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Beirut bides

Seven years after the last Israeli invasion, Lebanon’s still violent existence is, as always, fragileLorraine Courtney 


Look at a map of Beirut and there is no mention of Shatila, despite up to 25,000 people living in an area the size of a football stadium and despite its being there for 65 years. Lebanon is a grudging host and would prefer Shatila, and the country’s other eleven Palestinian refugee camps, didn’t exist at all.

When you talk to Shatila’s residents about their Nakba (the Arabic word meaning “catastrophe” as Israel’s 1948 ethnic cleansing, massacres and demolition of villages is euphemistically called), you feel as though they are not fully present, that they are still in Palestine, their homeland of olive trees. Anwar has lived there for all of his 43 years. “It’s a misery. It’s a shame. We need as Palestinians to be outside the ghettoes. We have heaven in Palestine, here we have hell” .

Main Street, Shatila
Entrance to Shatila

In the squalid Shatila camp, there is nothing that looks like Palestine. You walk through dusty alleys where light is dim even in broad daylight since the overlapping houses were built at random. There isn’t a hint of greenery; even the school doesn’t have a playground. The residents have spotty electricity and rare hot water. Palestinians’ income here is lower than anywhere except Gaza and the cash-starved United Nations Relief and Works Agency has had to make severe austerity cuts in basic services to its education, health and welfare programmes. Stateless, ID-less, jobless and without the international legal protections of other refugees from other countries, it’s a relentless struggle to live any kind of life at all. What they do have are place names, old liberation songs, photos of eternally absent relatives and sometimes still, the rusted key to the front door of their lost home.

In many respects, Shatila is a microcosm of a failed Arab state and its anger and politics: packed, frustrated, hot-housed. Its inhabitants are oppressed and kept poor by a Lebanese government petrified by the political power the Palestinians could wield if allowed to. But with the civil war that is ravaging Syria now into its third year Lebanon, a country the size of a postage stamp, has absorbed about a million Syrians, around 350,000 of whom are refugees who fled with little more than the clothes they were wearing. The Syrian Government bombed a refugee camp there from the air. There are refugees living in storefronts, in garages, underneath bakeries. Many simply live in other people’s homes. You can have four or five families under one roof.

Main Street, Shatila
Main Street, Shatila

The Shatila camp has taken in at least 600 families. Each has a story unheard, untold. Iman, 32, walked from Damascus in December with her three young sons. Her husband was killed in the Syrian onflict. The family have moved into a small shed-type hut in Shatila. There’s just one tiny room, ten feet by ten feet. The children huddle on thin mattresses spread on the floor while Imran prepares a dinner of chickpeas and stale bread soaked in yoghurt. A neighbour pokes a head in, wondering if she’s heading to the protest at the UN building against cuts. “Every day my mind is more preoccupied”, Imran says as she strokes her toddler’s head. “I used to not sleep because of the missiles. Now I don’t sleep because I worry about our future”.

The refugee situation has authorities panicked about how to absorb and feed these newcomers but most worrying of all is the fragility of Lebanese society where sectarian, ethnic and proxy regional tensions constantly bubble around the surface. Just as I arrived here, the prime minister resigned: there’s no real government in place right now and all the while there are street battles in Lebanon’s second, northern city of Tripoli, with six people killed the week I arrive, and the threat of more kidnappings.

Bob Fisk, Beirut, topical reading
Bob Fisk, Beirut, topical reading

Najib Mikati resigned because his government had become unworkable, and MPs had failed to draw up a new election law. He had threatened twice before to go. The first time was in November 2011 when the government was slow to finance the tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which the Syrian government and Hezbollah have been implicated. The second was after a car bomb killed Wissam al-Hassan, the police intelligence chief and an enemy of the Syrian government. Both times Mikati stayed, saying that he had got assurances that the interests of all factions would be protected.

Lebanon, a country the size of a postage stamp, has absorbed about a million Syrians

Lebanon’s civil war may have fizzled out over two decades ago, but the influence of its major players is still all too visible. Six kilometres southeast of downtown in Dahieh, Iran’s patronage of Hezbollah and the Shia sector of the city is very apparent, with flags and posters of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s hegemon. And in northern Lebanon, the Sunni heartland, Turkish and Saudi flags fly alongside the Lebanese banner. The UN’s Humanitarian Rights chief, Antonio Guterres, has warned of an “existential threat” to Lebanon caused by the Syrian crisis and urged international support for this poor, brittle state.

In a tiny landscaped square in downtown Beirut is the statue of Samir Kassir, an outspoken journalist who died in a car bomb in June 2005. This simple tribute is just a grenade throw from the An Nahar newspaper offices where he worked and is a reminder of the dangers anyone in Lebanon faces when daring to speak the truth. A poignant quote in Arabic is his rallying cry to the Lebanese that’s particularly appropriate in these uncertain times: “Return to the streets, dear comrades, and you will return to clarity”.


The Shatila massacre

The Shatila massacre was the slaughter of around 2000 civilians, mostly Palestinian and Lebanese Shia, by a pro-Syrian Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia in the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon in 1982, in retaliation for the assassination of Lebanese Maronite Christian president, Bachir Gemayel.

Israel had invaded Lebanon with the intention of rooting out the PLO, the Palestinian representative body which had taken refuge there.   Israeli troops took West Beirut in violation of a ceasefire agreement after the PLO withdrew, effectively permitting the murderous Phalangist raid.

The Israel Defence Forces surrounded the camps and at the Phalangists’ request  fired  flares at night to illuminate the massacre. In 1982, a UN commission chaired by Sean MacBride concluded that Israel bore responsibility for the violence. Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Defence Minister, bore personal responsibility and resigned, later to return as Prime Minister. The leader of the massacre subsequently became a Lebanese Minister.


Supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.