Empathy but no unity in Beirut camp
Palestinian factions offer condolences for death of Fatah official but rivalries remain.
Last Modified: 24 Mar 2009 12:24 GMT

There are more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon [Spencer Osberg]
The tiny alley in Borj el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut is near pitch black.

Mohammed Halimi steps ankle deep in water as he tries to find his way through the camp's labyrinth of twisting passages that pass for streets.

Without drains or proper sewerage, the sheets of rain falling this evening flow like rivers down the sloping passageways and pool in lakes at the bottom.

Halimi hops to his dry foot and skirts the edge of the pool. He is on his way to the office of Mashour Abdul Haleem, the Beirut political chief of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known as Hamas.

Halimi passes banners of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, and Abdel Aziz Rantissi, one-time political leader of Hamas – both assassinated by Israel in 2004.

I am with Halimi to check on the mood in Beirut's largest refugee camp.

'Destroying peace'

"Abas Zaki said Israel was behind the assassination," remarks Halimi, noting how the head of Fatah in Lebanon publicly accused the Jewish state of perpetrating murder in television broadcasts.

Hamas says Madhat's killing was "to destroy peace and calm in the camps" [EPA]
Earlier in the day, a bomb near the southern Palestinian refugee camp of Mieh Mieh killed three bodyguards and their client, Kamal Madhat, a senior official with Fatah, a rival Palestinian faction to Hamas.

While Halimi himself finds his sympathies with Hamas, here he easily finds common ground with Fatah.

Down a long concrete wall there is little to distinguish a solid metal door from any other. Inside, Haleem beckons us to sit.

"They aimed, with the bomb today, to destroy peace and calm in the camps," he remarks, declining to elaborate who "they" are, but pointing out that only Israel and its allies stand to gain from the killing.

Haleem answers his mobile, and after a short conversation tells Halimi that the head of Hamas in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, is now meeting Zaki and other Fatah officials to offer condolences.

Haleem notes the leaders of Hamas and Fatah in Lebanon restrain tensions between the two from boiling over into overt conflict.

He stresses that animosities are only based on differences relating to their political programmes.

Refugee issue

"Fatah has forgotten most of the rights of Palestinians, Hamas has not," says Haleem, noting that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has agreed to negotiations with Israel that have left the issue of Palestinian refugees untouched.

"Hamas believes every refugee must have the right to return to his homeland," Haleem says.

For many Palestinian refugees, Fatah has lost credibility.

"I always used to be with Fatah," an older Palestinian says.

"My opinions didn't change, Fatah changed. The PLO [the Palestine Liberation Organisation mostly filled with Fatah members] is finished. I was with Fatah when Fatah was trying to help the Palestinians. I am always with those who do something for Palestine. That used to be Fatah. Today it is Hamas."

But not everyone draws the same conclusion. Outside of the Hamas bureau again, Halimi explains:

Some Palestinians say Fatah no longer fights for refugees' right of return [Spencer Osberg]
"One house is Fatah, the other is Hamas, the next one is Baath ... there's everything in this neighbourhood," he says.

There are 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Most were founded in 1948 by Palestinians who fled or were forced from there land after the creation of the state of Israel.

More camps were founded after the 1967 Middle East war between Israel and surrounding Arab states, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Today there are more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Lebanon.


The country's delicate sectarian balance has kept the government from offering the Palestinians citizenship.

Given that the vast majority of Palestinian refugees are Sunni Muslim, nationalisation would dramatically shift the proportional balance against the Shia Muslims and Christian Lebanese.

Many Palestinian groups in Lebanon also openly dismiss the idea, considering it a death-knell for aspirations of someday returning to their homeland.

The result is that generations of Palestinians have grown up without a state, with Lebanese legislation offering only a pittance in legal recourse, disallowing the right to own property and officially choking-off most professional employment outside the camps.

Living conditions in the camps vary. Generally it ranges from over-cramped near-squalor to modest sufficiency, though circumstance can rapidly change.

"Nahr el-Bared used to be one of the better camps," says Halimi.

No one envies them today. The camp near the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli was generally considered the most economically successful and affluent – thanks to its status as an unofficial duty-free zone for imported goods.

However, in the summer of 2007 a three-month war between the Lebanese army and fighters holed up in the camp – from the largely non-Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam – obliterated most of the camp, with its occupants fleeing and flooding surrounding refugees camps past capacity.

Refugee camps such as Shatila have been mostly calm in recent years [Spencer Osberg]
While the camps around Beirut, such as Borj el Barajneh, Shatila and Mar Elias, have remained relatively calm in recent years, the largest camp, Ein el-Hilweh near the southern city of Sidon, is a constant hot-spot.

The population is estimated at more than 70,000, with a litany of armed groups controlling various areas of the camp, with gun battles sporadically erupting between them.

Back in Borj el Barajneh, Halimi arrives at the door of a local Fatah bureau.

Blocking the entrance is a man in his early twenties in camouflage fatigues clutching a battered AK-47 across his chest, a finger on the trigger guard. Halimi asks who is inside and the youth says no one.

Further on, Halimi arrives at Fatah's head offices in Borj el-Barajneh and is told by a man inside that all Fatah representatives are unavailable, having gathered for an emergency meeting in the wake of Madhat's assassination.

We leave, passing poster after poster offering praise to Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian president and Fatah leader, as well as to Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader.

The one politician notably absent from a spot on these walls is Abbas.

Al Jazeera
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