Lebanon Standoff Highlights Refugees' Plight
Rebecca Roberts, host:
It is relatively quiet now around the Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, where Islamist militants are under siege. But the militants are warning they will take the fight to other parts of the country unless the Lebanese army pulls back.
As NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut, the standoff has renewed focus on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. They make up about 10 percent of the population there.
DEBORAH AMOS: This is Beddawi, a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon. It's a neighborhood of concrete apartment blocks in narrow streets choked with honking cars and gangs of teenagers.
The population of 20,000 doubled overnight when residents of the neighboring camp, Nahr al-Bared - under siege by the Lebanese army - fled their homes and moved in here.
The local school is packed, more than 800 people living in 29 classrooms. Addedeleh Ismayliyah(ph) washes the family laundry in a bucket of water.
Ms. ADDEDELEH ISMAYLIYAH: (Through translator) My baby here, she's terribly terrified. Every time she hears a bang, she thinks it's bullets on the house. And it's not - it's just too noisy here. We're not able to sleep before two in the morning.
AMOS: But washing stops when lunch arrives, delivered in plastic bags like take-out. A private aid agency linked to a Lebanese political party delivers hot meals three times a day. The prime minister made a public pledge to rebuild every house in Nahr el-Bared, now almost totally destroyed by army shelling.
But that doesn't answer larger question, says Palestinian doctor, Hassan Suliman(ph). Palestinian refugee remains in limbo. Not allowed to own land or work outside the camp and all that menial jobs. There is no hope left, he says.
Dr. HASSAN SULIMAN: You must find the right solution for this problem. I don't know how, but you must find it.
AMOS: The rise of a violent Islamist group in Nahr el-Bared, the popularity of Islamist cells in other Palestinian refugee camps has forced the Lebanese government to reassess policies for the first time in decades, says Cabinet Minister Kahlil Makkawi.
Mr. KAHLIL MAKKAWI (Cabinet Minister, Lebanon; Head, Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee): We realize that we made mistakes. I mean, the camp should not have been left in such a miserable situation. It became a fertile ground for fundamentalists and extremists and terrorists.
AMOS: Radicalization is linked to international developments as a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has fallen apart. But Lebanon can do something about harsh social conditions in the camps, says Makkawi, lifting restrictions on employment that has guaranteed misery for Palestinians in Lebanon.
Mr. MAKKAWI: And this is wrong. They lived in the country for 60 years. So now also on our agenda is to change this law so we can allow them to go into the professional jobs.
AMOS: Tim Orgoksil(ph), a political science professor, says successive Lebanese governments see the Palestinian refugee camps as a security problem not a social one.
Professor TIM ORGOKSIL (Political Science): There's no future for them and that - they could get even more desperate. They have nothing to lose. They have nothing.
AMOS: Mohammed Ali Abit(ph), in a neatly pressed military uniform and short cropped silver hair, is a Palestinian commander in Ein el-Hilweh camp, the largest in the country with 90,000 residents. Abit is with the mainstream Palestinian faction in the camp. But the PLO shares power with Asbat al-Ansar, a radical Islamist group. Together, they put down an uprising a few days ago with yet another more radical splinter group.
Abit says the decline of the traditional Palestinian institutions in these camps have given an opening to the radicals. Some of them get military experience by fighting with insurgents in Iraq.
Mr. MOHAMMED ALI ABIT (Palestinian Commander): (Through translator) In order to have such groups, there are three things that must be present. One is poverty, the second is ignorance, and the third is a lot of hope, especially with the young that have no way out, that have no future, that have no jobs.
AMOS: Abit and other commanders from the PLO are old men now, holding the line against the younger generation who have no hope for a Palestinian state and join radical groups that promise paradise in their version of an Islamic state.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.
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