, the creaking old man cited Safuriyyah as one of the most important hubs of anti-Zionist resistance, and one of the last towns to fall to the Haganah in the northern Galilee. This was something still vividly remembered amongst the refugee families, he said.
Most of Al-Nahr al-Barid’s citizens, I learnt, had hailed from Safuriyyah as well as the village of ‘Amqa and the seaport city of Acre. Every family I spoke to could say what town or village their parents or grandparents had come from in Palestine, some even showing me the keys and title deeds to their houses.
I also spoke to a UN official (who wished to remain anonymous). He told me that the Palestinians in Lebanon’s camps were at the “end of their tether”.
“They can’t return home, the old people have no pensions, they don’t have a nationality, they can’t get jobs, and they suffer the further indignity of restrictive apartheid-style legislation at the hands fellow Arab regimes,” he said.
He then added, somewhat prophetically (in the light of recent developments), that he could only see the situation worsening. “The young people are starting to get angry with their parents whom they see as too submissive. They are frustrated …”
But the forebodings of a darkening situation all those years ago did not end there. As always when I (a foreigner) walked through the camps, young people would come up and test their English on me.
Most times, the youth were looking for a way out of Lebanon and opportunities further afield. But without education, job skills and money, their chances of successfully fleeing the camps and breaking the poverty cycle were remote.
But the most striking encounter of all was when a young man accosted me, and pronounced that because the West had forgotten Lebanese Palestinians, that because the Lebanese had ignored them and that because they had been persecuted by fellow Arabs, Islam was now “the only solution”.
“Our war with the Israelis is a religious one,” he said, despite my protestations that resistance should be politically defined, and that any kind of bloodshed or confrontation in the name of religion – particularly one involving innocent civilians – would be disastrous and against the tenets of religion itself. “But, my brother, don’t you understand that Allah is all we have left!” he simply replied.
I have pondered long and hard over that young man’s statements since that time, often quoting them as the alarm that Lebanese Palestinians could no longer be discarded in any potential Middle East solution.
Forget about Syrian secret service meddling as is alleged in some quarters today, forget about al-Qaeda’ globally ill-defined, if not un-Islamic, jihad allegedly supported by Al-Fatah al-Islami. The real problem is in the hopelessness and anomie of al-Nahr ul-Barid’s slums and in Lebanon’s other rickety Palestinian refugee camps.
The Lebanese Palestinians, the forgotten people, are the victims of agendas far beyond their reach. The sober truth is that groups such as the Maronites and the Shi’ah will conveniently look the other way for as long as possible – for if the Palestinians were to gain full political rights in Lebanon, the delicate balance of power between the Maronite Christians, the Sunnis and the Shi’ah would tilt uncomfortably in the favor of the Sunnis.
-Shafiq Morton is a Cape Town based photo-journalist who has traveled regularly to the Middle East. He is also the Drivetime presenter at Voice of the Cape, a Muslim community radio station in South Arica (streaming live at vocfm.co.za) and is the author of "Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah", a Saudi Arabian travelogue. He is currently writing an account of his Palestinian experiences entitled "Surfing Behind the Wall".