The effect of Syria’s conflict on its 486,000 Palestinian refugees↑ has been largely unreported since Assad’s crackdown in the Latakia camp↑ last year, though several hundred are thought to have fled the country to Jordan↑ last month. In Lebanon too, the Palestinian camps are starting to feel the shockwaves emanating from Syria.
According to UNRWA, the main provider of assistance to Palestinian refugees, there are some 455,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon↑ , with most distributed among the 12 refugee camps across the country. One camp in particular is afflicted by the tensions affecting the north. Beddawi camp, with a population of approximately 16,500 – not including the many thousands still displaced from nearby Nahr el Bared camp, which was largely destroyed in fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al Islam in 2007 – sits atop a hill a bullet’s fly from Jabal Mohsen, one of the communities at the centre of the June clashes in North Lebanon.
Protest at Beddawi Camp against shooting of Palestinians
For an outsider, the blasé reaction that many residents have to the fighting on their doorstep is startling. While watching a football match with a friend in the camp, a couple of days after the major clashes of June 1-3, I could hear gunfire ringing out from the neighbouring community. His low-key response was simply to duck down behind a concrete wall to watch the match, tutting slightly, and the game went on as normal.
As it turned out the salvoes I heard were the result of the Army firing back at shooters from the Jabal Mohsen area, aiming in the opposite direction to the camp. But when intense fighting erupts in Tripoli, the camp’s proximity puts the residents’ safety at considerable risk. After each round of clashes, the next day’s topic of discussion usually includes tell of where bullets have come down on the roofs and streets of the area. In the last round of clashes one 11 year old girl was shot in the back (according to rumour, by a sniper) and another resident was injured by shrapnel↑ .
I have written before about the differing opinions of the camp residents regarding events in Syria (and by extension Lebanon). Yet despite containing both vehement (and often armed) supporters and opponents of Assad, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps have stayed largely free of the pro/anti Assad turmoil affecting some Lebanese communities.
Perhaps this is because they have enough problems of their own to contend with. Restricted employment and property ownership rights in Lebanon, combined with UNRWA’s continued budget deficit, mean that Palestinians here face considerable and chronic socioeconomic, educational and health challenges. Last Thursday’s attempted car bomb in Ain el Hilweh↑ , and Friday’s clashes between Palestinians and the Lebanese Army↑ in Nahr el Bared camp – which left at least one dead and several injured – also demonstrate the distinct internal and external security issues facing camp residents quite aside from Lebanon’s wider troubles.
The Beddawi and Nahr el Bared residents I speak to are largely vocal about the need to maintain stability and unity in the camps in the face of Tripoli’s current woes, but see the current fighting there as a predominantly ‘Lebanese problem’. That being said, posters from Assad supporters and opponents can be seen throughout the camps, and reports that several Fatah al-Islam members escaped Ain el Hilweh camp last month, allegedly to fight with the Free Syrian Army in Syria↑ , suggest that Palestinians are not wholly disconnected from this context. Whether they desire it or not, if Lebanon continues to be drawn into Syria’s deepening crisis, the Palestinians may find it increasingly difficult to maintain their current distance.