The Camp: Suffocating and suffocated
Mona Sokarya, Lebanese journalist and writer
In my mind, a ‘camp’ for Palestinian refugees is Palestine itself. A cause to which I belong and support with my nationalist, Arab, and moral components in their broader human sense. A raw and instinctive idea that is not subject to considerations, explanation, or ringing words by those who, in their view of this ‘camp’ and the reasons why it was established, manipulate facts according to their interests, not according to values of mere human justice.
The camp, as a location, has transcended its local and temporary geographical reality into a nominal state inspired by actual Palestine, hence becoming synonymous.
The expressive states of the camp, represented in human moments, have transcended several areas of political, social, and cultural aspects. It moved from being a political and local cause to an international and human reason. This is how the image of the ‘camp’ was created – both in imagination and in reality.
I had become close to the camp before venturing into its streets and intertwined buildings, before exploring its geographical maze, before getting to know the dynamics of its people – Palestinian refugees – as part of my job as a journalist. Such proximity was due to belonging to and belief in the fairness of a cause of an oppressed nation whose people were torn from their land by Zionist massacres.
Since 1948’s Nakba, and as Palestinian refugees poured into Lebanon, the ‘camp’ underwent many changes in the socio-political sense.
Furthermore, the camp was a manifestation of the consequences of such developments. At the beginning of the exodus, tents were set up on private land later rented to UNRWA after its establishment.
We can see that all these camps were developed near and at the edges of coastal cities in Lebanon, except for Wavel and Jalil camps in Baalbek. According to historian Adel Ismael who noted this in his memoir, the purpose of building these camps in coastal areas was to serve the Lebanese economy by providing cheap labor. Further, it was in line with the convictions of late President Bechara El Khoury, who helped formulate the idea.
The camp that sheltered thousands of refugees who fled Zionist racial cleansing and persecution soon reflected the developments outside.
The camp hosted skilled labor in farming citrus fruits – especially in South Lebanon – and those who excelled in education became teachers and students in one of the foreign private universities – and we have the lists of names as proof.
Similarly, in commerce, there was an investment of capital from refugees. An example of many is the case of Intra Bank and its Palestinian founder, Yousef Baydas, not to mention Palestinian creativity in art and culture.
The camp was hence not one but many: A suffocating camp feared by some; and a suffocated camp – but one that is safe for those who fear it, according to the double standards of the Lebanese mentality.
As the political scene changed for the Palestinian course of action in the mid-60s, contradictions began to emerge with the beginning of the armed Palestinian conflict.
Dreams of fighting to return home contradict with fears of the idea of two governments, two powers, and two public opinions.
Unfortunately, this is what happened. It resulted in restrictions for people in the camps, arrests, and later fighting that ended up with Palestinian politics and weapons being forfeited after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
The camp remained a witness of a grey period of its many and long years of setbacks. Hopefully, it will not continue to be so for long.
Such power has receded, and people of the camp are subject to work restrictions in 73 professions. It was added to international watchlists. Embassies offered visas to those wishing to immigrate – or at least to those that embassies chose.
Social and economic conditions became worse. Constraints were tightened for subjective and objective reasons, so scenes of public demonstrations have disappeared.
The camp has become overcrowded with its people and their fears amidst the uncertainty of what is yet to come. However, there is something noticeable by all those looking at the camp: the persistence of the camp’s men and women to give identity its whole meaning by being creative and continuing to uphold the rich and diverse Palestinian national heritage. Through this, a needle in a woman’s hand in the camp continues to connect a long line from prehistoric times of Canaan to Palestine, its people, and its culture.