A decent home in search of a decent country
Marwan Abdel Aal – Palestinian novelist, politician and official of the Palestinian Committee to Follow Up on the Reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared Camp
The improvised and urgent formation of the camp beneath the shock of being far from the homeland entailed, at the same time, giving extreme attention to education, the improvement of the transitory conditions of life, and the possibility of making it a repository of warm memories, true belonging, and national identity. Nahr al-Bared, in particular, has a social, national, economic, and cultural advantage that has outlived three generations of Palestinian alienation filled with suffering and pride. Painfully but with dignity. Patiently but with defiance. With the collective will and confidence in the future.
The second Al-Bared catastrophe proved that bringing an end to crises is possible, that prevention is better than treatment, and that the inability to abort it presents two options: first, to manage it effectively, or second, to surrender to it and weather its potentially destructive effects. Therefore, crises require clever management, difficult decisions and a higher degree of parity, curbing of tensions, understanding, unity, cooperation, trust, etc.
At the level of crisis management, this entails strategies, plans and methods that we follow to manage a complex process and address unusual cases. The Nahr al-Bared camp war (2007) came as an unforeseen crisis that disturbed the favorable climate of Lebanese-Palestinian relations, which had started to crystallize in 2005 with the improvement of relations between the two parties, embodied in the reopening of the Palestinian PLO office and the raising of the Palestinian representation to the level of an embassy. It was also personified in the establishment of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee.
The approach was to contain the crisis, with the clear and explicit official Lebanese decision to reconstruct the camp just as it had been, and to complete it by the year 2011, with the inevitable return of the camp’s residents to their homes. Unfortunately, the reconstruction process was prolonged due to many technical and logistical complications and legal and political obstacles. In particular, the scale of the costs was underestimated, while UNRWA faced difficulties obtaining additional funds to complete the faltering reconstruction process.
The delay reflected on the Palestinians’ social, psychological and economic situation, in addition to the existential crisis, as well as on the disruption of the camp’s engagement with its social and economic surroundings due to the loss of the role it played as a commercial center in the Lebanese context.
The intention by all the concerned parties, especially the Lebanese and the Palestinians, was that after its reconstruction, the Nahr al-Bared camp would constitute a model for the other Palestinian camps, i.e. the ‘model camp’ to be emulated in terms of providing adequate housing, social and personal security, and having a good relationship with the surrounding areas.
Unfortunately, we lost this opportunity due to the previously mentioned reasons and complications. As such, it is necessary to assess the entire experience to draw from it lessons, highlight the positives in that experience, and learn from them. These positives include:
- Nahr al-Bared was the only one to be reconstructed among the Palestinian camps destroyed during the Lebanese civil war.
- The calculated approach by the Palestinian leadership toward the crisis in siding with the Lebanese state against terrorism because the camp was its victim. This contributed to victory against the militants despite the high cost of material damage and displacement.
- The unique economic situation of the camp, which constituted a commercial market for the surrounding Lebanese areas, had a positive impact on the relations between the camp and its environs, embodied in the intermarriage and social integration between the camp’s residents and the residents of the neighboring areas. This created a state of interdependence and solidarity. As such, restoring social harmony and civil, cultural and economic life became a paradigm for political credibility that required the development of brotherly relations between the two peoples, the preservation of Lebanon’s sovereignty, and the maintenance of its civil peace, in addition to the moral commitment to the refugee issue and adherence to their right of return.
- The positive approach taken by UNRWA to involve the local community in the design and reconstruction process through the joint memoranda it signed with the “Council for Development and Reconstructions” and the People’s Committee in Nahr al-Bared camp, which resulted in the formation of the “Follow-up Committee for the Reconstruction of the Nahr al-Bared Camp,” plays a significant role as it includes all Palestinians as partners in following up the camp’s design and implementation, in preserving its “temporary” architectural character rather than giving it a “permanent status,” and in maintaining the bonds of family relations, neighborhood ties, and social cohesion and fabric, which helped preserve the identity of the Palestinian camp.
In the context of lessons learned, as well as investing the positive aspects of the experience of rebuilding the Nahr al-Bared camp and employing them to strengthen Lebanese-Palestinian relations while circumventing the negative elements, we present here a set of recommendations:
• Building a common vision for Palestinian-Lebanese relations to protect the common interest and move from the theoretical to the practical based on the historical outcome of the experience, while making it an imperative subject that experience to further analysis, assessment, study and readiness.
• The continuation of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee’s active role in formulating a new camp management model based on the Nahr al-Bared camp (as a model camp), which constitutes a future focal point in the Lebanese-Palestinian relations, in accordance with the aforementioned participatory approach of the Lebanese state, the Palestine Liberation Organization and UNRWA.
• Legally recognizing the people’s committees in the camps and granting them an organizational status in service, field and local tasks; developing popular sectoral, union and institutional representation within them; and supporting them morally and materially based on a development plan.
• Granting broader powers to UNRWA in the field of services, employment, housing, etc., in its capacity as the institution entrusted with the protection of refugees whether they are inside or outside the camp, both old and new.
• Improving ties with the surrounding Lebanese areas and ending the military state of emergency to gradually restore the state of the camp’s economy to what it was before the war.
• Completing the owed compensation and completing the restoration and reconstruction of homes and shops in the new camp, and developing effective small loan programs sponsored by UNRWA and possibly other international institutions.
• Deepening awareness of the concept of the rule of law as a frame of reference, as an alternative to discretion and unilateralism, and the consequences of negative applications of the law. In other words, the application of the law in its two aspects as represented in human justice and Lebanese sovereignty from the perspective of rights and duties. We are in the final stages of the long reconstruction marathon. Let the main effort focus on completing the construction to the last stone and closing this file, as it is a compelling message and an expression of sincere human and fraternal will regarding the importance of securing “decent housing” in upholding the legitimate right to realize the dream of returning to a “decent” homeland, the real and eternal, the homeland of the ancestors, which has no alternative.