Palestine in Lebanon 65 Years Later

From the February 2014 PNL #831

by Dana Seidenberg

With fighting in Syria spilling over into Lebanon, Beirut’s Palestinian refugees—and now Palestinians in Syria—are caught in the crossfire of a regional conflict they neither started nor can abate. Israel’s iron-fisted policies of the last century, particularly the forced removal of Palestinians from newly-formed Israel in 1948, turned the whole East Mediterranean region into a combat zone. After successive military adventures leading to a prolonged resistance that exists to this very day, tens of thousands of lives have been lost with increasing numbers of homeless people desperate for peace and security.

Lebanon is being flooded with Palestinians fleeing camps in Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo. The refugee population in that increasingly fragile country has swelled to an unconscionable 900,000, comprising 20% of the population.

Western political pundits are quick to declaim every conflict as ethnic strife, dwelling on seemingly senseless war games and political rivalries between “tribes” and “terrorists.” Recent explosions in the south-Beirut stronghold of the Shi’a Hezbollah, and retaliatory car bombs in the northern Sunni stronghold of Tripoli are examples of the spillover into Lebanon.


In spiraling alleys of squalid dwellings, a tangled maze of live
power lines supplies electricity (2009). Photo courtesy of the

Yet, easy ethnic explanations fall away as shifting arrangements of power and privilege offer incisive pointers to hidden economic issues. In investigating structural rather than human agency, we need to remember that the world’s population has doubled in the last fifty years. With the struggle for scarce resources—particularly water to the region, with gas and oil pipelines to the West needing protection—the glacial speed in addressing the Palestinian issue is easy to understand!


Whichever way, Palestinian lives are on hold. The refugees, both outside their homeland and inside as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in Gaza and West Bank camps, exist in perilous states of permanent unease and insecurity.

It didn’t have to end this way. 


The Sun Countries

After sleepy centuries under Ottoman rule, rumblings in the eastern Mediterranean began two years before the end of World War I when imperial France and Britain decided to reorder Bilad el Sham (“the sun countries”) into four protectorates—Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Remote control governance from Paris and London is the reason for the strange configuration of geometric borders that cut across antique societies in economic decline.

In l917, when Britain’s Lord Balfour declared a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, it was not intended that 78% of British-Mandated Palestine would evolve into a herrenvolk democracy under European Jewish control. Yet, to the present moment, with the full connivance of the US and the European Union, walled-off Palestinians remain under surveillance in the West Bank and Gaza with those who remained emptied of their identity as rebranded “Arabs.” The Palestinians expelled to surrounding eastern Mediterranean rim countries became human scavengers, pushed aside in overcrowded nations already struggling with economic miseries of their own.


A Week Visiting the Camps

In 2009, it was to these forgotten people of Beirut’s Sabra, Chatilla and Bourj el Bourajneh camps that I first went at the invitation of American peace-with-justice activist Ellen Siegel. Comparisons with similar scenes of underserved Nairobi neighborhoods in the city where I live were easy. In streets teeming with hawkers and traders, Palestinians, as with the majority of Nairobians, were busy surviving on a few dollars a day. The aroma of street food cooking in smoky kiosks, hundreds of vendors offering fresh produce, heaped piles of clothing and Chinese trinkets displayed on makeshift structures were all familiar.

But unlike Nairobi, the silent agony of being stuck for decades in someone else’s country was compounded by the fatal indifference of world leaders and their own leaders. Justice seemed a depressing improbability. In spiraling alleys of squalid dwellings, a tangled maze of live power lines supplied electricity. Indoor plumbing for water points and toilets were the only modern features that set Palestinian daily life in Beirut apart from Nairobi’s notorious informal settlements. A privileged few had interior gardens where solace against the daily strain of forced exile might be imagined.

Still managing after 65 soul-crushing years to put on a brave face for the  committed crowd of 40-70 anti-Zionist activists, Palestinians had been prepared to meet with us: a curious mélange of Italian Communists; the well-respected Ang Swee Chai, a Singaporean orthopedic surgeon; a Counterpunch journalist from the US; a 93-year-old political cartoonist with his gorgeous Eritrean mistress; and a dread-locked African-American pastor—are just some of those who arrive each year to preserve the memory of the three tragic days in September l982 when Lebanese Christian Phalange troops backed by Israeli Defense Forces entered the camps, leaving scores—some say 3,000—dead, later buried in unmarked graves.

Although respected as a social activist, I felt more like the proverbial ugly American as daily itineraries set the pace for bus excursions linking us political tourists to people and events, current and past… for me a shocking experience crying out for justice and compensation.

Planned by Kassem Aina, himself a Palestinian refugee, the journey began with a three-hour trip to the southern border between Lebanon and Israel, with its painful landscapes of flourishing kibbutzim built over former Palestinian villages. Palestinians looked forlornly across the graffiti-splashed separation wall at their ancestral homes. Yet the worthiness of the Israeli project remains unquestioned by the US Government and many cocooned US Jews. Although collective guilt does not exist, I felt it anyway.

At Beit Atfal Assamoud, a women’s center supported by American-Near East Refugee Aid, a revived art form of old Palestine—traditional embroidery—was sewn and sold. Solar hot water systems and GPS tracking systems, rather than beautiful scarves and handbags for desperately-needed cash, were a more lucrative deal. At other venues, with pro-Palestinian Lebanese journalist Talal Salman, PLO leaders, Hezbollah and Lebanese Communist Party members, we listened to strategies for ending the occupation.


The author (left) and Palestinian rights activist
Ellen Siegel at a demonstration in support of
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Photo courtesy
of the author.

A solidarity march through Beirut to a cemetery where Sabra-Chatilla victims are buried filled another day. Back in southern Lebanon, visits to cemeteries of interred martyrs and to a memorial museum commemorated Hezbollah’s defeat of Israel. The shocking sight of rusting American-made tanks, missiles and guns used in imperial Israel’s ongoing aggression against Lebanese Palestinians left no doubt of US complicity in this conflict.    


But the highlights of the grueling week’s events were the invitations into private homes, allowing us the privilege of hearing firsthand what happens when key reference points that center existence—the key being a defining image of nation and home for the refugees—are confiscated. Over freshly-brewed Turkish coffee, baleful personal histories were tearfully recounted. One woman whose husband had disappeared during the massacre was still waiting for him to return. Another woman spoke passionately of her two sons. One lived in faraway Gaza and another was in an Israeli prison. A large painting of a key—to the very home lost in l948—looms over us. Would these decades of sacrifice, like those in South Africa, end in freedom and the compassionate power of a Nelson Mandela? Nothing is inevitable. I knew I had to contribute my time to resolving this ongoing tragedy.


My March Away From Zionism

Credit for my own evolution from luke-warm Zionist to full support of a democratic, secular state in all of former British-Mandated Palestine is due to three sources. First, my family: arriving in Syracuse before World War I, my grandfather, a Polish Jew, opened a shoe repair shop on Geddes Street and attended, with Rose, the Orthodox shul in the city. The shoemaker’s son married the industrialist’s daughter, Faith Seidenberg. Their mutual passion for civil liberties was my core upbringing.

But, it took a chance introduction to Ellen Siegel, a psychiatric nurse at Beirut’s Gaza Hospital, and eye-witness to the 1982 massacre, to throw old sympathies for the Jewish state off balance. Siegel is a revolutionary. Her dedication, compassion and moral outrage have made her a hero to millions in the Palestinian struggle.

Finally, after reading Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s Ethnic Genocide in Palestine, a life-transforming work that contextualized random events into a highly-readable historical account, the air was cleared of any existing illusions about the Jewish state. Turning a harsh light on the l948 Arab-Israeli War from recovered pre-State Haganah defense force diaries and Palestinian oral testimony, he documents the Naqba (“catastrophe”) when, during the months of April and May, explicit orders were given to wipe out 531 Palestinian villages and remove the villagers. In the space of several months, tens of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and 700,000 Palestinians made homeless, the mantra kill or be killed leaving no doubt that like former British Kenya, this was colonialism!

The Old Testament is replete with stories of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah exhorting Jews to dismantle Israel and Judah because they were not satisfying the Lord’s requirements for Jewish states. If history teaches anything, it is that nations are always being dismantled, rearranged and reconfigured, with few countries contoured the way they were even 100 years ago. Why should the eastern Mediterranean region be different? Whether it is a deZionised Israel, a bi-national state, or democratic secular state with, of course, the right of return of all refugees to all of occupied Palestine—or an entirely new vision of refugees joining Bilad al-Sham into one political-economic free-trade unit of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan—it will happen.