Ein el-Hilweh Camp, LEBANON — They are 67 new families, or about 400 Palestinian refugees, displaced from Syria, residing in 60 recently erected tents set up as an emergency ‘gathering’ near the Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp adjacent to the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon. In all, there are approximately 75,000 thousand Palestinians in Lebanon who have fled from Syria over the past 28 months.
Additional Palestinians arrive every week and sometimes meet former neighbors from Yarmouk and other Syrian Palestinian camps at the Masnaa Lebanon-Syria border crossing. The new arrivals are often grimaced to happen upon their countrymen who are returning to take their chances facing death in Syria, including dodging the snipers and bombings targeting Yarmouk and elsewhere. The reasons the returnees give for returning to Syria focus on the appalling humanitarian conditions in Lebanon for Palestinians, as well as the nearly 780,000 other refugees here from Syria.
Palestinians forced into Lebanon from Syria soon learn, if they were not aware previously, that all Palestinians refugees in Lebanon are barred by law from the most elementary civil rights to work and to own a home. More than 50 professions open to Palestinians in Syria and in every other country, including occupied Palestine, are forbidden here. Two examples of jobs Palestinians can do and are doing in Lebanon when they arrive from Syria include scavenging through the rotting filth at Saida Garbage Mountain and other Lebanese government public garbage dumps to find something worth a few Lebanese Lira (LL) to help their loved ones survive. No work permit, nearly impossible to secure, is required, so they need not fear arrest by the Lebanese authorities who irregularly round up Palestinian violators of this country’s no work for Palestinian refugees ban.
The same, “no work permit required” reality is true of another profession that critics accuse the “Government” of Lebanon and its competing politicians of approving instead of allowing even one currently banned legitimate job to those whose lives are at risk and who are desperately in need of livelihood.
That profession, which is open to every Palestinian today in Lebanon willing to consider it, is ‘hired gun’.
While both the major political grouping in Lebanon will deny they do it but will accuse the other, the fact of the matter is that both continue to discreetly recruit Palestinians to fight their personal battles on the cheap. It is unfortunately the case that some Palestinians, sweltering in the squalid, fetid camps in Lebanon, discriminated against in public institutions of higher learning, and barred from internationally mandated elementary civil rights, are seeking jobs as militiamen. This against the admonitions and sage counsel of the older generation of PLO fighters, now mainly retired, that the Syrian civil war is not theirs and that Palestinian involvement will not advance the return to Palestine and reclaiming stolen homes and land, not by one minute or by one inch.
The choice for many Palestinian young men in Lebanon has come down to guns or education. By force of Lebanese law and under threat of prison for violators, Palestinians are denied the elementary civil rights to work in more than 50 professions and are barred by a 2001 racist law from them or from their families, more than six decades living as refugees in Lebanon, even owning a home. Among Palestinian youth, unemployment rates hover around 70%, while refugee students are also discriminated against in admission to Lebanese state institutions of higher education, including the relatively low-tuition fees at Lebanese University. This makes it difficult for young Palestinians in Lebanon to pursue higher education after graduating from UNWRA schools and passing the Baccalaureate II exam. Being barred from most jobs, it is very difficult to come up with even modest sums for tuition payments.
Against this backdrop of flagrant state sponsored discrimination, if one were to offer un-employed young camp resident, say $ 200 per month, an AK-47 with plenty of ammo, and free cigarettes, the odds are good that you just might have yourself a militiaman. Those journalists and observers who spent much of the summer of 2011 in Libya saw a similar phenomenon, and now it’s also the case in Syria. In Lebanon, it is resurgent from the 1975-90 civil war days. The gun for hire resource is being exploited across the political spectrum here among many of the same confessions and political parties that ignited this country’s massively destructive civil war more than three decades ago.
Today, some Palestinians are being paid to fight for certain factions whether from the North of Lebanon at Tripoli and Akkar, to Beirut and various contentious areas such as Tariq al-Jdideh, Sabra, Cola, and down south in Saida during recent clashes that saw 16 Lebanese army killed and twice that number from the supporters of Salafist activist Ahmad Asir. Despite denials from some sources, there were a few Palestinians who fought for Asir and some Palestinians joined other militia, including the Hezbollah organized “Resistance Brigades” and the Lebanese army in fighting against Asir’s forces. An investigation is supposedly underway of the army’s conduct and the involvement of political parties from both the March 14 anti-Assad sects and elements of the March 8th pro-Assad groups regarding recruitment of Palestinian youngsters.
President Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly warned Palestinians in Lebanon during his 72 hour visit to Lebanon last week to reject these offers and not to be drawn into the Syrian conflict despite the ‘market place maneuverings’ going on here from various armed confessions. What he meant is that as most of the Lebanese sects are frantically arming and seeking gunmen and weapons, that Palestinians must refuse to be exploited once again, and that they must reject any involvement in a military conflict that contravenes their communities’ wishes and their national interest. He lectured a gathering of PLO factions at a Palestine Embassy event that this terrible error was the case during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil wars. For that involvement, Palestinians in Lebanon continue to pay a very heavy price from certain factions here that would rather see Lebanon’s economy continue to decline than allow Palestinians to work and help build the local economy as they have done in countless other countries which granted them the right to work and the opportunity to invest in the economy with their technical competence and business skills.
As one Palestinian academic pointed out last week to this observer, “While President Abbas assured Lebanese politicians that Palestinian factions did not want to join the Syrian civil war, he also chastised Lebanon’s government in private for not pressuring various factions, most with representatives in Parliament, to stop recruiting and enticing the hapless, desperate for work refugees, forced into Lebanon against their will.”
PA President Abbas also repeated the PLO’s willingness to turn the refugee camps weapons over to the government. He did this with a straight face but surely he knows well that despite the regular scapegoating of Palestinians refugees in Lebanon and the danger they are said by some to pose because some have access to light arms, as everyone in Lebanon does, the truth of the matter is that the Lebanese political groups, even the most open about their hatred of Palestinians in Lebanon, do not want the state to collect or receive as gifts the arms in the Palestinian camps and gatherings, however many there in fact are. The reason is that if the Palestinians had no weapons at all in the camp, it would make it awkward for some politicians to use the fear of a return to the early 1970’s and the potential danger of a Palestinian uprising for sects political advantage. Truth told, there is no realistic fear, unless provoked, from Palestinians arms. They are exaggerated, as is the number of salafist factions inside camps. Yet without the right to work, some Palestinians will doubtless be seduced into becoming hired guns for scarce cash to feed their families.
Hiring young men as gunmen in Lebanon is also impliedly condoned by silence on this problem from various polarized and politicized religious leaders. Some of Lebanon’s religious personalities, too often wearing pious faces and donning prelatical ‘Pope-wannabe’, if sometimes comical, outfits, and often sporting fingers ringed with gold and precious jewels, intone their gospels according to St. Mark or his equivalents about human dignity and being our brother’s keeper, and often referencing “our blood-veins support for Palestine and the Right of Return”—while simultaneously standing in Janus-faced opposition to the elementary internationally mandated right to work for Palestinians in Lebanon.
When a Palestinian is arrested for carrying a weapon, it’s often front-page news, but also usually exaggerated or later shown to be inaccurate. What is more surprising is that more Palestinians are not in the streets, motivated by the Arab Spring and Islamic Awakening, demanding the civil right to work. Yet signs are starting to appear of a pending and overdue intifada in Lebanon demanding this universally recognized right of every refugee to be able to seek work to sustain oneself and family.
Rumors abound these tense days in many part of Lebanon, as if to say, “I told you didn’t I? The Palestinians are the source of most of Lebanon’s problems!” (or the Zionists, or the Saudis, EU, Iranians, Syrians, other Lebanese sects or the Americans, or just about anyone except this countriy’s deeply destructive confessional system and the Lebanese who profit from this, to date, failed state). Too many Lebanese politicians reject granting rights to Palestinian refugees while they seek to gain personal, regional, and international benefits from playing the “Palestinian card”. Meanwhile, dangerous temperature and pressure levels are building in the huge Presto cookers that are Lebanon’s camps.
On a brighter note, arriving with a late news item of Jul 18 are the just released results of the General Science (SG) and Life Science (SV) secondary school official exam results known as the Baccalaureate II exam results. Preliminary analysis suggests that despite all their hardships, Palestinian and Syrian refugees have done well on the required exams.
One Palestinian mother from Yarmouk camp in Damascus, now among the 700 Palestinian refugee families temporarily here from Syria and squeezed into the already overflowing Shatila camp, explained to this observer as she proudly displayed this week’s announcement of her children’s academic success. She beamed that even with little electricity in her family hovel, polluted drinking water, no fresh air, and not much food this past year, her daughter’s and son’s success in passing “the BACC II” made her forget her family’s misery.
So it is that the doors are cracked open for higher education, if Palestinian refugees in Lebanon can come up with tuition, sometimes fairly modest by western standards, but beyond the means of a majority of camp families. The good news is that there will be places in Lebanon’s institutions of higher learning this fall semester, assuming that these youngsters, desperate to be allowed to work at the same jobs that every other foreigner in granted on arriving to Lebanon, do not heed the sirens calls of various sects here, singing seductive songs of quick cash in exchange for carrying a gun.
On April 19, 2013 at the Shatila Camp Youth Center, it is exactly 30 years to the week following the death of American journalist Janet Lee Stevens here in Beirut, and one recalls times during the 1982 Israeli aggression that rained American bombs of various types down on the civilian population, still hearing Janet’s voice telling young Palestinian defenders, during the 75-day Zionist siege, “Once the fighting ends you must, every one of you, return to school, whether to study quantum physics or literature or whatever interests you. Higher education is what will hasten your return to Palestine. Education is your greatest resource and your most potent weapon.”
Speaking at the Shatila Scholarship Award event, one American, paying tribute to Janet as a mediator and advocate for Palestine, and addressing the tuition grant recipients, sought to encourage these future Palestinian leaders:
“An education is forever and its purpose is to enjoy a more productive lifetime while seeking to fulfill all of what each of us is capable as we give back to our respective communities. Staying in school here in Lebanon where we are all guests, just for the time being, and pursuing knowledge and practical skills is a quintessential and noble act and commitment of Resistance against oppression and occupation – anywhere. Education cannot be ethnically cleansed, stolen, tortured, jailed, uprooted, bulldozed, massacred, murdered, bombed or burned down. Rather, staying in school and pursuing ones dream is what your cherished for-bearers, who were forced from their homes and lands into Lebanon and trekked from Palestine- approximately 130,000- in the summer and fall of 1948, would want for you, and expect of you. Education is a Saladinian Resistance toward liberating, six decades after the Nakba, those still under occupation in Palestine. And to help achieve for refugees in the diaspora, their inalienable full Right of Return.”
When and how do we put an end to this outrage which is an urgent humanitarian imperative shared by every one of us?
We end it immediately.
We do it by Lebanon’s parliament, taking 90 minutes of its time, which is all that would be required, and grant these youngsters the most elementary civil right to work which will also enable them to pursue their dreams of higher education.
And by international support.
This can be facilitated by international pressure. One telephone call from Washington, Riyadh, or Tehran, to local political allies, can get the job done in just over an hour without further procrastination.
If not, to add to its other problems, Lebanon may face a civil right intifada– ignited by continued repression.
In the words of the angelic Miss Hiba of Ein el Hilweh camp, now 19 years old, three years after her defiant declaration in 2010 to those who sneered at her that she should get married at age 16, who, with her beauty, could demand a handsome dowry for her impoverished family and forget about college: “There is no other choice than success with the civil rights goal of every Palestinian in Lebanon to seek a job and to pursue education as we peacefully intensify our struggle to Return to our stolen and still occupied country, Palestine.”
Today, Hiba continues the good fight as she completes next year, her degree in engineering. She insists she will need this knowledge when she returns to her family’s occupied home near Safed.