Tripoli, Lebanon - Last week at a candlelight vigil in Baddawi refugee camp for the camp’s dead and injured, signs posted on the school wall asked why, after five years, was Nahr al-Bared still a closed military zone?
For the past five years, all entrances to Nahr al-Bared have remained encircled by the Lebanese army. It has remained that way since the military’s 2007 campaign – ostensibly against Fatah al-Islam members – devastated the camp, turning it into a closed military zone. In addition to the checkpoints, walls and barbed wire, the army commandeered all the homes surrounding the periphery of the camp, in addition to those homes straddling the border between the old and new sections of the camp.
Those wishing to visit friends in the camp must first obtain permission from the army (and those who are US citizens must wait for the army to clear visits with the US embassy). Palestinians from other camps, including those who lived in Nahr al-Bared prior to the army’s bombardment, are also prevented from visiting the camp. Thus, people in other camps cannot visit their relatives in Nahr al-Bared without prior permission from the military.
This closure also affects the economy of the camp, and the economy of the area, since Nahr al-Bared used to be an economic hub connecting Palestinians in the camp with Lebanese people in the villages surrounding it.
Inside the camp, 600 families continue to live in zinc army barracks containers, which are like ovens in the summer and refrigerators in the winter. Those whose homes have been repaired or rebuilt did so on their own, without relying on outside help. Most of the camp remains in ruins, with promised funds for rebuilding not materialising; the Lebanese government and UNRWA are reportedly complicit in stalling the arrival of those funds by preventing people from returning and by controlling the terms of the camp’s resurrection.
And, on top of all this, Palestinians’ freedom of movement is restricted through a system of identification cards – both inside and outside the camp.
On June 15, the Lebanese army’s stopping of a motorcyclist to check his identity card inside the camp escalated into an argument. The soldiers proceeded to his home, where they dragged him into the street and beat him. When other youths gathered, the army sprayed the area with gunfire and a bystander, 16-year-old Ahmad Qassim, was shot in the head and killed.
Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared mobilised. Qassim’s death was the spark that ignited people to take to the streets to fight for the end of their imprisonment. This time, Palestinians took over some of the buildings controlled by the army that separate the two sections of the camp. It seemed as if this could have been the beginning of an effort to “take back” the entirety of the camp.
In solidarity with Nahr al-Bared, and to fight their own imprisonment in similar camps, Palestinians in Ein el Helwa and Rashadiyeh camps in southern Lebanon also rose up to fight for their rights. Two Palestinians were killed: Khaled Youssef in Ein el Hewla and Fouad Loubani in Nahr al-Bared.
These protests and clashes with the army are ongoing, with residents of Nahr al-Bared creating their own Tharir Square-style sit-in protest. Unlike Cairo’s famed square, however, this protest is taking place in a closed military zone, away from the lenses of the world’s TV cameras. Indeed, filmmaker Sandra Madi was arrested (and later released) on Monday, while trying to film images of the protest, to share them with the outside world.
It feels like deja vu. It feels like the Lebanese army is the modern-day version of maktab thani (Deuxieme Bureau, France’s former external military intelligence agency), suppressing Palestinians in the camps. But in 1969, during the Palestinian Revolution in Lebanon, Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared, surrounded by the Lebanese army, were the first to liberate their camp from this repressive military regime. This week a similar pattern played itself out. Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared, who have been living in what is a closed military zone, fought to free themselves.
Fighting for freedom
This time, the Palestinians are largely fighting for their freedom on their own. Since June 15, hundreds of youths in Nahr al-Bared have been holding sit-in demonstrations, demanding an end to military rule in the camp, including the requirement to show identity cards to enter and exit their own community. Beyond this, they are demanding a full investigation of Qassim’s death, the removal of the army from public spaces such as the cemetery, and allowing the media to report freely on what happens in the camp. Meanwhile, Palestinian factions are negotiating with the army.
But the camp remains a closed military zone.
One of the reasons Palestinians demand access to journalists is that stories are once again circulating in the Lebanese press that remind one of 2007, when the army’s crusade against Palestinians was rationalised through a “war on Fatah al-Islam”. The general public has little to no access to information or images from the camp itself, and can accept these ideas too readily.
One wonders, for instance, why formerly armed fighters, identified as Fatah al-Islam members, were released from prison at the same time Palestinian prisoners were also released, and while Nahr al-Bared is resisting its besieged conditions. In the absence of journalists present to observe the sit-in – and the events leading up to it – the media is conflating ideas and making a scapegoating of an “Islamic militia” to justify the army’s potential destruction of yet another Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. It foments jingoistic sentiments in the population, and, in Lebanon, it is the Palestinians in the camps who suffer accordingly.
Falling victim to these conspiracy theories about Fatah al-Islam, or any other militia foreign to the camp, misses the root of the problem. Palestinians are fed up with a besieged existence, and want the right to live and move about freely – both within and outside their camp.
What happened this week was no different from an uprising in a prison, with prisoners demanding their rights – except, in this case, the imprisoned are an innocent civilian population that has not been arrested or convicted of any crime. Palestinians are demanding basic human rights, demanding to live their lives with dignity. To spin it any other way is to perpetuate racism against the Palestinian people.
Marcy Newman is a scholar, a teacher and an activist. She is the author of The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans.
Follow her on Twitter: @marcynewman