BEIRUT — Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, despite being targeted over the past six decades for numerous crimes, including massacres from various sources, is in many ways representative of all the Palestinian camps in Lebanon.
Located in South Beirut, Shatila was one of the first Palestinian refugee camps set up during the 1948 Nakba. When the Lebanon-Palestine border was closed on May 15th, 1948, a gentleman named Abed Bisher (“Abou Kamal”) from the north-western Galilee village of Majd al-Kroom, found himself trapped inside Lebanon as hundreds of his countrymen were streaming in seeking short term sanctuary. Mr. Bisher was in fact a mujahidin leader whose mission in Lebanon was to purchase arms for the Mufti of Jerusalem to be deployed in the scattered villages in the Galilee, then still under heavy assault from Zionist forces.
Shocked by what he was witnessing of his Palestinian neighbors squatting wherever they could find some vacant ground, often in appalling conditions, and unable to complete his original mission, Bisher focused on helping his countrymen as best he could.
His good luck included making the acquaintance of a Lebanese gentleman named, al Basha Shatila, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim businessman sympathetic to the arriving refugees. Mr. Shatila allowed Bisher the use of an oblong strip of land roughly 200 by 400 meters free of charge. From the newly organized UN Agency, UNRWA, Bisher and his growing group of refugees were able to procure 20 tents and, before long, also milk and rice rations.
Bisher sought out refugees from his village, but no refugee was refused sanctuary in “Shatila Camp” and by early 1950, nearly two dozen Palestinian refugee families were accommodated; a few months later, there were 60 families, and by the early 1960’s, more than 3,000 refugees lived in and around Shatila camp. While approximately half the camp population was from Majd al Kroom, more than 25 of the 531 villages ethnically cleansed by the Zionists were represented in Shatila.
The uprising in Syria has re-opened some old wounds in Shatila camp and between the Baathist Assad regime, now in its 41st year, and Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees. Today, the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon appears divided over the credibility of pledged “regime reforms” and whether more patience is warranted.
A growing number of Palestinians, according to activists in Shatila, Burj al Barajneh, and Bedawi camps, as well as contacts with camp residents elsewhere, suggests ambivalent opinions generally, but a perceptible trend shift in favor of the Syrian uprising. This is explained by some camp residents as being due to the fact that the killing shows no signs of ending despite global pleas this week from, among others, UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. Yet doubts and concerns persist over the groups seen exploiting the unrest.
There is close association between Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria, where since the start of the Syrian uprising, young Palestinians have been protesting against groups closely associated with the regime. Tensions exploded in June when “pro-regime thugs” opened fire on a demonstration in Yarmouk camp, killing 14 refugees. In retaliation, Palestinian protesters then burned down the militia’s headquarters.
Relations between Syria and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s 12 camps and as many ‘gatherings’ have been complicated since the early 1970’s, as Syria played the Palestinian card in the international arena in competition with Yassar Arafat and was inconsistent in its attitudes and actions toward the refugees during the Lebanese civil war, including participating in the 1976 massacre at the Tel al Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp.
Yet every Palestinian in Lebanon knows and appreciates the Syrian government’s stance toward more than 130,000 fellow refugees who sought sanctuary in Syria in April and May of the 1948 Nakba. They know well the chasm that exists between the civil rights afforded their family members, former villagers, and fellow refugees in Syria, on the one hand, and Lebanon’s continuing refusal to grant them even the most elementary civil right to work and to own a home.
In sharp contrast to Lebanon, the 500,000 Palestinian refugees living in nine official camps and three unofficial camps in Syria have been granted the same civil rights as their Syrian hosts.
According to AUB Sociology Professor Sari Hanafi, who was raised in Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Palestinian refugees in Syria are more socially integrated than in any of the host countries in the Middle East. Since January 25, 1949, their status has been guaranteed by Syrian Law 450 and then Law 260 of October 7, 1956. In combination, these laws grant Palestinians essentially the same rights and responsibilities as Syrian citizens, including equal rights to education, property ownership, work, and business and military service, all while retaining their Palestinian nationality. In Syria, Palestinians do military training and serve in the Syrian army in what is called the Palestine Liberation Army (Hattin Forces).
Palestinian political groups in Syria are even allowed some freedom to operate, depending on their relationship with the Syrian government. The Vanguard for the Popular Liberation War (al-Saiqa) is actually part of the Syrian Baath Party and is given much freedom of operation, while Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Palestinian factions such as Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC, Fatah Intifada, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the People’s Party, among others, are given rather less freedom to operate independent of government direction.
Along the fairly long spectrum of Shatila camp resident, views of the Syrian uprising are those being expressed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Jumblatt is a popular and influential politician among Palestinians in Lebanon partly because of the PLO alliance, during the 1972-82 decade with the National Lebanese Movement led by Walid’s father Kamal, who according to Walid, was killed on the orders of Hafez Assad. Walids discourses carry weight among progressives generally in Lebanon.
Jumblatt has been saying recently that Hafez Assad’s treatment of the Palestinian cause resembles that of the Zionists. Walid has asked Palestinians, “Have some of you forgotten that Hafez Assad did not recognize the existence of Palestine to the south of Syria, and that he was the one who introduced this idea into Syrian history textbooks, and that this dovetails with Zionism’s refusal to recognize Palestine and the rights of the Palestinian people? … And can you forget that Hafez Assad, while he was defense minister before he turned against his colleagues to seize power, arrested the national Palestinian figure Yasser Arafat in 1966?”
Jumblatt’s views are respected also because he is one of very few politicians who matches his words about the need for Palestinian civil rights in Lebanon with deeds. Jumblatt’s 2009 Parliamentary draft bill for Palestinian civil rights was the second most comprehensive introduced. The ideal bill introduced was the one drafted and put forward in Parliament by the Syrian National Socialist Party (NSSP), for all intents and purposes an adjunct of the Syrian Baath party. While Syria was thus on record as favoring civil rights in Lebanon’s camps, neither draft bill was even given a hearing for the reason that the Lebanese parties opted to let Samir Geagea take the “lowest common denominator” lead, and thus the predictable result on Augst 17, 2009 was a worthless Parliamentary “feel good” gesture of cutting the work permit fees for Palestinians. It is likely that no more than a dozen Palestinian refugees, if even that many, gained any benefit or work permit as a result of this embarrassing Parliamentary effort and the criminalization of Palestinian home ownership and ban on their right to work remains in place. Some unfairly blame Syria for this failure given its continuing influence in Parliament, despite having removed its troops from Lebanon in 2005. In reality, the fault lies with nearly every Lebanese confession and others, including the international community, which is obligated to enforce international humanitarian law and rights for refugees.
Some efforts at organizing demonstrations, led mainly by Palestinian youth in Lebanon’s refugee camps, have been attempted and partially thwarted by the so-called “Popular Committees” generally backed by Syria. These camp ‘leaders’ were never elected but are left over from political appointments imposed on the camps. They are widely considered illegitimate and corrupt. Following the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, many were installed by Syria from anti-Arafat factions, including Fatah Intifada and Saiqa. They still dominate in the camps and have been successful in preventing camp residents from organizing themselves in order to provide services, including much needed infrastructure improvements. Reports of corruption and nepotism by these “Popular Committees” are widespread and their record of improving the lives of camp residents is dismal. These popular committees tend to support the Assad government in the current uprisings.
The experience of Shatila camp is instructive. As recently as 2004, there was no electricity in the camp for nine months. Violence was rising dramatically. Yet the “Popular Committees” did nothing to address these and many other problems. Camp activists formed a “Follow-up and Reform Committee (FRC) to rid Shatila of the widely opposed camp leadership. An election was organized for May 22, 2005 and expectations were high that the newly organized Committee of the Camp’s Population (CCP) would achieve historic results for Shatila Camp. The CCP attracted highly motivated and skilled specialists to tackle with government agencies the electricity, water, and sewage problems. The newly formed CCP began organizing projects with NGO’s and even some foreign governments indicated interest in supporting their projects.
The “Popular Committee” in Shatila Camp saw the CCP as a threat to their continued domination and exploitation. Their perceptions were accurate and the camp population, which for years had dismissed them as incompetent and corrupt, ignored their claimed authority and aimed to replace them. The “Popular Committee” reacted with intimidation, threats of violence, and creating divisions among the CCP leadership. It was successful in 2005 in forcing the CCP’s collapse. Many camp residents saw Syria’s wish to maintain its team in control in Shatila at play, and with memories still very fresh from the 1980’s “camp wars” organized by Syria, its always easy to see its regime in a negative light.
Another factor causing some Palestinian in Lebanon’s camps to support the Syrian uprising are three recent assassinations that targeted prominent officers in the Palestine Liberation Army (Hattin Forces) in Syria, the most recent being the killing of Colonel Abdul Nasser al-Makari, the leader of a platoon in the PLA. Well informed Palestinian sources in the Yarmouk Camp were quoted in Asharq al-Awsat as saying: “General Rida al-Khadra, the leader of the Hattin Forces, was assassinated a week ago and this operation was preceded by another assassination that had targeted Major Bassel Rafik Ali. Major Ali had been abducted and tortured before being thrown in the street.”
Some Palestinians, without absolute proof, claim that the Syrian regime was behind these assassinations. A prominent Palestinian official was quoted by Asharq al-Awsat as saying: “The Syrian regime is responsible for these attacks and they come in retaliation against the PLA’s and Palestinians refusal to take part in the oppression campaign led by the regime against the Syrian revolution. The regime wanted to implicate the Palestine Liberation Army in its military campaign in Homs and the Palestinian officers refused this request because there is a wide Palestinian agreement over non-interference in the Syrian domestic affairs.”
But other Palestinians believe armed groups opposed to the Syrian regime carried out the assassinations in order to force the Palestinian camps to interfere in Syrian internal affairs.
Other factors influencing opinion in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps to the Syrian uprising include Hamas leaving Damascus and relocating in Egypt, partly under pressure from Syria, as well as the Palestinians’ insistence on maintaining its independence. Probably a majority of Shatila camp residents agree that this is a good move given Hamas’ parentage from the Muslim Brotherhood that will dominate Egypt’s government and likely re-open the former front against the Zionist occupiers of Palestine.
Probably the general view from Shatila camp is one of public neutrality, with the refugees believing that it is not in their interest to interfere in Syrian affairs.
How long this remains the case will likely depend on how long the killing continues, and it is simply not true that the Palestinian camps in Lebanon or Palestinian society in general automatically support the Syria government given what is widely perceived as the massacre of protesters, most of whom, like the Palestinians, are Sunni Muslims.