Why is the Nahr al-Bared administration not a model for the camps?

Why is the Nahr al-Bared administration not a model for the camps?

Zuhair Hawari – a Lebanese researcher and journalist

It started in the 1990s and my first visit to the Nahr al-Bared camp. The scenes from that experience still linger in my mind. I wander around the camp’s neighborhoods, observing the details and recording them in my notes as part of a lengthy investigation covering what was left of the refugee camps in our country in a work that was to be published in instalments in the ‘Al-Safir’ newspaper with the title, ‘The Palestinian camps from the fuel of the revolution to the ashes of peace.’

Along the coast, I encounter something I have not seen before, nor since, during a funeral procession for one of the camp’s residents. It wasn’t that someone had died that was strange, because every day people die, instead, it was the fact that the deceased was being carried on a chair, and behind him, a crowd of people followed, all walking sideways and close together.

As two young men carried the chair, a third held the head of the deceased in his white shroud so he did not fall. The people later told me they had tried to carry him in a coffin, but it hadn’t worked given how narrow the alleys were, so they settled on this unusual approach to take the deceased to his final resting place.

The camp today is utterly different from what it was before the 2007 crime, which took its toll on the camp and the Lebanese army. That’s not to say that the current scene is ideal; it still needs much to remain sound, and it is the only camp in Lebanon to have been reconstructed among those affected by the scourge of wars in the country.

And, herein, we arrive at the crux of the matter: the condition of the camps, which require countless services and initiatives, so their affairs do not remain scattered among Lebanese government administrations and institutions, UNRWA, and the local committees.

It must be noted that after the fighting stopped, the Lebanese government promised to rebuild the camp and sought UNRWA to mobilize international support to carry out this effort. On this basis, 2008 witnessed the convening of the Vienna-Austria Conference, which pledged to finance the process.

Thus, the reconstruction began, albeit slowly and certainly not at a pace commensurate with the sense of urgency felt by the people, who were anxious to return to the camp after being displaced for years. However, the conference was not restricted to the financial aspect of reconstruction. It issued a reference document that focused on the need to establish a transparent administration for the camp. This included establishing security and the rule of law by way of community police officers that were both cultured and could communicate, with knowledge of the Palestinian refugees’ political history so they could familiarize themselves with the peculiarities of the society in which they worked and with the required training in conflict resolution while providing technical assistance to security forces.

This would dispel sensitivities, encourage participation, and prompt the people to support the security forces. The document also proposed the involvement of community police officers in youth activities and programs to strengthen the relationship with the camp residents, making it a safer place. Finally, it suggested applying this successful security model in other Palestinian camps in Lebanon.

The first recommendation was issued thirteen years ago. Since 2007 the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) has obtained a mandate from the Presidency of the Council of Ministers to develop a vision for the administration of the Nahr al-Bared camp on the condition that it be a model of state sovereignty, law, and security, in cooperation with the official civil, military, and municipal state institutions surrounding the camp. And, of course, in coordination with UNRWA and the camp’s popular committee.

This was followed by the findings of the ‘Lebanese Working Group on Palestinian Asylum Issues in Lebanon,’ formed by the seven main parties in the country which, after two years of successive meetings, issued the 2017 document entitled, ‘The Unified Lebanese Vision for Palestinian Asylum Issues in Lebanon,’ whose contents referred to the management of Nahr al-Bared and other refugee camps.

This vision addressed the chaotic situation in the camps. It emphasized the possibilities presented by the Nahr al-Bared experience, provided there was a positive and healthy outlook from all concerned parties. It also tasked the Lebanese state with the responsibility of the camp’s reconstruction, according to a systematic plan, and with the participation of the camp’s residents, based on Lebanon’s stated position at the Vienna Conference.

The document then concluded the following about the camp’s administration:

“The working group believes that the state’s role in the camp’s administration should not be limited to the security dimension as is currently the case, but should extend beyond it to political, services and rights efforts, and thus care for everyone who resides on its lands. The state’s administration of the camps must be done in collaboration and cooperation with UNRWA. It is responsible for providing services and the representative committees of the camp’s residents and its activities. The presence of representative committees would help improve the administration of life in the camp and facilitate interaction between the refugees and the various government, services, and municipal departments around the camp. At present, an assessment of the experience of camp administration, and the work of the popular committees with various official departments, service institutions and municipalities, indicates a need to work in this direction, accompanied at the same time by steps that identify the negatives resulting from the repercussions of the numerous authorities and channels of communication, as well as the unification of the Lebanese and Palestinian administrative authorities and the organization of a harmonious relationship between the two.”

In February 2019, and at the request of the LPDC and with the government’s approval, a working group was formed consisting of many of the Lebanese departments concerned with this issue. These included representatives from the Ministries of Interior, Justice, Defense and Public Works, the Public Security Directorate and other state institutions. The team spent five months working on the appropriate format for a draft bill until it was completed. Accordingly, it can be said that the proposal presented by the bill to manage the camp is the fruit of this team’s efforts.

The Palestinian refugee project is defined based on the ‘Vision’ document. It illustrates the administration’s role in sponsoring and organizing humanitarian and living issues such as residence, health, education, work and others, without neglecting the responsibility of UNRWA. The project consists of ten articles that stem from the urgent need to manage Palestinian refugee affairs while preserving their national identity, the sovereignty of the state, and the role of UNRWA.

The administration in the camp is entrusted with a national body that works on defining the camp’s geographical scope and managing public services such as water, electricity, health, sanitation, and infrastructure, in addition to keeping statistical records in coordination with the Directorate of Political Affairs and Refugees at the Ministry of Interior as well as maintaining internal security, in cooperation with both UNRWA and the official Palestinian authorities.

The remaining articles cover the commission’s formation, the decrees required for its establishment, the terms of employment, categories, and others, provided that its budget is in the general budget section of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. The purpose of recalling these facts is to say that Lebanon must go forward based on the preceding recognition of the need to improve the conditions of the Palestinians and their camps, and of its responsibility toward them, in contrast to what currently prevails, i.e. leaving the task on the shoulders of UNRWA and the local committees, especially as camp services are part of the public service networks in the country. This project, while it realizes the sovereignty of the state, at the same time preserves for the Palestinians their dignity and security and allows them to share in the responsibility by contributing to the camp’s maintenance as an alternative to the chaos and security hotspots that attract smugglers and those with criminal backgrounds. Therefore, the question remains: When will there be an administration for the Nahr al-Bared camp and a model for the rest of the camps?