Q: What is currently going on in the Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, in Nahr el Bared in particular?
Mo. Ali (MA): On June 15, 2012, the Lebanese army set up a checkpoint inside Nahr el-Bared and began to stop people. They stopped a young man on a motorcycle and asked for his papers, which he presented. The soldiers dealt with him condescendingly and harshly. He answered saying that his papers were right, and that he couldn’t understand what they wanted from him, as they checked his papers every day as he entered and exited the camp and had never before found a problem. A soldier responded, telling him he should speak to officers with more respect and hitting him with his rifle butt. The people who had gathered at the checkpoint to witness this altercation were outraged at the soldier’s behavior. The army retaliated at the seemingly threatening crowd. They began to shoot; some shot in the air and some shot directly into the crowd, killing the young Ahmed Qasim, with a shot to his head.
Qasim’s death sparked protests among the camp residents who began to demand the Lebanese army’s exit from the camp. Protestors have started staging demonstrations and have blocked the camp’s main street. They also demand termination of the permit policy. In terms of their demands, these protests are unique in the history of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps.
Q: How is Nahr el-Bared different from other refugee camps?
MA: In 2007, Nahr el-Bared was mostly destroyed by bombardment from the Lebanese army in an effort to flush out Fatah el-Islam, a foreign terrorist organization. Since the end of this war, Nahr el-Bared has been under a tight military siege. While five years have since passed, many residents of Nahr el-Bared remained unable to return to their homes. Until now, only 600 families have managed to return. The Lebanese military continues its presence in the camp, maintaining bases on public and private property. The Nahr el-Bared camp was also demilitarized after the war, unlike other camps that are autonomous and police themselves. This autonomy was set out in the 1969 Cairo Agreement between the Lebanese Military Commander and the PLO, which established that the Palestinians will police themselves within these camps.
Since the war, the army has imposed a permit policy on the camp, which residents find humiliating. Under this policy, every camp resident must obtain a permit from the Lebanese Intelligence in Tripoli, 20km away, to be able to exit and enter the camp on a daily basis. These permits must be regularly renewed, a process that sometimes takes several days.
On the permit issue, there was a particularly exemplary incident two weeks prior to the killing of Ahmed Qasim. An old woman in her 80s was detained at a checkpoint as she returned to the camp at night. Her permit had expired that very day and she was turned away by the army. What threat could she possibly have posed?
This highlights the military’s treatment of the camp residents, who are accordingly antagonistic toward the permit system. Nahr el-Bared is the only camp with such extra “security” measures.
The Lebanese army’s treatment of camp residents is a direct result of its contempt for the Palestinians. This reflects the narrative surrounding the 2007 conflict, in which the Palestinians are held responsible for the death of Lebanese soldiers, notwithstanding the fact that Fatah al-Islam was not a Palestinian organization and had nothing to do with the Palestinians.
Ein el-Hilweh is another camp that is known to receive harsh treatment from the Lebanese military. Residents of Ein el-Hilweh are searched when they enter or exit the camp and are required to show their identity cards.
Q: What do the protesters at Nahr el-Bared demand?
MA: For the first time, the youth of the camp have made clear that they do not want the camp’s political factions to speak in their name. They want to speak for themselves and have a clear set of demands. They want an end to the permit system. They want the military to leave their bases inside the camp. They demand that the military withdraw from a football field inside the camp. They want the military to leave an apartment building so its residents can return to it, and to leave a piece of land adjacent to the camp graveyard. The graveyard has reached capacity and there is no room left to bury the dead. The residents are unable to expand the cemetery grounds because the military refuses to vacate its surrounding area.
The youth have started an open sit-in and the political factions of the camp are pursuing negotiations for the protestors. Nonetheless, the youth have made it clear that they will decide whether or not to accept the outcome of these negotiations. They are firm in their demands for the army’s withdrawal and termination of the permit system. The protests remain ongoing.
Q: How widespread is this protest?
MA: Thousands are staying in tents on the main street. There is a general strike. The camp youth are inspired by their brethren in the Arab world. They are using the same tools. They are shooting YouTube videos and using the internet. The people do not want military rule anymore. They do not want the traditional political factions to speak for them.
Q: What kind of slogans are they using?
MA: They are not using the old, Palestinian related slogans, “Right of Return,” and so on. In this sense, these protests are very unique in the history of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. They are saying that they want to live in the camp with dignity. They want to live as any other human beings would. They want to rid themselves of the camp’s political factions.
I saw a video from Nahr el-Bared recently. Someone had put up a banner on a balcony that said, “Everything is for sale except my dignity.” This time the youth demand a life of dignity and rights within the camp.
Q: Is this sentiment exclusive to Nahr el-Bared or is it also spreading to other camps?
MA: The Nahr el-Bared protest has influenced other camps. Protests have been held in Beddawi, Burj Shamaleh, and Ein el-Hilweh in support of Nahr el-Bared.
The economic situation in Lebanon has really deteriorated and prices have shot up. It has become difficult for an average Lebanese family to cope. Palestinians, who already cannot work in more than 70 occupations here, have been pushed to a new level of poverty. Some families cannot afford to buy food anymore. These constraints are inspiring people to push for change.
Ein el-Hilweh has had some large scale protests. It is a large camp where 75,000 people live on 1km/sq. Historically, it has been loosely controlled as the camp’s traditional political factions have their own political alliances with Lebanese parties outside the camp. People are now rejecting these factions and alliances.
Q: How do these protests relate to the regional situation, particularly to what is happening in Syria?
MA: Recently, elements in the Lebanese government have attempted to portray the camps as a source of foreign fighters for Syria. Many articles were published in local newspapers claiming that Ein el-Hilweh camp is the logistical base for jihadi fighters in Syria. While this may be true, there has been no hard evidence to prove it. These rumors may be damaging, nevertheless, as they bear similarities to the Lebanese government’s excuses for bombing Nahr el-Bared in 2007.
There is a general rejection of such accusations by residents of Ein el-Hilweh, who of course do not want their camp to become another Nahr el-Bared. There have been protests in the camp in the last six months. Protesters want to live in peace, do not want political factions to clash with each other, and do not want the camp used in proxy wars between regional powers.
Political factions exist in every camp, but in Ein el-Hilweh Lebanese politicians from the city of Saida, where the camp is located, have created alliances with camp residents. In addition, after Nahr el-Bared, the Lebanese military intelligence struck a deal with Ein el-Hilweh’s security committee, agreeing to cooperate with the security committee if provided the names of people suspected of being jihadi or Al-Qaeda affiliated. This deal created chaos as people from Ein el-Hilweh, who had personal vendettas with their neighbors ended up giving their names to the army as suspected terrorists. People were frequently arrested and detained without any evidence to implicate them.
Q: How else is the Syrian conflict aggravating the situation?
MA: Some Lebanese politicians are part of the counter-revolution in Syria. They are playing things along sectarian lines. These counter-revolutionaries need fire power and man power. They have always looked to the Palestinians as “guns” because they experienced the Israeli invasion and the Lebanese war and already have access to guns in their camps.
Lebanese political factions regularly go to the camp and try to recruit Palestinians to fight on their behalf. A friend of mine from the Beddawi camp reported that just when the Nahr el-Bared shootings happened, people from the Bab el-Tebbaneh area, who are currently clashing with the Alawites, approached residents in Beddawi, asking for men to join their cause. They used sectarian justifications, saying, “Oh Sunni brothers you have to join our ranks right now to fight the infidels.” But the Palestinians refused. I do not know how long we can bank on Palestinian refusal to be dragged into Lebanese politics. The Palestinians always emphasize their separation from Lebanese tensions but there are always groups that can be tempted by money and favors.
Q: And also as the situation becomes increasingly polarized, it must be harder not to pick sides?
MA: Exactly. The youth in Nahr el-Bared emphasize this precise point, saying they do not belong to any camp: they do not want to be part of the Northern camp, i.e. the Sunni gathering to fight against the Alawites, against the Assad Regime, and they also do not want to be affiliated with the Southern camp, i.e. Hezbollah. They are, of course, aware of the divide between the Sunnis and the Shia in Lebanon and do not want to get involved. This sentiment is articulated by people who are 20, 25 years old, young people who did not experience or do not remember the civil war days but who have lived its results in the injustice and oppression of the camps.