Lebanon freezes plan for Ain al-Hilweh’s ‘racist wall’
Refugees say controversial wall is an attempt to further restrict their presence in the camp.
The Lebanese army has “paused” construction of a controversial “security” wall being built around the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh, near the southern port city of Sidon.
While it is unclear whether construction will continue, a military spokesman told Al Jazeera that the army would release a statement in the coming days to “clarify” the reasons behind the decision to build the wall.
The wall, which would be lined with watch towers, began to take shape on Sunday. The decision to execute was taken by Lebanese authorities, who initially cited security measures, in coordination with Palestinian factions that run the camps.
“All the factions met up with the Lebanese brigadier general and decided that this is the best decision for the sake of protecting the camp. We all agreed,” Subhi Abu Arab, a top Fatah security chief in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
While the camp is already blocked off with metal fences and Lebanese army checkpoints, officials said the wall was necessary to control entry of radical armed groups who are fuelling violence within the camps.
Regular clashes between various factions have continuously put civilian refugee lives at risk. Last year, factional fighting displaced thousands and injured tens of residents.
READ MORE: Deadly clashes hit Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon
But more than 70,000 Palestinians live inside the camp, many of whom have criticised the wall as Lebanon’s latest act of discrimination against them. Residents inside the camp are comparing it with Israel’s Separation Wall in and around the occupied Palestinian West Bank.
It resembles the wall that the Zionists built in Palestine.
“I see this as a very racist wall. The [Lebanese] state believes it is protecting itself from wanted individuals by doing this, which shows that they see every resident of the camp as a terrorist or an Islamist,” 26-year-old Hala, a refugee living in the camp, told Al Jazeera. “Just because some people are committing crimes, they’ve punished us all.”
“It resembles the wall that the Zionists built in Palestine,” added Hala.
Although construction was said to have been undertaken with the consent of the local Palestinian factions, the Hamas movement in Lebanon strongly condemned it in a statement released on Tuesday. “The construction of this isolation wall is an unacceptable step that threatens the future of Palestinian refugees and compounds their suffering.”
Constant violence within Ain al-Hilweh camp spurred the formation of the Palestinian Joint Security Forces in 2014 – a security apparatus meant to crackdown on hardline groups affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda. But clashes continue to occur, even between factions within the joint forces.
While such groups continue to operate there, some residents believe the state’s real aim is to pressure refugees into leaving.
Yousif Rabeh, an activist living in Ain al-Hilweh, says that the Lebanese army knowingly allows such groups to enter through the checkpoints. “The Lebanese soldiers at the checkpoints are aware of every single person that enters and exits the camp. They know that such groups are entering and they allow them to,” Rabeh told Al Jazeera.
“Now they’re taking it to a new level. This is how the Lebanese government treats us. They want to keep tightening the noose on our camps. The goal is to purge this country from Palestinian refugees.”
There are approximately 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, making up 10 percent of the Lebanese population, according to the United Nations. About half of the refugees live in 12 camps run by the UN relief agency across the country. All of the camps suffer from acute poverty, overcrowding and poor infrastructure.
While they do hold residency in Lebanon, most of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants were not given Lebanese passports after they fled following the creation of Israel in 1948. They have restricted rights such as being barred from working in some 20 professions.
Ain al-Hilweh’s residents were also joined by at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the past five years, many of whom are ‘double refugees‘ – originally Palestinians whose families fled to Syria in 1948.
The influx has only made matters worse for those inside the camp. If the wall impedes movement yet more, civilians may not be able to get out of harm’s way with clashes occurring frequently within the camp.
“From day one, Lebanon has been dealing with us as numbers and as a security concern – they have never even tried to treat us as humans, or with any humanity,” said Rabeh. “The Palestinian is an obstacle to them. They want to get rid of us.”
Abu Arab said that the wall will cover the western part of the camp, but its planned route is yet to be seen.
READ MORE: Palestinians desperate to flee Lebanon refugee camp
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a source at the UN told Al Jazeera: “The only thing we can say is that we are closely monitoring the situation and are waiting for discussions with the authorities to assess the plan.”
“We have concerns, especially if the plan is to close the camp from all sides.”
Following the official decision to begin construction, Rabeh said the camp’s residents immediately came out in protest against the project and the compliance of the Palestinian parties. “The factions should be representing the people and consulting them on what should be done, but the Lebanese [authorities] said the decision was not up for negotiation.”
Explaining the factions’ position, Abu Arab said on Tuesday: “This is Lebanon’s land and they make these decisions. It is our host country and it is not in our best interest to oppose this.”
Nonetheless, the refugees believe they will be the ones to bear the consequences.
“All the camps are under threat,” Ziad Mekdadi, a resident of Lebanon’s Baddawi camp in the north, told Al Jazeera. “I think the [Lebanese] state is slowly increasing restrictions on us all,” he said, adding that there are fears of Ain al-Hilweh becoming the next Nahr el-Bared – a camp destroyed by the conflict between the Lebanese army and armed groups in 2007.
“We are afraid of losing the camp,” said Rabeh, also alluding to Nahr el-Bared. “I have never considered myself a part of this country. I consider myself a part of this camp – to us, Ain al-Hilweh, represents the right of return.”
With additional reporting from Kareem Chehayeb.