Refugee Camps as War Zones
Homs Palestinian Refugee Camp — Historically, Palestinian refugees, wherever they have sought temporary sanctuary following the ethnic leansing of their country by the 19th century Zionist colonial enterprise, and pending their return to Palestine, have insisted on avoiding local and international conflicts while seeking a modicum of interim civil rights from the host countries.
This was true in Jordan during the run up to Black September in 1970, at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil war in 1975, the 1991 Kuwait crisis, and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq; and it pertains especially today in the current crisis in Syria. For a number of reasons, including poor tactical decisions by their leadership, they have not always succeeded, and consequently they have paid a steep price in lives, jobs, housing, and expulsions from host countries.
In Syria, both the largest Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, with its 125,000 residents, and Khan al-Sheeh, the second largest of the 14 camps with 45,000 before the crisis, but currently swelled by another 26,000, mainly from Yarmouk camp, have become virtual war zones with large sections of the camps being overrun by gunmen fighting in support of the “Free Syrian Army.” All but two of the camps in Syria have been infiltrated by opposition forces and consequently have been targeted by government forces seeking to destroy the rebels. At times, the camp residents have resisted both sides by demanding that the camps’ normally strict neutrality be respected. Engaging initially in peaceful protects when outsiders invaded, some protests turned violent when their demands for camp neutrality were rejected.
Khan al-Sheeh, whose residents are from tribes and clans in northern Palestine, and who lost 22 camp residents to Zionist occupier gunfire during the May 2011 Nakba Day events on the Golan Heights, will be a formidable foe if they take up arms which they have not done for the past 33 years. In January 2013, the Syria conflict entered into the camp when opposition forces—a combination of Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Nusra Front fighters—arrived and insisted on recruits, offering $200 per month cash, free cigarettes, a uniform, boots and of course an AK-47.
For the past five months, again like Yarmouk, Khan al-Sheeh and the other camps in Syria have been caught in the crossfire as opposition fighters try to advance toward the capital, while regime forces used cannons and rocket fire to block their advance, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries. This week, so far in vain, the camp popular committees yet again appealed to both sides to observe a ceasefire within any Palestinian camp in Syria and also in Lebanon, the latter currently experiencing increased challenges for its 12 camps to stay out of the conflict.
Pressuring Lebanon’s camps to join Syria’s civil war
Lebanon’s widely respected independent leftist daily, As-Safir, has reported that veteran security and intelligence officers of the Lebanese security services are claiming to have information, but not precise details regarding number and location of “organized Takfiri (Sunni) networks” in Lebanon. The head of one security service told As-Safir, “the monitoring of the terrorist networks cannot be very detailed since they are solely located in the Palestinian camps, mainly in Ain el Helweh.”
This statement, like others these days in the Lebanese sectarian media, appears intended to incite the public against the refugees, inducing them to join the fighting. Another officer, closely working on the Lebanese government “terrorism” file, claims, again without offering any probative or material evidence, that “the only serious faction in Lebanon right now consists of the Ziad al-Jarrah Units that are affiliated with the Abdullah Azzam battalions.” Both have some Palestinian gunmen. Abdullah Azzam is the most experienced group and it is present in Ain el Helweh. The officer indicated that he agrees with the general theory that as long as the military situation in Syria remains unsettled, the Lebanese Palestinian camps are open to all possibilities, including Palestinian armed involvement.
Other calls are being heard from Beirut, Saida, and Tyre in the south, and also up north in Tripoli, for Palestinians to comply with the fatwas being issued for all Sunni to fight the Bashar Assad regime and to build a “Sunni army” patterned after the Lebanese civil war-era PLO forces. How significant is the sentiment favoring this dangerous call is unknown. However, in all of the above noted areas, some Palestinians, mainly unemployed youngsters, have been lured by offers of cash to take part in training, much like occurred before the 26-month old Syria conflict.
Some Salafist-jihadist types in Lebanon, especially near Tripoli’s Bedawi, and Nahr al Bared camps, as well as Ain el Helwe down south in Saida, are pushing among Palestinian youth the argument that if they join the war in Syria, they will gain the internationally-guaranteed civil rights that all the other refugees receive except Palestinians in Lebanon. Part of the argument being pitched is that they are not going to get even elementary civil rights in Lebanon from Israelis, the UN, or the international community, and certainly not from the EU or the Americans. Palestinians in Lebanon’s camps are being lectured that they will get civil rights here only when they take them by force, which is their right and their jihadist religious duty.
These arguments will fail, with few exceptions, among the quarter million Palestinian refugees actually still in Lebanon, as they have in the past. But the Palestinians’ decent into deepening sectarian and religious divisions here in Lebanon is worrisome. Scholars, political analysts, and even elements of the National Lebanese Resistance are counseling that an effective, moral, religious, and political measure that could bring Sunni and Shia together in Lebanon, while thwarting the schemes being hatched to get the Palestinians involved in the Syrian crisis, would be for the Lebanese Parliament to use 90 minutes of its ample free time—inasmuch as the Parliamentary elections will not take place next month as scheduled—to address the issue of Palestinian civil rights in that country.
By using 20 minutes of the proposed 90, recommended by the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign here, Lebanon’s Parliament can, in one fell swoop, reach out to the Sunni community and the Christian community (about 90% of Palestinians in Lebanon are Sunni and approximately 10% Christian) by employing a quick and tidy yea-nay vote to repeal the 2001 racist law that forbids home ownership for Palestinian refugees here. This law outlawing the home ownership civil right for Palestinians only, as expressed by the two initial sponsors still in Parliament, was only originally meant as a 2001 election year gimmick to garner anti-Palestinian votes and not ever intended to be implemented.
History teaches us that the 2001 law was in fact part of the anti-Palestinian “pay-back” for the PLO’s involvement in the fifteen-year Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). In what many Palestinians in the camps here objected to then and continue to view as a cataclysmic error, its leadership ignominiously withdrew from Lebanon in the late summer of 1982, under Zionist and Reagan administration pressure and false promises of an immediate Palestinian homeland.
With the remaining 70 minutes, the Resistance-dominated Parliament could reach out to the Sunni and Christian communities, as noted above, and grant Palestinian refugees in Lebanon the same right to work that every refugee everywhere has, including those in the apartheid state of occupied Palestine. The same right as everyone is immediately granted when their passport is stamped at any Lebanese border post.
This single act by Lebanon’s Parliament would help repair Shia-Sunni relations globally and would dampen down—and expose for what they are, the extremist Salafist-jihadist-Wahhabist incitements to religious hatred, both intra-Muslim and Muslim-Christian. It would also, according to several Palestinian NGO’s working in Lebanon, keep Palestinians out of the Syrian conflict.
Allowing Palestinians in Lebanon the internationally guaranteed right to work, would also, according to studies by the UN International Labor Organization and other academic studies, substantially build up Lebanon’s fragile economy by creating more than twice the number of jobs that they would be employed at, including those in the 32 professions currently outlawed for Palestinian refugees.