A version of this article was originally published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free.
(image: matthew cassel)
This month, Palestinians in Lebanon commemorated the 28th anniversary of a crime whose perpetrators remain unpunished and whose victims still wait for justice. In September 1982, the Israeli army surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. For nearly three days, Israeli forces allowed their allies in the right-wing Lebanese Christian Phalange militia to enter the camps and massacre more than a thousand Palestinian refugees and Lebanese citizens. All of the victims — men, women and children — were unarmed civilians.
The massacre was the culmination of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and more than two months of siege of West Beirut which eventually forced the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to withdraw from the country. PLO fighters relinquished their heavy weapons to the Lebanese army and in a symbolic act of resistance, left Beirut with their small arms still at their sides. However, the majority of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, exiled since 1948 when Israel was established on top of their homes, remained behind. Dispersed throughout the country’s dozen or so refugee camps, Palestinians were left virtually unprotected.
The PLO withdrew from Beirut only after agreeing to a US-mediated ceasefire with Israel. They were given reassurances by Washington that Israel would not harm Palestinian civilians remaining in the camps. However, these reassurances proved to be shallow, and after waging an invasion of Lebanon that killed nearly 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians and devastated much of the country, Israel invaded and occupied the practically defenseless Lebanese capital.
Prior to this somber anniversary, a writer argued in the Guardian’s Comment is Free site that Palestinian weapons were the key issue preventing Palestinian refugees from obtaining basic civil rights in Lebanon, which the state has denied them for 62 years. He described the camps as “heavily armed” and the refugees living there as gripped by an “illusion of martial security.”
As someone who has lived in Lebanon for several years, I was struck by these assertions. Anyone familiar with Lebanese politics recognizes them as the typical refrain of the right-wing, whose adherents object not only to providing Palestinian refugees with basic rights but their very presence on Lebanese soil. Nor do these characterizations come close to accurately describing the camps or the Palestinians in Lebanon I know. The camps today are far from being heavily armed, especially when compared to the various Lebanese militias or the Lebanese army.
I thought I would visit the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which today are essentially one camp resembling a slum, and speak with Palestinian refugees about the issue of trading in their weapons for rights.
Inside a small call center in the camp, frequented by mostly Palestinians without credit on their mobile phones and foreign workers calling home, I spoke to a young man named Osama. He told me: “The issue of our arms and our civil rights are unrelated. Lebanese should give us rights as Arabs, as human beings living among them like Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Syria.”
“Our weapons don’t necessarily make me feel safer,” he added, “especially with the internal problems that we have in the camps here like in Palestine. But if we were to give them up, we’d have no protection. At least with our weapons if we die, we die standing and not like in Sabra and Shatila when we were massacred without even one weapon to resist. If the Lebanese army was able to protect us from Israel, then there would be no need for Palestinians to have weapons.”
At the headquarters of the Najdeh Association just outside the camp, I spoke with executive director Laila al-Ali. Founded in the 1970s, Najdeh is an nongovernmental organization that runs social programs in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps and is the leading organization behind the “Right to Work Campaign” for Palestinian refugees. Al-Ali, a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Shatila, explained, “It’s not the Lebanese who are looking for assurances or guarantees from the Palestinians, it’s the Palestinians who need this guarantee from the Lebanese. Palestinians don’t feel safe.”
Al-Ali said that only a few groups and individuals have weapons in the camps. She added that the argument claiming these small arms are a prerequisite to granting Palestinians rights is merely “Lebanese [rhetoric] trying to deny Palestinians their human and civil rights.”
I asked her about a recent law passed by the Lebanese parliament that made minor changes to the restrictions on the ability of Palestinian refugees to work in the country. Al-Ali stated bluntly: “It gives them nothing. The Lebanese mentality needs to be changed, they cannot continue dealing with Palestinians from the security perspective [alone].”
Back in Shatila, others shared her sentiments. I walked into a barbershop owned by Ahmed, who explained while snipping away at a man’s hair that “We keep weapons for protection. Even between the Lebanese there is no stability. Today they are together and tomorrow they’re not. In the past we only had our weapons to protect ourselves. Like during the [1985-88] war of the camps, our weapons protected us from the [Lebanese Shia] Amal movement.”
I turned to a young man named Omar who was finishing a deep pore cleansing. Bearing a pistol on his hip, Omar is a member of one of the camp’s security branches. “The weapons are not the reason for denying us rights, this is a pretext for the Lebanese to take our weapons,” he said. “If we lose our weapons, we lose the right to go back to Palestine. I carry my weapon because it’s not worth throwing away. The weapons are the peoples’ property.”
Unprompted, a taxi driver named Mahmoud with a freshly trimmed mustache jumped in. “Once we lose the weapons we’ll be slapped from all directions,” he said. “I will never accept to give up our weapons. The Lebanese will never be able to protect our cause. It’s not their cause, and nobody can protect it but ourselves.”
After speaking with dozens of individuals in the camp, all of whom refused to give up their right to bear arms, I asked a friend to take me to someone in the camp who he thought would disagree. He brought me to his 66-year-old grandmother, Miyasar, a refugee who has been forced to flee her home at least five times since 1948 and now lives in Shatila.
Before I could even finish asking her the first question about trading rights for arms, Miyasar closed her eyes, shook her head and said: “The Lebanese cannot give us rights, they can’t even give themselves rights. Each group is by itself with its own weapons — Hizballah has guns, Amal has guns, the Future [movement] has guns. The Lebanese are the ones who need help, not the Palestinians.”
She added, “When the Israelis came they said, give up our guns. We did and look what happened! Even a donkey that falls in one spot learns not to fall in that same spot again. We have no faith in Lebanese to give us rights. We will keep our weapons until we go back to Palestine.”