CHAPTER IV: PALESTINIANS
At no point during this story will I claim to be an expert. It was humanitarian interest that brought me to Lebanon. However, despite the want to discuss the living conditions of people in long-term displacement, it seems important to both understand and attempt to contextualize the history which has catalyzed the Palestinians’ current situation. The following is a deeply, deeply abridged history of the Palestinians in Lebanon, and a small summation as to the general structure of how they now live in the country.
“Beginning in 1948…Refugees poured into Lebanon’s southern border by the thousands, and the first camps soon began to form.”
Beginning in 1948, as a consequence of the declaration of Israeli independence and the First Arab-Israeli War, the first Palestinian diaspora began. Refugees poured into Lebanon’s southern border by the thousands, and the first camps soon began to form. Then in 1967, hundreds of thousands more fled in the wake of the Six Day War, and more camps sprang up even as populations swelled in existing camps still teeming from the 1948 diaspora.
In the decades following these waves of exodus, Palestinians within Lebanon came to experience an increasingly complex and violent landscape. As the fight to try and take land back from Israel escalated, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) began using Southern Lebanon as a base; the group gained an even stronger foothold when the Cairo agreement was reached in 1969, giving Palestinian forces greater military autonomy in the region.
As a secondary effect of the Cairo agreement, the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon would become part of the autonomous structure the PLO was given. This meant that a good deal of funding for aid and maintenance responsibilities would reside with the PLO.
“In the decades following these waves of exodus, Palestinians within Lebanon came to experience an increasingly complex and violent landscape.”
As time wore on, however, anti-Israeli sentiments came to blend with longstanding sectarian tensions in the country, and pro-Palestinian Arabs were also amongst the groups who battled in Lebanon’s own 15-year civil war. The violence peaked in 1982, when a coordinated effort between Israeli forces and a Lebanese Christian militia ended in the infamous massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps – a massacre which left somewhere between 700 and 3,500 civilians dead.
This overlap of violent conflicts was complicated and often escalated by the presence of U.S. Marine forces stationed there to support the Lebanese Army, with the theoretical goal of clearing violent factions from the region and restoring peace and sovereignty to Lebanon. The eventual settling of this complex civil war ultimately led to the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, and deepened a growing divide within the broader Lebanese citizenry regarding the status of Palestinians within the nation.
The current estimate for total Palestinian population in Lebanon is approximately 450,000, and after a long and complicated history many of them still live as second-class citizens. Although the Cairo agreement is no longer recognized and the militant arms of Palestinian revolt have long since ceased their operations in the region, the Palestinian people themselves have been existing under refugee status for 70 years. The PLO, along with its donors, still fund and oversee most of the camps as the Lebanese government maintains a rather hands-off approach.
“The current estimate for total Palestinian population in Lebanon is approximately 450,000, and after a long and complicated history many of them still live as second-class citizens.”
This means each new generation born into the camps on Lebanese soil are still recognized as Palestinian refugees, and thus are limited by not having the full rights of other Lebanese citizens. For the vast majority, who are not fortunate enough to have family or connections beyond the borders of Lebanon, options for leaving the camps and securing better work or educational opportunities are severely limited. This has created a situation wherein multi-generational refugee camps play host to a disastrous combination of population increase, decaying infrastructure, and virtually no options for escape.