The Inconvenient Palestinians


The protagonist of my second novel Shake Off was born in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, and lost his family in the 1982 massacre there. It may have come as a surprise to him, and other Palestinians living in what is left of the refugee camp, when Ariel Sharon, architect of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut and enabler of the subsequent massacre of their loved ones in the camps, was voted the 8th greatest Israeli of all time.(1) On the other hand perhaps it came as no surprise at all, but was just a reinforcement of the feeling that they had long since degenerated into a type of untermensch, barely featuring on anyone’s humanity radar. Perhaps they take some solace in the fact that Sharon has been in a permanent vegetative state since 2006, serving a penance inflicted by nature after it had run out of patience with humankind’s ability to mete out justice for his part in their 1982 slaughter. I don’t plan to retread the blood-stained ground of 30 years ago this September; it has been adequately documented, although a jogging of our collective memories is due. The dated- looking images of the piles of bodies are on the web, as well as the testimonies of the survivors, a couple of documentaries, an academic work. They are all there, along with various inquiries and reports into the events. The massacre has become assimilated into the Palestinian national psyche along with other atrocities, starting with Deir Yassin. It has even been explored in an Oscar-winning Israeli film, albeit in terms of its angst-causing effect on Israeli soldiers. Despite this limitation, and the fact that Waltz with Bashir was banned in Lebanon, I was told that camp residents watched it because it is still the only fictional film that acknowledges what happened to them. The massacre has also featured in several novels in Arabic, as well as my own English-language debut novel. It is worth putting the events in the camps 30 years ago into context and exploring how they are merely a stepping stone on a long path to nowhere for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

In 1948, as a result of the Nakba (translated as ‘catastrophe’, the term used by Palestinians to describe their displacement caused by the creation of Israel), 100,000 Palestinians arrived in Lebanon, and the United Nations set up a special agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to provide for them. Legally speaking, they were considered temporary guests pending international agreement on how to rectify their problem. That was 64 years ago this year and still the international community has been unwilling to address the cause of their plight. The refugee population in Lebanon expanded, not least as a result of the 1967 war, and according to UNRWA, this so-called temporary population had grown to nearly half a million in 2012, despite the amount of land allocated to them by the Lebanese government being much the same as in 1948. The Lebanese sympathy that first greeted the refugees gradually ebbed, and they came to be seen as a blight on the country. This feeling was caused both by Israel’s refusal to implement 1959 UN Resolution 194 which states ‘that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date’, and by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) moving its headquarters to Lebanon in 1970 after being expelled from Jordan, subsequently establishing a state within a state in south Lebanon.

When the underlying tensions erupted into a full-blown civil war in 1975, it led to the killing of between 1,000 and 1,500 Palestinians, Kurds and Syrians living in the Karantina slum in East Beirut. The Kataeb (Maronite Christians known more in the west as the Phalangists) were one of the Christian militias taking part in this sectarian cleansing of their half of the city. In retaliation the PLO killed up to 700 Lebanese Christians in the town of Damour, south of Beirut, and expelled the rest. This in turn was followed by the horrendous 52-day siege of Tel Al-Zaatar (Hill of Thyme) refugee camp in 1976. While the siege was ongoing the Maronite Lebanese president invited Syrian forces into Lebanon to help maintain order. This meant, in the convoluted politics of Lebanon, that Syria was on the side of Israel, which itself was supplying Maronite militias with weapons and advisors. The Syrian support, which included tanks placed on the outskirts of the camp, enabled the Christian militias to overwhelm Tel Al-Zaatar. It was claimed by survivors that Arafat manipulated the siege to bring the Palestinian plight to world attention. Robert Fisk writes in his profile of Arafat, The Broken Revolutionary (2000):

When he needed martyrs in 1976, he called for a truce around the besieged refugee camp of Tel el-Zaatar, then ordered his commanders in the camp to fire at their right- wing Lebanese Christian enemies. When, as a result, the Phalangists […] militia slaughtered their way into Tel el-Zaatar, Arafat opened a ‘martyrs’ village’ for camp widows in the sacked Christian village of Damour. On his first visit, the widows pelted him with stones and rotten fruit. Some 3,000 were ‘martyred’, many with crosses cut into the flesh of their chests. Some of the survivors, as Fisk correctly states, were housed in the recently cleared town of Damour. Others settled in Sabra and Shatila. Refugees twice over.

Just in case anyone considered the Civil War not to be bloody enough, internecine factional conflicts were also waged between Palestinian groups, Lebanese leftists, and also Christian groups, arguing over turf and spurious ideological differences, some encouraged by paymasters in Syria and Iraq. It was a precarious time to walk around West Beirut as a young man; if one of the many militia-filled jeeps zooming around came across you they would happily take youinto forced conscription, or a worse fate could befall you if you produced the wrong ID. One person who wrote to me after reading my first book described witnessing a friend’s father being chopped up, just for being the wrong sect. This kind of mindless violence became a day-to-day occurrence and the Civil War eventually claimed up to 100,000 lives in an escalating orgy of killing.

By 1981 the country was effectively divided along sectarian and political lines and large areas, predominantly in the south, were under PLO control. Parts of West Beirut, adjoining the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, became the de facto headquarters for the PLO and were hit by an Israeli air-raid in 1981 that killed around 300. As well as providing military might the PLO also established a social infrastructure and sense of order for the thousands of refugees and their dependants displaced from Palestine, an infrastructure that disappeared with their later withdrawal. Although West Beirut was predominantly Muslim, and the East was Christian, it is also true to say that the city was split on ideological grounds, with many leftist Lebanese militias, both sectarian and secular, also running amok in the west of the city, itself subdivided into enclaves controlled by various factions.

In August 1981, when Ariel Sharon became Minister of Defence of Israel, the actual build-up to the 1982 invasion started. Elections were looming in Lebanon and, according to Schiff and Ya’ari’s definitive work on the matter,(2) Sharon saw them as an opportunity for a ‘new political order’ in Lebanon, with Bashir Gemayel at its helm, while also wanting to ‘solve the problem of the Syrian presence in the country’. Indeed, according to Schiff and Ya’ari, Sharon’s thinking was articulated in a lecture to the military brass:

‘I am talking about an action that will mean destroying the terrorist organizations in Lebanon in such a way that they will not be able rebuild their military and political base. It is impossible to do without running into the Syrians. The question is how to preserve [the advantage of] such a new situation. For there’s nothing worse than a military operation on our part one day and having them renew shelling of Kiryat Shmonah the next. It is possible to achieve [a long-lasting change] on condition that a legitimate regime emerges in Lebanon, not a puppet government; that it signs a peace treaty with Israel; and that it becomes part of the free world. In order to establish government of that kind, you need sixty-six out of the ninety deputies to the Lebanese Parliament, and a list of deputies will be prepared. All this demands extreme caution and waiting for just the right moment.’

The right moment came on 3 June 1982, when the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London gave Sharon the casus belli he needed to invade, even though the shooting was carried out by the Abu Nidal Organisation, whose eponymous head was a rogue psychopath who’d been expelled from the PLO by Arafat in 1974.

Sharon had hoped for a quick march up the 90 kilometres to Beirut, and the then Israeli Prime Minister Begin allowed him just 36 hours. Given the initial paralysis of the Palestinian leadership at the scale of the attack, poor communication between Beirut and the south of the country, the refusal of the Syrians and Lebanese leftist parties in the south to get involved, and poor leadership in South Lebanon at the time (many PLO leaders simply upped and left), 36 hours should have been plenty. However, small pockets of what can only be described as heroic resistance by PLO irregulars against overwhelming firepower in the form of Merkava tanks, gunboats and F16 jets, managed to hold Sharon’s forces back for ten days. Most of this resistance came from the refugee camps in the south, where people literally fought to the death.

By 13 June 1982 the Israeli army had advanced all the the way to the outskirts of Beirut, helped on their way by the Maronite Christian Kataeb, whose hatred of the Palestinians was now part of their DNA. That summer — after the Falklands had been briefly reclaimed as Las Malvinas by the Argentinians, who incidentally were aided by Begin, apparently because he never forgave the British for trying to rein in his Irgun gang in 1947 mandated Palestine(3) — General Sharon began to organise the siege and brutal shelling of the city. Sharon had met with Bashir prior to the invasion of Lebanon and also, more crucially, closer to his assassination, but it wasn’t the first time the Israelis and Maronites had sought common cause — as far back as 1958, when civil war was threatened (reflecting a pan- Arab division in the wake of the Suez attack), the Israelis sent the incumbent Maronite Prime Minister weapons.(4) Bashir was the son of Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese Maronite Christian who founded the paramilitary Kataeb after an inspiring visit to the 1936 Berlin Olympics as captain of the Lebanese football team, where he was impressed by the discipline of the Spanish Flange and Italian fascists. In the 1970s they saw themselves as the guardians of Lebanon against Palestinian excesses in the country. When the IDF reached East Beirut on the 13th, the occasion was marked by a gathering of Bashir Gemayel, his father Pierre, and Israeli Chief of Staff Eitan and General Drori. Until this point Beirut itself had escaped relatively unscathed, apart from the odd air-raid. The siege itself lasted over two months, and West Beirut was subjected to bouts of possibly the most vicious bombing of a city since the Second World War. According to a United Nations report, between 6 June and 15 August, 6,775 people were killed and 30,000 wounded. Over 80% of these victims were civilians from West Beirut. According to the same source, 2,094 seriously injured persons had been burned by phosphor bombs. The PLO, once it became clear the IDF would pummel the city into the sea, agreed to leave Beirut under the supervision of a multi-national force, and obtained a written guarantee from the US that Palestinian civilians remaining in the city would be safe. They left on the 2 September, the multinational force left on the 10th. Journalists and historians say that Sharon and Bashir met on the 12th, and agreed the Kataeb would ‘mop up the camps’, which Sharon had already announced to the world ‘contained 2000 terrorists’. Bashir was blown up on the 14th and the IDF entered West Beirut the next day. On 16 September the Kataeb entered the camp, after an Israeli press release stated ‘Tsahal [IDF] controls all strategic points in Beirut. The refugee camps, inside which there is a concentration of terrorists, are surrounded and sealed.’ The rest, as I said, is history.

After the three-day drug- and hate-fuelled massacre that followed (again the crosses carved on the dead), international disgust was vocal. The Israeli Government decided it should have its own inquiry, which concluded that Sharon had personal responsibility ‘for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge’ and ‘not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed’, as if it had slipped his mind that the IDF-trained Kataeb he guided into the sealed camps were not capable of what they were infamously known to be capable of. At first Sharon refused to resign. Begin, the then prime minister, refused to fire him. Under pressure from a vociferous Israeli peace movement he eventually gave up being Minister of Defence and became a minister without portfolio. In 2001 (just as Sharon was elected prime minister) some residents of the camp, with the help of international lawyers, tried to indict him in Belgium for war crimes.

Two days after agreeing to be a witness at the trial, Elie Hobeika, the Kataeb leader who led the killers into the camps, was blown to bits. Israel was the reflexive choice as assassin, yet a case could easily be made for Syria, which Hobeika had fallen out with, or one of his rivals — assassination is a traditional method of dealing with political opponents in Lebanon. In 2003 US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, concerned about the universal jurisdiction of Belgium’s ‘anti-atrocity’ law, as it was known, particularly with relation to the US’s involvement in Iraq, gave the Belgium government an ultimatum: rescind the law or the US would make sure NATO headquarters were moved from Belgium. Belgium changed their law so that it only applied to Belgian citizens. So an opportunity at a stab at justice was closed down.

But let us flash back to 1985, when the survivors of Sharon’s Lebanon adventure had started to regain what passes for normality in the camps. This was not acceptable to some in Lebanon. Instead, the Sabra and Shatila camps were subject to the first of three brutal sieges and bombardment by a Syrian-backed Lebanese militia that, in terms of barbarity, easily rival what happened in 1982. This ‘War of the Camps’, as it is euphemistically known, merits no more than a footnote in history but deserves more. The attack by the Syrian-backed Shiite militia Amal was done with the express aim of refusing, in the words of its leader, ‘to go back to the situation pre 1982 and the rebuilding of a Palestinian state within a state’, after suspicions that Arafat was rebuilding his power base in the camps. Most analysts believed that Syria, like Israel before it, simply wanted to see the Palestinians remain on their knees in Lebanon. The first attack lasted just over a month, the second came a year later and lasted just as long. The third, and most barbaric, lasted from November 1986 until April 1987. Amal never managed to take control of the camps due to ferocious resistance, recalling the same resilience shown in the camps of South Lebanon when subject to Israeli attack in 1982. Intensive bombing, however, destroyed all of Sabra and 80% of homes in Shatila. The residents were near starvation by the end of the siege, and women had to brave snipers to fetch water. Just before the siege was lifted, and Syrian forces took over Amal positions, the residents had requested religious dispensation to eat the dead. Estimates put the dead at 2,500.

Of all the Arab countries hosting Palestinian refugees, Lebanon has the highest proportion living in camps and the harshest restrictions imposed on them. Even today, the camps in Lebanon ‘are considered the worst of the region’s refugee camps in terms of poverty, health, education and living conditions’, according to a report released on UN World Refugee Day this year.(5) It’s unclear what refugees think of World Refugee Day but I guess it is a chance for the rest of us to consider them briefly should it intrude on our awareness. The percentage of refugees in Lebanon that qualify as Special Hardship Cases by UNRWA is higher than even on the Gaza Strip,6 where things are undoubtedly dire. Because Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention it does not recognise basic rights and afford legal obligations to refugees. Palestinians cannot attend Lebanese public schools or own property. They do not have access to national health services and the social security system. Ministerial decrees forbid Palestinians from practising in over 30 syndicated professions. Building in the camps is illegal, and checkpoints ensure that building materials are not being smuggled in. In 2003, the Lebanese government said it would not back down on its insistence that Israel complies with the right of return of refugees and has continued to reject any permanent resettlement or integration of Palestinian refugees, therefore naturalisation is not an option, unless by marriage if you are female. It is difficult to imagine that Lebanese politicians actually believe their own rhetoric when declaring that they refuse to give Palestinians any rights in case they might get too comfortable and no longer want to go home, or that if Lebanon eases things for them it takes the pressure off Israel to have them back — these ‘it’s for their own good’ arguments are made with a straight face. As if allowing Palestinian refugees to work or rebuild their poorly built houses or to live with a modicum of self-respect is going to give them collective amnesia, or as if Israel, upon noticing the desperate and ongoing plight of the refugees, will grant them the right of return in a grand humanitarian gesture.

This unpleasant history is ongoing. The occupants of Nahr al-Bared, one of the largest refugee camps in Lebanon, remain under virtual imprisonment by the Lebanese army five years after an estimated 95% of buildings were destroyed, ostensibly to remove an extremist group that had set up base in the camp. Israelis sometimes point to Lebanon when faced with criticism of their treatment of Palestinians (perhaps forgetting how they got there) and it is difficult not to frivolously conclude that Palestinians in Lebanon would be better off under occupation by Israel, or living in one of the refugee camps in the West Bank or Gaza. Although, following the 2002 Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp and the ferocious assault on Gaza in 2008 (again with phosphorus), living under an occupying force does not guarantee better sanctuary, Section III of the Fourth Geneva Convention notwithstanding.

The point of this facetious question — are refugees better off in Lebanon or Israel or the West Bank or Gaza? — is this: nobody will ask the refugees what they want, because nobody can provide it. They are caught in a nightmare scenario of being at best unwelcome and at worst hated by their hosts but with nowhere to go. Let us fantasise for a minute and assume that a Palestinian state is created (indulge me here) and that it is based on 1967 borders. We now know, thanks to leaked documents detailing the negotiations taking place between the Palestinian Authority and Israel (the ‘Palestine Papers’ obtained by the Al-Jazeera news network), that Palestinian negotiators privately agreed to 10,000 refugees and their families (1,000 per year over ten years) returning to Israel as part of any settlement, although a document written in the same period by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat proposed 150,000 over ten years. Tzipi Livni, the lead Israeli negotiator, made clear in the negotiations that ‘Your state [Palestine] will be the answer to all Palestinians, including refugees.’ There is no record of the Palestinian negotiator’s response to this.

Even taking this larger figure (by and large an academic exercise) there are some 5 million UNRWA registered Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 465,798 of whom are in Lebanon. The maths therefore is very clear: these wretched of Lebanon are going nowhere. Unwanted by the Lebanese, who insist they must go home, even though most of them were born in the camps, and just an irritating agenda item to be taken into account by the Palestinian leadership in any negotiations, they exist in a legal and moral hinterland where the future holds nothing but more of the same. Some observers in Lebanon claim there is a new mood in the camps, fuelled in part by what young camp residents are seeing happen in the rest of the Arab world. It remains to be seen whether this comes to anything; any mass action will be dealt with savagely by the authorities, and no TV cameras will be present, nor will they be Tweeting about it en-masse from the camps.

This September, in fact on the very anniversary of the 1982 slaughter, the Pope is planning to visit Lebanon. If he goes to Shatila, negotiating its pot-holed streets and running sewage, to join the 30-year commemoration planned there, it will be a bloody miracle.

1 A 2005 poll conducted on the Israeli news website Ynet.

2 Ze’ev Schiff & Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War (Unwin Paperbacks, 1984).

3 Robin Yapp, ‘Israel “supplied arms to Argentina during Falklands War”’, Daily Telegraph, 20 April 2011.

4 Jonathan C Randall, Going All The Way: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers, and the War in Lebanon (Vintage Books, 1984)

5 ‘Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon’, American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), published on 20 June 2012.

6 UNRWA statistics,, as at 1 January 2012.



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Mischa Hiller

Writer. Author of Sabra Zoo, Shake Off and Disengaged. Can be found @mischahi and