Ain Al-Hilweh is known as the “Capital of Palestinian Shatat.” The term might not stir many emotions among those who do not fully understand, let alone experience, the harrowing existence of ethnic cleansing and perpetual exile – and the tremendous violence that followed. “Shatat” is roughly translated into “exile” or “diaspora”. However, the meaning is much more complex. It can be understood only through lived experience. Even then, it is still not easy to communicate. Perhaps, the Kafkaesque blocks of concrete, zinc and rubble, towered one on top of another and serving as “temporary shelters” for tens of thousands of people, tell a small part of the story.
On July 30, violence returned to the crowded Palestinian camp, claiming the lives of at least 13 people. Scores more were injured and thousands have fled. Yet, most of the refugees stayed, because several generations of Palestinians in Ain Al-Hilweh understand that there is a point where running away serves no purpose, for it neither guarantees life nor even a dignified death. The massacres of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982 were a testament to this collective realization. Before writing this, I spoke to several people in South Lebanon, and sorted through many articles and reports describing what is taking place in the camp now. Yet, the truth is still blurry or, at best, selective.
Many in Arabic media have largely relegated Ain Al-Hilweh to a symbolic representation of a rooted Palestinian pain. Mainstream Western media was hardly concerned about Palestinian pain, but focused mostly on the “lawlessness” of the camp, the fact that it exists outside the legal jurisdiction of the Lebanese army, and the proliferation of weapons among Palestinian and other factions engaged in seemingly endless and supposedly inexplicable infighting. But Ain Al-Hilweh, like the 11 other Palestinian refugee encampments in Lebanon, is a story of something else entirely, more urgent than mere symbolism, and more rational than being the result of lawless refugees.
It is essentially the story of Palestine, or rather, the destruction of Palestine at the hands of Zionist militias in 1947-48. It is a story of contradictions, pride, shame, hope, despair and, ultimately, betrayal. It is not easy to follow the timeline leading up to the latest round of violence. Some suggest that the fighting began when an assassination attempt – blamed on Fatah fighters in the camp – was carried out against a leader of a rival Islamist group. The attempt failed and was followed by an ambush, carried out by alleged Islamists who killed a top Fatah commander and several of his bodyguards. Others suggest that the assassination of Abu Ashraf Al-Armoushi, a military general from Palestinian National Security, was completely unprovoked.
Yet others, including Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, blamed outside forces and their “repeated attempts to use Lebanon as a battleground for the settling of scores.” But who are these entities, and what is the point of such meddling? It gets murkier. Though impoverished and overcrowded, Ain Al-Hilweh, like other Palestinian camps, is a greatly contested political space. In theory, these camps are meant to solidify and protect the right of return for Palestinian refugees. In practice, they are also used to undermine this internationally enshrined right.
The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, for example, wants to ensure Fatah loyalists dominate the camp, hence laboring to deny Palestinian rivals any role in South Lebanon. Fatah is the largest Palestinian group within the Palestine Liberation Organization. It dominates both the PLO and the PA. In the past, the group lost its dominance over Ain Al-Hilweh and other camps. For Fatah in Lebanon, it is a constant struggle for relevance. Ain Al-Hilweh is important for the PA, even though the PLO under Abbas’ leadership has largely disowned the refugees of South Lebanon and their right of return, and instead has focused mostly on governing specific regions in the West Bank under the auspices of the Israeli occupation.
Yet, Lebanon’s refugees remain important for the PA for two main reasons: one, as a source of validation for Fatah and, two, to stave off any criticism of, let alone resistance to, the Western-backed Palestinian camp, in Lebanon and everywhere else. Over the years, hundreds of Ain Al-Hilweh refugees have been killed in Israeli bombings, but also by Palestinian-Lebanese and Palestinian-Palestinian infighting. Israel carried out most of the killings to ensure Palestinian resistance in Lebanon is eliminated at source.
The rest of the violence was carried out by groups that sought dominance and power, sometimes for their own sake, but often as proxy militias for outside powers. Trapped in the middle are 120,000 people, the estimated population of Ain Al-Hilweh – and, by extension, all of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees.
Not all Ain Al-Hilweh’s inhabitants are registered Palestinian refugees. The latter is estimated by the UN refugee agency, UNRWA, at about 63,000. The rest fled there following the Syrian war, which swelled the population of the Lebanon camps and heightened existing tensions. The entrapments of refugees, however, are manifold: the actual physical confinement dictated by the lack of opportunities and acceptance in mainstream Lebanese society; the great risks of leaving Lebanon as undocumented refugees smuggled across the Mediterranean; and the feeling, especially among older generations, that leaving the camps is tantamount to the betrayal of the right of return. All of this is happening in a political context, where the Palestinian leadership has completely removed the refugees from its calculations, where the PA sees the refugees only as pawns in a power play between Fatah and its rivals.
For decades, Israel has sought to dismiss the discussion on Palestinian refugees and their right of return. Its constant attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in Palestine itself, and its interest in what is taking place in the Shatat, is part of its quest to shake the very foundation of the Palestinian cause. Infighting in Ain Al-Hilweh, if not brought under total and lasting control, might eventually get Israel exactly what it wants: presenting Palestinian refugees as a liability to host countries and, ultimately, destroying the “Capital of Shatat,” along with the hope of four generations of Palestinian refugees to, some day, go back home.