Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees resist from the sidelines

Most have never set eyes on Jerusalem but it remains a symbol of hope for the right of return

Beirut: Drums, car horns and music echoed throughout Sabra, a Palestinian working-class neighborhood in Beirut, that feeds into the adjacent Shatila refugee camp.

On any other day, the noise could have been mistaken for a wedding or a graduation.

But it was the evening of President Donald Trump’s announcement recognising Occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The move, which Trump called “a long overdue step to advance the peace process,” has set off a wave of rage throughout the Palestinian community, and the wider Arab and Muslim world.

Here in Beirut, the reaction in the first days after the announcement was focused in secluded Palestinian enclaves like Sabra.

Youths on mopeds, dangling out of car windows, zipped through the streets waving Palestinian flags and chanting, “Jerusalem is Arab! Jerusalem is Arab!” “Raise your Kaffiyeh,” the now-legendary nationalist song by the Palestinian singer Mohammad Assaf blared from speakers, intermingling with chants that echoed through narrow alleys.

The protesters moved into Shatila, past sewage and jumbles of tangled, exposed electrical wire.

In a narrow street, as the clamor receded, a couple of young men jokingly chastised an old man for continuing to work at his small streetside cafe.

“Listen, we’re over here trying to ignite a revolution, and you’re over there making coffee!” one of the men called.

The cafe owner, Abed Al Hussain, nicknamed Eid, was in fact brewing coffee after coffee for a group of older men who sat in front of a television, disgruntled by the day’s news.

“I wish we never had to hear about America,” said Eid as he tamped an espresso.

“I don’t understand why America has so much say in our affairs.”

If there were ever a time for another intifada, or uprising, he said, it would be now.

“The Israelis have always oppressed us, but they always knew that if they went too far, there would be international repercussion,” he added.

“Now, with this decision, Israel and the Zionists know they can do whatever they want and get away with it.”

More than 450,000 of 5 million registered Palestinian refugees worldwide live in exile in Lebanon, 69 years after they were driven from what is now Israel during the war over its founding.

Palestinians generally see Trump’s announcement as the final breath of a long-stagnant peace process – and a threat to any future Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

But for refugees, it also means compromising their right of return to their families’ original homes in the Occupied West Bank, Gaza or Israel.

That right of return is particularly important for Palestinians here.

Despite nearly 70 years of presence in Lebanon, the stateless refugees live under harsh conditions.

They do not have the rights afforded to Lebanese citizens.

They are barred from over 30 professions, including white-collar jobs like medicine, law, engineering and education.

They cannot own property or attend public schools, and they are not protected by labour laws.

Those who are not able to leave reside in tight, overcrowded camps, which over the decades have become overcrowded, urban concrete-block neighborhoods.

Residents expand their living spaces vertically, building above each other because the camps cannot legally expand beyond their allotted space.

The Lebanese government maintains that to improve living conditions for the Palestinians would compromise their eventual right of return, by allowing Israel to argue that they have assimilated in new homes.

But the reality is more complicated – and relates to Lebanon’s troublesome history with the Palestinian refugees.

Long suffering from sectarian tension, Lebanon underwent 15 years of civil war that many believe was exacerbated by the presence of the Palestinians, most of whom are Sunni Muslim.

The tipping of the sectarian balance, in addition to the Palestinian leadership’s move to Lebanon from Jordan in the late 1970s, prompted nationalist fears and aggravated the war.

Even Eid – whose nickname comes from the Arabic word for “holiday” because of his persistent cheer – is tired of life as a Palestinian in Lebanon.

Life is miserable, he said, with no work and no protection.

“If someone were to ask any one of us, ‘Do you want to go back to your homeland?’ we’d say yes, right now,” Eid said.

He expressed gratitude for Lebanon’s hospitality, but added: “Our rights have been reduced to nothing. We’re at zero.”

Palestinians cannot hold protests outside the camps without permission from the Lebanese government.

But within the camps, protests were held every day the week after Trump’s announcement.

Leaders of the camps’ various Palestinian political factions said they hoped to gain momentum from the popular outrage.

William Nassar, a 55-year-old resident of the Burj Al Brajneh refugee camp, attended a march there, protesting for the second day in a row.

Like most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, he has never set eyes on Occupied Jerusalem. But it remains a symbol of hope.

“There is no Palestine without Occupied Jerusalem,” said Nassar, who has lived in Lebanon his whole life but is originally from Akka, also known as Akko, in what is Israel today.

Raneem Youssef, a 22-year-old student, attended the Burj Al Brajneh march with her family.

“It’s true that we can’t go out and do anything,” she said.

“But we’re the youth of Palestine and we have no way of getting our voices out except like this.”

In Shatila a week after Trump’s announcement, Eid was still making coffee. His television was switched to the news, where the president’s speech replayed.

He straddles a line between hope and reality. To him, the loss of Occupied Jerusalem means resignation to a life in Lebanon.

“If nothing comes out of the resistance, if good people don’t go out and demand their rights, it won’t happen,” he said.

“Maybe I’ll be alive, maybe I’ll be dead. But we will see a revolution.”

A man at the cafe scoffed into his coffee.

“We’ll see the right of return realised on Judgment Day.”


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