Lebanese MPs: The Boogeyman of Tawteen

A boy stands in the narrow street of Shatila camp. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

By: Qassem Qassem

Published Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Lebanese politicians habitually invoke the specter of permanent settlement of Palestinians in Lebanon (tawteen) at every political juncture to instill a fear of the other. The other, in this case, is the Palestinian refugee living in refugee camps.

Tawteen is therefore used as a boogeyman in media campaigns to attack political adversaries and demonstrate the extent of one’s patriotism and Lebanese nationalism. These campaigns tend to intensify before every election cycle as politicians try to outdo each other by fighting heroically to prevent Palestinian refugees from settling in Lebanon.

In the period following the last elections, most MPs competed with one another by demonstrating their concern for Lebanese interests through denying Palestinian refugees in Lebanon their basic social rights. Their justification was that giving Palestinian refugees these rights would contribute to their permanent settlement in Lebanon.

But how many MPs or ministers know what they are talking about when they make these claims? Do they know the nature of the rights being proposed?

When I say “know” I do not mean what they see or hear about the refugee camps in media outlets, but whether they have examined the tragic situation in the camps with their own eyes. After all, there are Palestinian camps all over Lebanon and MPs can visit the camps closest to them.

Decisions taken by these MPs often affect the lives of refugees in a negative way because in many cases they are not aware of the real conditions they endure. These politicians have the authority to make decisions that they think are suitable for refugees.

Does this mean that Lebanon’s camps have not been visited by any dignitaries? On the contrary, the camps have been visited by many ministers and MPs that represent European Union countries.

These foreign MPs come to the camps to acquaint themselves with the conditions that Palestinians live under and to examine the progress of the projects that their countries have funded.

Generally, these are modest projects that do not warrant officials coming all the way from Europe to observe – a well here, a school there, a few ambulances, and so on.

When it comes to Lebanese officials, Palestinians still remember the Cabinet committee that visited the camps upon the request of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee in 2006. The refugees thought life would be better after the delegation visited their camps.

At the time, minister Khaled Qabbani from the Future Movement headed the delegation that visited camps in Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre.

After visiting the Shatila refugee camp, Qabbani said: “What we saw today in these camps represents a real human tragedy that should move the conscience of the world and of humanity. The camps should not be left in these tragic conditions abandoned since 1948.”

But the situation that minister Qabbani bore witness to only got worse after his visit. None of the ministers that were part of the delegation set foot in a camp again.

Qabbani admits he hasn’t “been to a camp since the delegation’s visit. But we have taken measures to improve the living conditions of Palestinian refugees. I, as education minister, introduced bureaucratic procedures for Palestinian students like their Lebanese counterparts, and so did the labor and health ministers.”

The minister from Beirut’s Tariq al-Jadidah neighborhood thought that he was familiar with the situation in the camps. As Qabbani says, he lived there and he has been familiar with the situation “from the time we were kids and young men.”

But childhood memories differ from the reality that Qabbani saw on the ground. In this visit “we witnessed the details of Palestinian lives and we walked through the internal pathways of the camps. No alleyway was left uninspected.” The former minister insists that the delegation’s tour was different from previous visits.

What Qabbani remembers the most is “the dark rooms that lack the minimum requirements for a decent life, like electricity and water. What shocked me the most is the overcrowding in these rooms whereby seven or eight individuals live in one room.”

He describes what he saw as a human tragedy “in the full sense of the word, and the world does not see these conditions and the deprivation that Palestinians live in. Even the United Nations and humanitarian organizations do not see this bitter reality, especially the conditions of children in the camps.”

Qabbani asks: “How will these kids turn out when they grow up? The situation affected us and aroused our sense of sorrow.”

But let us ask what the Lebanese state did for the welfare of these children before we ask what the world did? The answer of course is nothing.

Former social affairs minister Nayla Mouawad was supposed to be part of the delegation that visited the camps but she was “out of the country” at the time.

But Mouawad has “been to the Baddawi refugee camp in north Lebanon. It was not a visit in the sense that I did not walk through the camp but rather attended a meeting there.”

When asked about her impression of the camp she says she “cannot give you my impression of the place. I did not visit it and I did not pay attention to my surroundings. But without a doubt and without visiting the camp I know that living conditions are miserable there.”

MPs who live close to a Palestinian refugee camp may visit the camp to fulfil certain social obligations. MP Ammar Houri from the Future Movement who also hails from Tariq al-Jadidah neighborhood knows about “the suffering of camp residents.”

He too remembers his childhood and his repeated visits to the camp at the time. Now, Houri visits the camp to fulfil social obligations. Every time he goes to the Shatila refugee camp, he is “shocked that the infrastructure and the aid given to the Palestinians is inadequate compared to the reality on the ground.”

Houri, with his permanent smile, assures us that he has many friends in the Sabra and Shatila camps as well as other camps that he usually visits.

Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar who lives by the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp also says that he visits the camps on “social occasions” and what he remembers the most from his visits is “the terrible human and social conditions of Palestinians in the camps.”

Ammar who “cannot forget the suffering of camp residents,” as he put it, emphasizes the need to provide Palestinians with their civil rights.

As such, the visits that Lebanese MPs pay to the camps are usually on social occasions. Most of them fail to see the electricity wires hanging over their heads, blocking out the sky above. Maybe their tinted car windows prevent them from seeing clearly.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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