Last week, the Lebanese army began building a concrete security wall around the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. The Sidon-area camp is the largest in the country, home to around 70,000 people including several thousand Palestinians who recently fled from Syria. Already subject to army checkpoints at the camp entrance, residents see the new wall as an attempt to further isolate them from the rest of the country.
Claiming the camp faces infiltration by Islamist groups, the Lebanese army insisted the wall was necessary both for the security of the camp’s residents and the Lebanese citizens living outside of it. Last year, clashes occurred between Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh and the extremist Jund al-Sham, which seized control of about a third of the camp. More recently, the Lebanese army arrested an alleged ISIS leader who had taken refuge in Ain al-Hilweh.
According to reports, the wall was being built with the cooperation of the Palestinian security forces operating within the camp. According to the Jerusalem Post, the head of the Joint Security forces in Ain al-Hilweh, Munir al-Maqdah, said the “the wall and [watchtowers] are being built for security concerns, which we accepted.” Another top official in the camp, Subhi Abu Arab, told Al Jazeera that “all the factions met up with the Lebanese brigadier general and decided that this is the best decision for the sake of protecting the camp. We all agreed.”
Palestinians, inside and outside Ain al-Hilweh, were not mollified by this collaboration. Almost immediately, Palestinians inside the camp and on social media pointed to the striking likeness between the wall and the 700km separation barrier Israel has constructed in the West Bank. Hamas expressed its strong opposition to the wall as well, calling it “a violation of international norms and the human rights of Palestinian refugees.”
On Tuesday, November 22nd, the camp’s residents came out in protest against the wall’s construction, as well as the cooperation between the Palestinian factions and the Lebanese army. In response to these demonstrations, as well as a petition from the camp’s political leadership, the army stopped construction of the wall on Friday, November 25.
The entire episode speaks to the troubled relationship between Lebanon and the Palestinian refugees it hosts. These refugees hold no citizenship in Lebanon and are forbidden from owning or inheriting property, accessing public services, and working in dozens of professions.
Proponents of these restrictions argue that they preserve the ties between Palestinians and their homeland and protect their right of return. In reality, however, these laws are intended to prevent Tawteen, or permanent settlement, of Palestinians in Lebanon. Coupled with widespread xenophobia, they encourage Palestinian emigration from the country through social, economic, and political marginalization.
The wall surrounding Ain al-Hilweh is a product of these same anti-Palestinian sentiments. In Lebanon, Palestinian camps are widely perceived as islands of violence and safe havens for criminals. In 2007, the Lebanese army completely leveled Nahr al-Bared camp, which was once home to 40,000 people, because of violence from Fatah al-Islam. Some residents of Ain al-Hilweh have expressed fears that their camp will be the next Nahr al-Bared.
While there are clear security concerns within Lebanon’s refugee camps, the Ain al-Hilweh wall represents more than just an attempt to halt criminal infiltration. Rather, it is one of a number of laws, policies, and provisions that seek to undercut the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.