Nahr al-Bared: People Taking Charge
By: Robert Abdallah
Published Wednesday, July 11, 2012
A new independent leadership is rising in the Palestinian refugee camps of northern Lebanon after the traditional leadership of political factions and popular committees failed to fulfill the demands of the camps’ residents.
The open-ended sit-in by the residents of Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp – which was destroyed in the summer of 2007 – has continued since June 15.
There are two adjacent tents in the middle of the road with a large panel in between. On it, there is a picture of the Dome of the Rock, the Palestinian flag, and the phrase “the martyrs of Nahr al-Bared camp” under the profiles of the two martyrs, Ahmad Qasem and Fouad Loubani.
In the background, you can see buildings under construction, and between the buildings, people and cars moving as residents make their way out of the ruins of the destroyed camp.
Next to the two tents, there is a table and a bunch of chairs. Above them is a giant awning covering an area of more than 200 square meters open to the entire camp. This area appears to be the decision-making center of Nahr al-Bared camp since the beginning of the sit-in.
“Before June 15 is not like after June 15.” This phrase has become like a chorus repeated by the camp’s residents, young and old.
The fear barrier has been broken and all the issues are on the table, including the role of the Palestinian political factions, the popular committees, sheikhs, clerics, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and the relationship of the camp with its immediate and not so immediate surroundings.
In 2007, Nahr al-Bared camp was destroyed during the battle between the LAF and the Islamist Fatah al-Islam. Five years have passed and the residents of the destroyed camp have suffered under excruciating circumstances.
In the meantime, factions from the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and the Palestinian Coalition Forces have failed to achieve tangible progress to ease people’s living conditions.
In turn, this has undermined the factions’ popular support and their influence in the camp. Some of these factions have seen their membership dwindle to two or three people.
With the shooting death of the boy Ahmad Qasem, the situation exploded in the camp. Action ranged between initiatives by the factions to ease tensions and other forces that have tried to drag the camp into a full-blown confrontation with the LAF.
The Palestinian political factions found themselves in a fix. On one hand, they see their people suffering, but on the other hand, they fear advancing agendas that have nothing to do with the camp.
And the popular committees in the camp do not even deserve their title in terms of representing large sectors of the camp’s residents. They consist instead of 16 delegates representing the factions present in the camp in addition to a delegate from the Council of Imams and Preachers.
To illustrate the lack of representation on the part of some of these organizations, Ziad Shtaiwy, who lives in the camp’s temporary barracks, tells us that an official from one of the organizations that consists “of the official and one member” delegates the same member to represent the organization in the popular committee and the factions committee.
He explains that, “losing confidence in the traditional authorities from factions to popular committees to sheikhs” made people gravitate towards “trusted personalities” that are known inside the camp like Abu Walid Ghunaim.
Ghunaim was at the sit-in with a group of camp residents when we met him. He suggested that we go to his his house which is adjacent to the sit-in. He walked up the stairs to the third floor with difficulty leaning on his cane due to a defect in his knee cartilage.
He took advantage of his slow steps to tell us a few things. The building where he and his brothers live “is registered in his Lebanese wife’s name because Palestinians do not have the right to own property.”
The building burned in 2007 “and if it weren’t for a divine miracle, my office would have burned and papers proving the rights of property owners in the new camp over an area of 60,000 square meters would have been lost.”
When asked about the forces that lead the camp in its open-ended sit-in, Ghunaim said that the incident which sparked protests in the camp was just “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” after five years of humiliation.
“What does it mean to force my grandchild who is 12 years old to carry a permit to be able to enter his home?” he exclaimed.
Ghunaim, who sought with all his might to prevent any friction with the LAF, quickly added: “We don’t want the army to abandon security in the camp, it is the back we lean on as the Palestinian revolution has no foundations to stand on.”
He told us when people “heard me talking to them rationally and calmly, they told me you represent us and we will do what you want.”
At the sit-in, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) official, Imad Odeh, declared in front of those present that “there is a gap between the youth and the Palestinian factions,” admitting that “they are angry at the popular committees and they blame them” but without “casting doubt on the authority of the factions.”
Odeh added: “We took the initiative as factions to reconcile with the community.” During the past five years “everything was an emergency, the camp was destroyed and the relationships were defective.”
That is why, “these developments forced us to reclaim our role and develop it through clubs and activities that reflect the aspirations of the youth which encourages them to engage in political work. And when we work in a proper way with the youth, we find they are more likely to follow up.”
He concluded saying: “We will not go back to square one where the youth are on one side and the committees and organizational structures are somewhere else.”
The Baddawi Palestinian refugee camp is not distant from what is going on in Nahr al-Bared due its geographical proximity and the close interaction between the two camps.
Some of the people who took refuge in Baddawi camp in 2007 continue to live there, a fact that was confirmed by the Hamas official in the North, Jamal al-Shihabi, who pointed out that the sit-ins in Baddawi continue simultaneously with those in Nahr al-Bared.
Similar to Nahr al-Bared, there is youth activism in Baddawi through committees that “coordinate with the factions to avoid mistakes that might have repercussions on the camp.”
That is what the representative of the media committee in the Baddawi sit-in, Muhammad al-Laham, told us, emphasizing the factions’ role is in the background while the action is undertaken by community-based organizations and civil institutions.”
Laham added that: “the sit-in tent was put up in the first place for a specific purpose with the support of Nahr al-Bared residents, but it has become a tool that can serve other activism purposes.”
As in Nahr al-Bared, so too in Baddawi. The sit-ins, especially in the evenings, have turned to a meeting place for everyone.
Khalil Nasser Rumaih came from Germany where he lives now. “With my passport which is disrespected here, I established a career in Germany,” he said.
Addressing the Lebanese government, he added that all it takes is “just a little freedom and treating people like human beings. It’s in nobody’s interest to have problems with the Lebanese army – give Palestinians their rights and there will be no more problems.”
As to those who are concerned about Palestinians’ permanent settlement in Lebanon, he says: “I live in Germany, a country that respects and values my humanity, and even though they allow me to travel directly to Palestine, I refuse to return to my homeland except when we have a Palestinian airport. This proves that having civil rights has not undermined my commitment to my cause.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.