Shatila refugees on Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinians in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp talk to Al Jazeera about the Palestinian Authority president’s visit: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2011/08/201182012144836352.html

(Matthew Cassel)

“Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t represent me as a Palestinian, nor does he care about the struggle and the hardship of the people,” said novelist Mahmoud Hashem, 44, as he prepared fresh orange juice shortly before iftar, the fast-breaking meal during Ramadan.

“His visit is pointless. It’s a visit for his [Fatah] party just so he can lift this flag on the embassy. Abbas doesn’t know about suffering and us being deprived of civil rights and the right to work, and Abbas doesn’t care about the living conditions of the people here.”

Palestinian refugees’ fight for freedom

The body of a Palestinian refugee from the Ein al-Helwe refugee camp, is carried uphill after he was killed by an Israeli soldier from across the border fence. (Image: Matthew Cassel)

Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon risked their lives protesting at the border with Israel in south Lebanon on Sunday, ten were killed and hundreds were injured. They were calling for the right to returns that they were forced to flee 63 years ago. Sadly, this is one of the only English language articles you’ll read about it by someone who was there:

Palestinians in Lebanon, at the lonely end of the Arab uprisings
Matthew Cassel, Guardian’s Comment is Free

Climbing up the mountain to reach the Palestinian right-of-return protest in Maroun al-Ras in south Lebanon on Sunday felt a bit like being back in Tahrir Square.

The thousands of mostly Palestinian refugees were smiling as they joked about the strenuous climb, and helped each other up the mountain to reach the site where they were going to stage their demonstration. Some knew it could even be dangerous, but that didn’t matter as much as the rare opportunity to join together and call for their rights.

The small elevated Lebanese village just overlooking the border with Israel became a massive parking lot as buses carrying Palestinian refugees and Lebanese from across Lebanon converged for a protest commemorating what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé calls the “ethnic cleansing” by Zionist militias of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their lands and homes in 1948 – what Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe. [continued on the Guardian’s site]

UPDATE:

Here is a gallery of my images from the protest that day:


Refugees march to return – Images by Matthew Cassel

Closer to Gaza

27 December 2008 it began. With absolutely no forewarning, ALL of Gaza’s population instantly became subject to non-stop Israeli bombardment by land, sea and air. It began two years ago today and lasted for 22 days, during which time no one could escape — one and a half million people, not a single one of them safe.

When most of the bombing stopped so did Gaza’s importance in the Western media. Most media (save Al-Jazeera and a few other mostly Arabic language journalists who bravely covered the events) had been perched on a hill outside Gaza prevented by the Israel and Egypt besiegers from entering the territory. When the majority of the bombing ended and they had the chance to, few of them did. For them the war was over. However, still under a tight siege, unable to leave, unable to bring in reconstruction materials, medicines or school supplies among hundreds of other basic items, the brutal war continued, and continues, every day. My pictures, taken in the weeks after Israel declared a unilateral “ceasefire” on 18 January 2009, are proof of that.

(You can see the full gallery here.)

I didn’t go to Gaza for any job or assignment. I went because I wanted to see with my own eyes the results of the horror that I had just watched unfold on television. What I saw once in Gaza, I wanted to cause outrage. I wanted my photos to trigger questions: What? Why? How did this happen? More than 1,400 dead in 22 days, 352 of whom were defenseless children. Thousands more injured. We — those of us without bombs falling on top of our heads — could’ve made it stop. It’s hard to believe no one did, and harder to believe that the threat still lingers. This could happen again.

Maybe I didn’t do enough. Maybe I didn’t take enough pictures, or maybe I stood too far away while photographing people who had just lived through 22 days of the most unimaginable horror. I thought about that as I went through the images today. So, I decided to try something different and zoom in and get closer to the people who I photographed, and thereby allow you the viewer to do the same. Below are some of the pictures I took of people in Gaza, only these are zoomed in at 100% (the full resolution in which the pictures were taken):

A Palestinian girl sits on top of her home destroyed by Israel in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. [original]

A farmer stands next to his fenced off land surrounded by homes destroyed by Israel in the Ezbat Abed Rabu neighborhood of Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. [original]

A boy holds his backpack found in the rubble of his family’s home underneath his feet in Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. [original]

A Palestinian girl plays on top of a car destroyed by Israel during its assault on the Gaza Strip. [original]

Young men pose for a photograph near their homes that were destroyed by Israel in the Ezbat Abed Rabu neighborhood of Jabaliya, Gaza Strip. [original]

Abdel Naser Zemo sits with his wife, Suheir, in her room a the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Suheir’s leg was blown off by a missile fired by an Israeli attack helicopter while the couple sat in their family’s home during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. [original]

Abdel Naser Zemo sits with his wife, Suheir, in her room a the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Suheir’s leg was blown off by a missile fired by an Israeli attack helicopter while the couple sat in their family’s home during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip. [original]

Protection by any means necessary

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.”

Kids of the camp (pt 2)

pt 1

More images of Palestinian children growing up in refugee camps throughout the Middle East.

Children living in a UN school in the Bedawwi refugee camp after they were forced to flee the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, Lebanon 2007. (image: matthew cassel)
Kids practice singing at a community center in the Bekaa refugee camp, Jordan 2007. (image: matthew cassel)
A young girl in the Balata refugee camp shows a picture of her 17-year-old cousin who was served two years in an Israeli prison, occupied Palestine 2006. (image: matthew cassel

Football in the Baddawi refugee camp

image: matthew cassel

Do you know why I love photography? Let me tell you.

While I was organizing my hard drive tonight I came across some images from a couple years ago. I saw one unnamed folder and opened it to take a quick peek inside assuming that whatever was in there wouldn’t be that interesting. I picked a random image to inspect when it hit me. It flew right off the screen and up against my face: Football in the Baddawi refugee camp.

This is why I take photographs. They have an ability to reach out to a viewer like no other medium. Film? Film you have to be prepared for. However it’s presented, you can’t open a film and be immediately struck by it like a photograph. Not to knock film, I love it. And I think it has the ability to reach out to tell a much fuller story than one image, one frame can. Text? As a photographer intent on telling a story I will never present my images without text. It’s needed to give context to an image, because without context what have you got? How would you know that the footballers (and yes, apologies to my friends from the US but I have moved on to the international word for “soccer”) are third generation Palestinian refugees born in exile? Or that these teams were from the neighboring refugee camp that was just completely destroyed in a battle that had nothing to do with them? Back to text — while on its own text can sometimes be nice especially when reading fiction, it can never have the same impact as an image.

An image’s power lies in its accessibility. Just sit back and take it in from afar or get up close and inspect its every detail, it’s up to you. However you want to view an image it’s there for you. Now it’s on my website, another image is in a a magazine, on a wall, or on your phone even. The point is that it’s there, begging to tell you a quick (or long if you so choose) story.

The only problem is how do we get better images into more accessible places?

***

These images are all from one day when I went to the Baddawi refugee camp in the north of Lebanon in September 2007. The people in the photographs are almost all from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp who were forced to seek refuge in the nearby Baddawi refugee camp while their homes were destroyed during a war between the Lebanese army and an extremist group called Fatah al-Islam. For those old enough to have lived through 1948, when they were initially made refugees, as well as subsequent wars over the decades, this was not the first time to lose their homes. I’ve met Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who have had to flee their “home” up to five or six times. It’s shocking but true. Palestinian refugees are the largest refugee population in the world today and it’s been more than 60 years that they’ve been denied their most fundamental right.

It’s hard to imagine how spirits could still be high in such a situation. The below might help explain why that is.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

See also: Lebanon: Nahr al-Bared refugee camp

Photography

It’s incredible that scenes like this still exist in an age where I can photograph them with a camera on my mobile phone.

A building in Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp was destroyed in 2007 -- picture taken December 2009. (image: matthew cassel)