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LEBANON: Bittersweet homecoming for Palestinian residents of war-damaged camp

A tedious familiarity overcame Muhammad Aamer and his family as they were forced to leave the only home they knew following the 2007 conflict.

The war in Nahr el Bared brought to many of the Palestinian refugees a sense of loss and despair reminiscent of the 1948 Nakba. The keen desire of the residents for return was assuaged four years later, when the reconstruction of the first portion of the old camp was finalized.

IMG00568-20110419-1203“It was the most difficult time of our lives. It still is. We were abused and violated. We saw many wars but this one had completely damaged our camp and we weren’t even part of it,” said Aamer, 62, a member of the Popular Committee for Nahr el Bared.

“This day is a happy day,” he continued, “but it is tainted with sadness when we remember how we got here. We are back to zero. We are a people with nothing.”

The battle in 2007 was a gruesome, three-month face-off between the Lebanese Army and Fatah el Islam.

Pulling up their sleeves again with persistence and perseverance, hundreds of Palestinian refugees gathered in the camp to mark the return of several families to homes that were destroyed in the Naher el Bared conflict in 2007.

IMG00559-20110419-1154 UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, distributed keys and checks to 43 families who were moving back.

A cloud of dust and ambivalence hung over the congregation. Inside the buildings, joyous and appreciative cries could be heard alongside bitter and resentful wailing, as many residents were displeased with the reconstruction arrangements.

“They built my house without a kitchen. I have four daughters. How am I supposed to manage without a kitchen? Also, my brother Ziad, who has high blood pressure and various heart problems, was given a house on the fourth floor. I have written several complaints to UNRWA to no avail,” said Mahmoud Yousef Wehbeh.

Some even found that they were given keys to houses with plans that diverged greatly from the blueprints that had been signed. Despite the disappointment, most inhabitants were at least relieved to return to something they could call their own.

During the ceremony, Lebanese army and internal security personnel lurked watchfully in the background, contributing to a highly militarized atmosphere that has now become the signature of Nahr el Bared. The army checkpoints throughout the camp and the erection of a new police tower in the center put the security situation at the heart of most of the residents’ grievances.

“It’s not fair to be returning to a prison,” said Khalil Khader, a camp elder. “We want a safety zone, not a security zone, and safety is built with trust,” added Aamer.

IMG00579-20110419-1209The barricades and barbed wire that envelope the camp also discourage local Lebanese merchants and customers from developing trade relationships with their Palestinian counterparts. This has segregated the camp both economically and socially.

Combined with Lebanese laws that prohibit Palestinians from practicing most professions, these security measures have rendered “66% of Nahr el Bared residents unemployed,” said Aamer.

Palestinians officials say they understand and respect the need for the Lebanese to maintain stability, but that people in the camps also have humanitarian needs. 

According to UNRWA official Charlie Higgins, 83 families are supposed to be moving  to their new homes in the coming weeks. A lot of work remains to be done in the next few years when thousands of families are set to return to reconstructed apartments in the eight other packages, funding for which remains short to this day.

-- Roula Hajjar in Nahr el Bared Refugee Camp, Lebanon

Video: Hundreds of Palestinians celebrate their return to the Nahr El Bared camp in northern Lebanon on April 19, 2011. Credit: Roula Hajjar

Photos: From above, Palestinian woman dances in the center of the partially rebuilt camp in northern Lebanon on April 19, 2011; several Palestinian young men sing ceremoniously in front of their new houses; three Palestinian brothers excitedly and curiously inspect their new environment. Credit: Roula Hajjar

Comments () | Archives (6)

@Dean: Since its founding, UNRWA is the only organization that has painstakingly devoted itself to improving the condition of Palestinian refugees within the camps despite a lack of funding/legal support from the 'host' countries. They don't provide a political solution because that's not their mandate.

@Walter: The Lebanese labor laws are extremely discriminatory and backwards but come from the fear that by incorporating Palestinians (which by some estimates account for nearly 1/8 of the Lebanese population) into Lebanese society they would disrupt sectarian-based political representation. As of now, the size of a religious group dictates the political power granted to them, but it is based on numbers from the 1930s or thereabouts. Since then, the Christians have definitely lost their majority and fear that absorbing 500,000 Palestinians would only increase their sense of waning power. As for international pressure, it's not really at the forefront of their concerns re: Lebanon.

@MissMarple: The Palestinians have been betrayed on all fronts. By fellow Arab countries, by the British who facilitated their expulsion and by Israel itself. And Israel was much more willing to welcome Arab Jewish refugees than neighboring states because doing so increased its population vis a vis muslims still living in Israel/Palestine.

@Steven: Israel's treatment of fellow Jews is certainly laudable. The neighboring Arab countries for the most part have manipulated the cause to their own political benefit without providing much tangible support.
As for this comment: "Notwithstanding Arab and Islamic "solidarity" with their "Palestinian brothers" there is apparently neither space in the desert nor work in the oil fields for a couple hundred refugees." Neither Lebanon nor Jordan have oil fields. Nor does Lebanon have a desert. And if they did why would they want to live there?

They are celebrating being put back into a refugee camp? Is that what the writer thinks they are celebrating? I don't think so; they're grateful for a quality roof over their heads, not for being restored to refugee status in a camp.
In doing so, the UN agency involved is helping to perpetuate their refugee status and the hope of restoration to live inside Israel while giving lip service to their mission and without making Nakba irrelevant thus not jeopardizing their funding. They do just enough humanitarian work to justify their jobs, but not enough to solve the problem.

Are there any other people in the middle east besides Palestinians?

"Combined with Lebanese laws that prohibit Palestinians from practicing most professions, these security measures have rendered “66% of Nahr el Bared residents unemployed,” said Aamer."

Say what? Shouldn't there be some international community/EU/US pressure to change Lebanese laws limiting Palestinian employment?

Why are these people living in camps 63 years later? Why haven't they been integrated into society? If they have a legitimate claim to re-enter Israel, that will not change. Only their living standards will change.

In 1948, the number of Jews who were forced to leave Muslim countries was slightly larger than the number of Arabs who left, or were forced to leave Israel. They all were integrated into Israel and other countries. But Arabs who left Israel, no matter the reason, in large part live in camps and I don't understand why.

After 1967 when Israel won the West Bank from Jordan, it moved to improved electricity, sewage, water, schools, etc. But camp elders stopped them. They were concerned that anti-Israel terrorist groups would take retribution. Only small improvements were permitted. Hamas is not the only terrorist organization, so that even if an agreement could have been made with them, and Fatah, it wouldn't have been enough.

Both in Lebanon and Jordan, Arabs were forced to live in "refugee camps", and all these years later, they are still in camps, with inadequate sewage, water, roads, electricity and standard of living.

The rebuilding of these homes, done so poorly that they couldn't have had permits or inspections, is just more evidence that nobody cares, it is all for show.

Illuminating that Israel accepts impoverished refugees from every corner of the planet and finds them homes and jobs on a moment's notice.
UNRWA and all of Arabia take FOUR YEARS to move 43 refugee families back into a "prison"! Notwithstanding Arab and Islamic "solidarity" with their "Palestinian brothers" there is apparently neither space in the desert nor work in the oil fields for a couple hundred refugees.
Once again, Which country in the middle east practices "apartheid"?


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