The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are a tragic by-product of the decades-old conflict with Israel, and may be at the real and symbolic center of brokering a solution.
The 12 camps, which have been there since 1967 and in some cases since 1948, are home to almost 400,000 people, or 10% of the country’s total population. Living conditions in the camps are shockingly bad: the rate of unemployment is 80%, there’s little access to health care or schools, and the people who have lived there for decades are broadly discriminated against in the rest of the country. By law they are not eligible for citizenship, and cannot own or inherit property. They are, in the words of an anonymous blogger whose voice we featured on yesterday’s show, perpetual refugees.
The camps have also traditionally been a breeding ground for militants. In the late ’60s the PLO drew much of its support from a radicalized refugee population, providing Israel with some of its rationale for invading in 1982. The Sabra and Shatila refugee camps were the site of a 1982 massacre, which angers and galvanizes people to this day.
There are now more Palestinians living in the diaspora, camps included, than in the actual territories. Many still carry the keys to the homes they lost, and hand them down from generation to generation. What’s to do about this — eternally, it seems — displaced population? Should they have the right of return to a future Palestinian state? What impact does its presence have on the domestic political landscape in Lebanon? Why hasn’t that country tried to assimilate them into the broader population, as has happened in Jordan and elsewhere? What is the relationship between these Palestinians and the ones living in the West Bank and Gaza? What is the role of these camps in the present conflict? And what is the existential reality of being a perpetual refugee?