*Freelance journalist and correspondent in Beirut for several media including RFI and Le Monde.
Every time I go to a Palestinian camp in Lebanon, I go out with deep-seated pain. It is these disappointing tales of the refugees, these insalubrious buildings recounting the over crowdedness and dreams doomed to failure, these electric wires tangled in an anarchic way, these damp alleys not penetrated by the sunlight. These misery scenes have consolidated over time and words used to describe them have been depleted. Perhaps a shocking indicator of unhappiness is the declining percentage of young Palestinians pursuing education, while education has long been a cornerstone in people’s lives.
Nothing is standing still, but this is not necessarily comforting thought. Over the years, a “security fence” has been erected around the Ein El-Hilweh camp, the “capital” of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and progress has been made in the reconstruction of Nahr El-Bared camp, but at a turtle’s pace. Even if the alleys have become wider there, the dwellings are smaller – although it can be said at least once, that a camp has been reconstructed. The aspect of these enclaves has changed too: Palestinians in Lebanon have left their homes to Ethiopians in the Mar Elias camp, to Syrians in the Chatila camp, and to Palestinian refugees from Syria in the Wavel camp at the entrance of Baalbek city. Others have managed to reach Europe clandestinely; but how many were sent back to the camps of Lebanon, having lost everything?
The deep-seated pain that I am talking about is not caused by pity; it is rather a form of stupor and anger. Everything could have been very different, and everything can be so.
Of course, the camps are not just synonymous with the tragedies of poverty, violence, and drugs. There are these strong social ties, which refugees who left the walled alleys, come back to seek on occasion. There is also commitment demonstrated by people who continue to provide care, develop community projects, and support children in their education. This is the Palestinian identity that is preserved and courageously transmitted from one generation to the next. This is the ingenuity used to challenge dead ends.
However, this resilience ensures survival, not the future which remains dark. It is about financial resources which are always hard to pool. But the vulnerable refugees are on the forefront of the economic and financial crisis devastating Lebanon. Unless more funds are secured, it will be impossible to renovate the urgently needed infrastructure. The achievement of progress is also a political issue. Nevertheless, a glass ceiling dashes all hope: on the national scene, the rejection of resettlement and historical grudges continue to steer a movement that opposes granting basic social rights to Palestinian refugees; on the regional and international scene, cowardice weighs heavily on the refugee question which remains unresolved and is dealt with as an economic or social issue, or even as a vestige of the past. How to eliminate its political dimension lying at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In addition to the need for overcoming this double barrier, there is the need for renewing the Palestinian leadership, as Hanan Ashrawi urged from Ramallah.
The recent divisions in the Arab world, apart from the consensus about the Arab Peace Initiative launched in Beirut in 2002, are an ominous sign for the refugees, which is the case with the cataclysm striking Lebanon. But one wonders if there has ever been a favorable moment allowing for the alleviation of the plight of the Palestinians, free from political manipulation?
It is still difficult to deny some evidence. On the one hand, how can peace or stability be achieved if, at the regional and international levels, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their land during the establishment of the State of Israel and over the stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict that followed, without historical injustice being acknowledged or redressed? On the other hand, at the national level, who can truly believe that allowing refugees to live a decent life in their countries of residence by eliminating discrimination against them, will lead to a reconsideration of their identity and their pursuit of justice? These two plans go hand in hand if we are to build a better future for them.