The ancient hills of Lebanon hold little charm for Abdullah Sulhani and his family. Though they live just a bus ride away from some of the most pleasant countryside on the eastern Mediterranean, they don’t dare go out for a picnic or family day trip. This is an exaggerated reading of the risks of living in Lebanon — a turbulent country no doubt, but one which, when not a war zone, is the vacation destination of choice for the Arab world. Sulhani, 85, is Palestinian, though, and his family lives in Shatila, an impoverished refugee camp on the edge of Beirut. Many Lebanese eat, drink and dance away memories of the violent past. But in the dank, swastika-graffitied alleyways of the camps, where four generations of Palestinians have come of age, there’s little chance of forgetting. For most of the 220,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon, time has stopped.
Sulhani fled his home in Galilee for Beirut in 1948 — the year Israel was founded. Since then, there have been six wars and dozens of violent upheavals in Lebanon, and more often than not Sulhani’s family has been caught in the middle. Abdullah’s 59-year-old daughter Ahlam is still picking shrapnel out of wounds she received from artillery fire in 1975. The family survived the infamous Shatila massacre of 1982 by sheer luck, fleeing from Lebanese militiamen almost as soon as the slaughter began. When they returned afterwards, most of their neighbors were dead, and there was a body in the living-room closet. One of Ahlam’s brothers was later shot in the head by a sniper while washing his hands in their entryway. Their building has been destroyed five times. They keep rebuilding because there’s nowhere else to go. (Read “Fatah and Hamas: Heading for a Showdown in Lebanon”.)
The recent Israeli operation in Gaza refocused attention on the plight of the thousands of ordinary Palestinians caught between Islamic militant group Hamas and Israel’s overwhelming military force. But the Palestinians living in the territories of Gaza and the West Bank aren’t the only ones trapped. Like many Palestinians forced from their homes after Israel’s birth, Sulhani still has his old house keys. Tax records from the British mandate of Palestine are stored carefully in a schoolgirl’s plastic binder. But while a 1948 United Nations resolution calls for Palestinians’ “right to return,” all who have seriously thought about peace in the Middle East know that Israel will never accept the 4.6 million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations in places such as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank. Such a demographic tidal wave would sink the Jewish state.
That leaves families such as the Sulhanis caught between a past they can’t escape and a future they struggle to shape, renting out the top floors of their building — which technically they don’t even own. Like the rest of the 400,000-odd Palestinians in Lebanon, they cannot legally buy a house or apartment and remain barred from some 70 professions. Lebanon’s fragile sectarian political system, balanced between Christians and Muslims, has been unable or unwilling to absorb so many Muslim refugees. So neither Sulhani, nor his children, nor his grandchildren, nor his great-grandchildren have Lebanese citizenship, despite the fact that all but the family patriarch were born on Lebanese soil. “My life in this country has been one heartbreak after another,” says daughter Ahlam. “I have no good memories.”
Jihadi Breeding Grounds
Younger generations have acquired traumas of their own. Nahr al-Bared was once the most pleasant Palestinian camp in Lebanon, located near the northern city of Tripoli where a cold mountain stream meets the sea, and surrounded by orange orchards and banana plantations. Now it is a miniature Stalingrad on the Mediterranean. An uprising in the summer of 2007 by an insurgent jihadist group, Fatah al-Islam, reduced Nahr al-Bared to rubble and made its 31,000 residents homeless. Though most Fatah al-Islam members were not Palestinians but foreign Arabs from places such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the lawlessness of the camps — which lie outside the authority of the Lebanese state — make them excellent incubators for extremist groups. And the concrete jungle of Nahr al-Bared was the perfect urban-warfare environment. Just 300 jihadis held their own against more than 11,000 Lebanese army troops for four months.
Residents accuse the army of looting and destroying their homes in revenge for the 160 Lebanese soldiers who died in the battle. “The war with Israel was much easier than this,” says Mohammed Ali Hamid, a 76-year-old veteran from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose home in Nahr al-Bared was hit by some 20 rockets and artillery shells last summer. Other wild-eyed residents claim that the bombardment of the camp was part of a secret plan to clear the space for an American base. The children at one kindergarten act out the searing memories of being forced from their refugee camp during the fighting by shouting at each other. “Where is your ID?” one demands. “You don’t have permission!” another says. They form little checkpoints in the playground. In class, they draw pictures of burned houses, dead bodies and soldiers locked up in jail.
The Fire Next Time
Ein el Hilweh is the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon, with 70,000 inhabitants. Built just outside the southern city of Sidon, it is surrounded by walls and watchtowers and looks like a postapocalyptic penal colony from a Mad Max movie — albeit one decorated with posters of Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Yasser Arafat. The main Palestinian political parties Hamas and Fatah have carved the camp up like gang turf, leaving a no-man’s-land as a haven for dangerous jihadist groups.
Chehadeh Jawhar, the Palestinian military commander of Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Greater Syria), trained al-Qaeda militants in Iraq before moving to Ein el Hilweh. When Jawhar spoke with TIME in March last year, he said that the jihadist factions in the camp were supported by intelligence agencies from the countries that have turned Lebanon into a battlefield. “Anyone who has a project in Lebanon can use the Palestinians to create chaos,” he said. Four months later, Jawhar died in a street fight.
Munir Makdah, the commander of Fatah militias in Lebanon and the head of security in Ein el Hilweh, keeps busy trying to survive the regular jihadist attempts on his life — there were five last year alone. Makdah is all that stands between Ein el Hilweh and chaos. When he’s not out on patrol he serves as a patron of social programs for children. One of his favorites is the troupe that performs dabka, an Arab circle dance, at festivals around the world. The other is a school for Fatah fighters.
As many as 200 boys and girls are enrolled in Makdah’s fighting camp — a tin hangar with an asphalt parade ground, where they learn the basics of hand-to-hand combat, firearms and Palestinian national ideology. “We teach what they don’t learn at United Nations schools,” says one local Palestinian official. On one recent day, some 50 schoolboy cadets gathered in Makdah’s office after attending a demonstration against Israeli attacks on Gaza. He offered them a lesson they are unlikely to forget. “In the past, Jews used to kill us, and no one defended us,” he explained. “Today, if the Jews kill us, we kill them.” Later, Makdah — who was born in Lebanon and has been a fighter since the age of 12 — vowed that Palestinian leaders negotiating with Israel would never trade away the right of return. “No peace agreement can survive if there is one refugee outside the homeland,” he said. The Palestinians’ long, dismal wait seems doomed to continue.