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Beirut Journal: Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugees Resist from the Sidelines

The cafe owner, Abed al-Hussein, nicknamed Mr. Eid, was in fact brewing coffee after coffee for a group of older men who sat in front of a television, disgruntled by the day’s news.

“I wish we never had to hear about America,” said Mr. Eid as he tamped an espresso. “I don’t understand why America has so much say in our affairs.”

If there were ever a time for another intifada, or uprising, he said, it would be now.

“The Israelis have always oppressed us, but they always knew that if they went too far, there would be international repercussion,” he added. “Now, with this decision, Israel and the Zionists know they can do whatever they want and get away with it.”


Palestinians in the Ain al Hilwein refugee camp in Lebanon protesting President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Credit Mahmoud Zayyat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

More than 450,000 of five million registered Palestinian refugees worldwide live in exile in Lebanon, 69 years after they were driven from what is now Israel during the war over its founding.

Palestinians generally see Mr. Trump’s announcement as the final breath of a long-stagnant peace process — and a threat to any future Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But for refugees, it also means compromising their right of return to their families’ original homes in the West Bank, Gaza or Israel.

That right of return is particularly important for Palestinians here. Despite nearly 70 years of presence in Lebanon, the stateless refugees live under harsh conditions.

They do not have the rights afforded to Lebanese citizens. They are barred from over 30 professions, including white-collar jobs like medicine, law, engineering and education. They cannot own property or attend public schools, and they are not protected by labor laws.

Those who are not able to leave reside in tight, overcrowded camps, which over the decades have become overcrowded, urban concrete-block neighborhoods. Residents expand their living spaces vertically, building above each other because the camps cannot legally expand beyond their allotted space.

The Lebanese government maintains that to improve living conditions for the Palestinians would compromise their eventual right of return, by allowing Israel to argue that they have assimilated in new homes. But the reality is more complicated — and relates to Lebanon’s troublesome history with the Palestinian refugees.

Long suffering from sectarian tension, Lebanon underwent 15 years of civil war that many believe was exacerbated by the presence of the Palestinians, most of whom are Sunni Muslim. The tipping of the sectarian balance, in addition to the Palestinian leadership’s move to Lebanon from Jordan in the late 1970s, prompted nationalist fears and aggravated the war.

Even Mr. Eid — whose nickname comes from the Arabic word for “holiday” because of his persistent cheer — is tired of life as a Palestinian in Lebanon.


Posters depicting Yasir Arafat, a father and leader of Palestinian nationalism, at the Burj al-Brajneh refugee camp in Beirut. Credit Nabil Mounzer/European Pressphoto Agency

Life is miserable, he said, with no work and no protection.

“If someone were to ask any one of us, ‘Do you want to go back to your homeland?’ we’d say yes, right now,” Mr. Eid said. He expressed gratitude for Lebanon’s hospitality, but added: “Our rights have been reduced to nothing. We’re at zero.”

Palestinians cannot hold protests outside the camps without permission from the Lebanese government. But within the camps, protests were held every day the week after Mr. Trump’s announcement. Leaders of the camps’ various Palestinian political factions said they hoped to gain momentum from the popular outrage.

William Nassar, a 55-year-old resident of the Burj al-Brajneh refugee camp, attended a march there, protesting for the second day in a row.

Like most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, he has never set eyes on Jerusalem. But it remains a symbol of hope.

“There is no Palestine without Jerusalem,” said Mr. Nassar, who has lived in Lebanon his whole life but is originally from Akka, also known as Akko, in what is Israel today.

Raneem Youssef, a 22-year-old student, attended the Burj al-Brajneh march with her family. “It’s true that we can’t go out and do anything,” she said. “But we’re the youth of Palestine and we have no way of getting our voices out except like this.”

Lebanese citizens later did their share of protest. Leftist parties organized a demonstration near the United States Embassy, and Hezbollah held an even larger one in southern Beirut. But there were always, in the background, reminders of Palestinians’ insecure place in Lebanon.

On Dec. 8, in a show of Arab unity, thousands of Palestinians funneled out of the camps and were joined by Lebanese supporters in a march through the Tariq al-Jdideh neighborhood.


A coffee shop in the Burj al-Brajneh camp. Palestinians cannot hold protests outside the camps without permission from the Lebanese government. Credit Nabil Mounzer/European Pressphoto Agency

The march ended at the Martyrs Cemetery near the Shatila camp, a reminder of one of the worst massacres of Lebanon’s civil war — a mass killing of Palestinians by Lebanese.

Buried there are some of those killed in Sabra and Shatila in 1982, when Israel was occupying much of Beirut. Lebanese factions aligned with Israel killed as many as 2,000 Palestinian civilians there as Israeli troops guarded the perimeter.

Some of those implicated in the massacre remain in power as politicians, and they are not shy to wrap themselves in the Palestinian flag.

One of many members of Parliament who rose to denounce the Trump declaration was Sethrida Geagea, whose husband, Samir, is accused of taking part in the killings. She quoted “Flower of the Cities,” a song about Jerusalem, religious acceptance and resisting oppression by the revered Lebanese singer Fairouz.

The house is ours, Jerusalem is ours,” the lyrics go. “And with our hands we are going to return the city to its splendor.

In Shatila a week after Mr. Trump’s announcement, Mr. Eid was still making coffee. His television was switched to the news, where the president’s speech replayed.

He straddles a line between hope and reality. To him, the loss of Jerusalem means resignation to a life in Lebanon.

“If nothing comes out of the resistance, if good people don’t go out and demand their rights, it won’t happen,” he said. “Maybe I’ll be alive, maybe I’ll be dead. But we will see a revolution.”

A man at the cafe scoffed into his coffee. “We’ll see the right of return realized on Judgment Day.”

Source: NYT > World

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