Thursday, June 22, 2006

Life in a Palestinian Refugee Camp

Source: Le Monde (07/06/06), translation by (and slightly edited by myself).

Le Monde's middle east reporter Mouna Naïm details here some aspects of the actual daily lives of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee Camps. She starts with Chatila in Beyrouth, famously known as the place where, in 1982, Israel and Ariel Sharon prepared, watched carefully and helped their Lebanese Christian trained militia massacre Palestinian women and children, after the departure of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Beyrouth under international pressures, leaving behind a defenseless population.

A woman and her child at her door in Chatila Camp. On the walls we can read:

On the right: 'Palestine, we will not forget you'
On the left: 'Massacre of Koubayat, October 13th, 1953, 42 houses demolished, 70 martyrs.'

To accommodate his house for his son who just married, Farhat Farhat had to juggle with the tiny space. He covered the adjoining alley to build an extension for the newlyweds. To pay for the cost he rented a part of his tiny house to two Syrian workers. You have to be imaginative when you are an unemployed Palestinian living in the overpopulated camp of Chatila. In the camp, buildings are arranged like Sardines in a can, streets are so narrow that you have your vis-à-vis at arms length. The streets are a chaotic space made of electrical lines and counters, cables, drying clothes and water reservoirs.

Farhat knows that his construction won't last. Like other buildings in the camp, it has no foundations but he does not have a choice. Mounir Maarouf, local director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) lives in the constant fear of an earthquake which, he says, is certain to bring about a terrible humanitarian catastrophe in the camps. One local community worker jokes that the buildings, being so close, couldn't fall because they stand as one gigantic bloc.

The streets: Camp Chatila, April, 2006.

After the creation of Israel, the Lebanese government gave land to the Palestinians to set 12 refugee camps in different locations in Lebanon; north, south, east, and centre, Beyrouth. Officially, construction is forbidden in the camps, as these are refugee camps. However, the interdiction is not applied and not one government has cared for the conditions in which people live in the camps. In five other camps, the UNRWA succeeded in doing some maintenance work on the buildings but they were met with a firm refusal for Chatila, with no explanation from the Lebanese government. Pressures are being exerted by the government on the Palestinians of these camps to control their arms: no arms at all outside the camps and governmental regulation for arms possession inside the camps. In recent history, some extremists Islamists groups have grown out of these camps, manipulated at the time by the Syrians against the PLO.

Lebanese live in the fear (unjustified in my opinion) of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement which leaves out the right of return recognised by UN resolution 194, making Lebanon home to the refugees of the camps. On the other side, Palestinians in Lebanon refuse to stay if there is a settlement. They instantly identify themselves as Palestinians from such and such village (they name their Palestinian villages of origin) and they take great care in passing on the information to younger generations.

According to UNRWA, between 12000 and 13000 live on an estimated 2 square km in Chatila, among them a third are non Palestinians (Kurds, Syrians, Sudanese and Egyptians) immigrant poor workers. UNRWA director of information for Lebanon, Houda Samre Souaiby, thinks that some of the Palestinians registered at Chatila do not actually live in the camp but they want to stay registered with the hope of being able to return if a settlement is reached between Israel and the PA.

At the end of the tunnel Farhat had built as an extension to his house a narrowing alley and one stair down sits Oum Nazem (Nazem's mother) in a small room crossed by a thin ray of light coming from the opened door. Oum Nazem's three sons died in Lebanon, two during the civil war and one killed 'by the Syrians'. Oum Nazem is twice refugee; she lived in the camp of Tel-El-Zaatar located in the eastern part of Beyrouth before having to flee the camp when it was attacked by the Lebanese Christian Forces militia in the first years of the Lebanese civil war. Oum Nazem had left her Palestinian village Caza d'Acca (Saint Jean d'Acres) in 1948 at the age of 12. She still says that her true age is 12 because these were the only years during which she lived a real life.

At the Red Crescent clinic in the camp, around twelve, Dr. Saleh Maarouf is finishing his on call duty. 'Most people living in the camp don't see the sun and live in poor sanitary conditions', he tells Ms Naïm. 'Sewers and other elementary infrastructure are decaying'. 'The recurrent health problems among the camp population are: Pneumonia, Tuberculosis, Diabetes, Anemia, high rate of cancer'. 'We only provide primary and emergency care, we do provide care for poor people from outside the camps and we ask them to pay a symbolic contribution.'

Dr. Maarouf studied Medicine in Cairo, married a Lebanese and succeeded the exam the College of Physicians of Lebanon designed as a prerequisite for its membership but Dr. Maarouf was not able to obtain privileges since Palestinians were forbidden from exercising some 72 professions and jobs in Lebanon, this number was reduced recently to 20 maintaining however the exclusion of the liberal professions in a recent generous move by the Lebanese ministry of Work , through a memorandum (and not a legislation). Dr. Maarouf works only for the Red Crescent inside the camp where he is the director of the camp clinic. He has been working for the last 27 years with a monthly salary of only 387 Euros. Palestinian workers in other jobs are not allowed benefits related to social and medical insurances paid for by the employer, even though the employer is actually paying his due to the government for these social benefits.

In the Rachidiyyé camp next to the southern city of Tyre, Hiba is preparing for university where she would like to study law. However, as she cannot work as a lawyer in Lebanon, she has to renounce her project and plan a career in engineering. Even with a degree as an engineer, she is not sure she will be able to find work easily because Lebanese prefer to hire Lebanese. There is also the immediate problem of the cost of a university degree. Hiba's father works in the fields and earns about 8 dollars a day when he is working (he works seven to eight months a year). His wife earns some money by making embroideries. She makes the bread and is very careful as to provide her six children with the necessary. Both parents value the education of their children. As other Palestinians, they consider that the education of the children is the biggest investment of their lifetime. They want their children to learn English and they worry that the children might be discouraged by not finding a job after a university degree. One of the sons wants to study medicine. The youngest child goes to a French educational Program offered in the camps, Enfants Refugiés du Monde, providing children in the Palestinian camps with extracurricular activities, fun and games. Oum Hassan wishes they can learn English also with this program.

Planted in the middle of the orchards and facing the Mediterranean Sea, Rachidiyyé is less gloomy than other Palestinian camps. However, inside the small 'houses', families who live on subsidies and salaries from the PLO have not received a dime since January. First, the families started buying on credit but the grocery stores inside the camps, unable to recover their credit, are not renewing merchandise. Children are sorting out the garbage in the hope of finding something worthy to trade on. Some are resorting to theft and grocery owners are staying to guard their shops during the night. Only UNRWA employees benefit from a regular pay check, all others, including those who work for NGO's, are not receiving any money. NGO's depend on donations and donations to Palestinian refugees are not fashionable these days, explains Abu Kamal...


At 1:22 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:26 AM, Blogger Sophia said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Oleh Yahshan said...

wow - Sophia, you should really have that paranoia looked at by a professional, I hear it can be really dangerous....

I will try to help you out until you do:
The world is not out to get you. I know it seems that way now, but I assure you it isn't so. Take a deep breath and try to relax. I know it's hard after so long but if you try really hard you to will see it. I wish you the best. -Oleh

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Gert said...


I'm increasingly in the dark as to your motives and the reasons of your inconsistency.

I read your post on Chatila and wanted to make it available to my readers too because the Le Monde deserved to be read: the refugee issue is as important as what is happening otherwise re. Israel/Palestine. At the time I decided not to because you started to fall out with me.

Yesterday I decided that your little feud with me shouldn't stand in the way of my reprinting the Le Monde article, with a "thank you" for the (pretty appalling) translation. I decided not to include a direct link to your blog because I believe that's what you wanted.

Did you or did you not want people to read the Le Monde story? Logically I surmise the former is the answer to this question. Why then feel aggrieved when a blogger who's blog you've now taken a complete dislike to also contributes to getting the story out? What's more important to you, the story or your trivial feelings of resentment (for reasons I've still not quite fathomed)?

"I think the chief goal of such a tactic is to present the same issue with comments more favorable to Israel from your regular commentators."

This is not a "tactical" site. The chances of someone commenting here, other than the mere handful (well all three)o f Jewish commenters, in way more favourable to Israel are fairly slim. If anyone seems to enjoy playing partisan tactical games it's you.

I will not refrain from reprinting when I find interesting material, no matter where I find it. But I certainly won't mention ever again, of that you may rest assured.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Gert: interesting reading but are you quite sure about Sharon(and Israel) paving the way for the massacres in Sabra and Shatilla which I'm guessing you're referring to. After all, it was the Christian militia that was responsible for the massacre and though Sharon was found guilty by the (same Israel you blame so adamently--sp?), neither he nor the army elite had any way of predicting the movements of the Christian militia in the rear of the advancing IDF--nor did they have the time to predict these, which is more important and possibly more relevant.

BTW: I'm joining the group of three:)

At 6:15 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I just emailed you, but apparently there's something wrong with your address.(I sent it to "") Please let me know whether this is the correct address.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Oleh Yahshan said...

Gert, you have been very quiet about All the Events going on in Gaza this week. Very Unlike you... Hope all is well with you..

At 3:06 PM, Blogger Gert said...


The article isn't about the Sabra-Chatila massacres; it's about the living conditions in one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps outside of Palestine. These camps are the forgotten humanitarian crisis of the world: there are about 4 million Palestinians refugees, many (but not all) live in refugee camps, half inside Palestine, the other half in neighbouring countries. I think we would do well to imagine what it must be like to be a displaced person, many for many decades now.

As regards the massacres, Greg, I'm too old to really want to discuss a matter that is almost one hundred percent settled, so I'll keep it short. The only area of dispute is the actual number of victims: here the estimates range from around 800 to 3,500. 2,500 is the most quoted figure today. You're right in saying that the IDF wasn't directly involved in the killings but it's also entirely correct to say that without the IDF's encirclement and closing off of the camps, the Phalangists would simply have been unable to carry out their dirty work. After reports of the massacre came out, some 300,000 Israelis (very much to their credit) came out to demonstrate and demand the truth: that was an astonishing 10% of the Israeli population! As it is only 24 years ago, it would be interesting for you to ask some older neighbours to see what they remember of the period. I remember the news reports as if it was yesterday: I was 22 at the time (I'm 44, I've never changed my profile).

"The Kahan Commission, an Israeli inquiry into the massacre established by the Israeli government, found that while the Phalangists alone, and no Israelis, were directly responsible, it also "asserted that Israel had indirect responsibility for the massacre", and named then Israeli Defence Minister (and future Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon, among several prominent Israelis, as bearing "personal responsibility" for the events."

The Israeli - Maronite Christian (Phalange) alliance was a particularly unsavoury one if you consider the Lebanese Phalange was inspired by the Spanish Falange (Spanish Civil War) who were fascists (in the narrow, exact, not the proverbial, sense of the word).

Try "" again: it is the correct address, maybe something went wrong.


The current events in Gaza aren't as important as they may seem, at least not in my book. Two IDF soldiers and two militants got killed and one IDF soldier was captured: it's hardly WW III. I very much doubt if the IDF will now overreact and roll in the heavy armour in search of their man, as this would probably do more harm than good. I believe this latest skirmish will be solved diplomatically. I'm also surprised that an incident that involves combatants only seems to have attracted more attention than most suicide bombings (which involve innocent civilians mostly).

Much more important than this episode are independent reports from Ha'aretz and The Guardian about a pending agreement between Hamas and Fatah on the recognition issue:

From Ha'aretz:
Hamas and Fatah on Tuesday completed an agreement over a plan that implicitly recognizes Israel, ending weeks of acrimonious negotiations, a top official said.

"We have an agreement over the document," said Ibrahim Abu Najah, coordination of the "national dialogue" over the proposal.

Palestinain Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah has been trying to coax his Hamas rivals into endorsing the document, which calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, based on the 1967 borders.

All the obstacles were removed and an agreement was reached on all the points of the prisoners' document," Rawhi Fattouh, a senior aide to Abbas, said after factions meeting in Gaza initialed the accord.

So, as you can see, I'm fine, thanks.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Gert: thank you first and foremost, for reasuring me concernign your email. I will email you A.S.A.P. I haven't been at the ol' comp. all day thanks to a chess tournament I played in near the university in Telli.

About Sabra and Shatilla, one point I must make. While all you say is almost certainly factual information, don't forget the timing. The massacre took place while Israeli troops were advancing towards Beirut and didn't have the time to worry about several villages occupied by people many of whom had been aiding the Arafat's PLO attack Israeli villages in the Golan.

P.S. Please don't get personal with MZ. He's a good man but sometimes gets carried away like we all do.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Gert said...


MZ, "a good man"? Not in my book. Someone who considers the Palestinians (and probably by extension all Arabs) "vermin" cannot be friends with me. I have to many Muslim friends for this: Britain has a very large Muslim population.

So, I'll try and ignore hime, but that's all I can promise.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger Richard said...

Vermin, eh?

Hmm. I'm an old guy too. Old enough to remember those German/Nazi propaganda films used to further indoctrinate their populace with anti semetic thought/feelings.

They showed packs/swarms of actual rats running/swarming everywhere, as the commentary quite calmly compared Germany's Jews to sewer rats.

As I said -- hmmm. Vermin, eh?

How sadly & sickengly ironic. And how bloody inexcusable too -- in my book.

At 6:01 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Yes, I must admit, it's very racist of him to call Muslims "vermin". Gert: ignoring him would be a good idea, I think.


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