Gaza war revives past trauma for Lebanon's Palestinian refugees

Gaza war revives past trauma for Lebanon's Palestinian refugees
Gaza war revives past trauma for Lebanon's Palestinian refugees

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Jamil Salameh, 56, who witnessed the Israeli shelling that killed more than 100 people in 1996 and dozens more in an Israeli airstrike in 2006, talks to a journalist beside what he said the remains of a destroyed Israeli tank in Qana, Lebanon October 24, 2023. — Reuters pic

BURJ AL-BARAJNEH CAMP (Lebanon), Oct 26 — For aging refugees in Lebanon, seeing Palestinians caught up in a new conflict in Gaza revives painful memories of their own flight during war in 1948 from villages and towns that were once in British-ruled Palestine and are now part of Israel.

Bidur Al Habet, who fled her home near the coastal town of Acre 75 years ago and ended up in Beirut’s packed Burj al-Barajneh camp, wants to return, even as she watches television images of war between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas.

“If the battle starts, let them open the border. We will all go, young and old,” said the 82-year-old, speaking in a shabby block down one of the camp’s narrow alleys. “Let them take these buildings, we don’t want anything from them, we would leave.”

Palestinians fled to Lebanon and other Arab states in what they call the “Nakba”, or catastrophe, when they were driven from their homes as Israel was created in 1948, although Israel contests the assertion that they were forced to leave.

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The tents that first sheltered them have given way to camps like Burj al-Barajneh, crammed with badly built concrete buildings erected with scant thought for urban planning.

But the status of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, whether survivors from the first days or their descendants, has not changed over the decades: they remain stateless, cannot own property and are limited in the jobs they are permitted to do.

“The situation is literally miserable,” says Walaa Kayyal from Asylos, a British charity that researches asylum cases, adding that Palestinians who fled to Lebanon are facing “the worst situation” compared to those who went to other countries in 1948.

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In some Arab states, Palestinians were able to live more integrated lives, and some became citizens. But Lebanon’s authorities have proved far less accommodating, wary of upsetting the country’s combustible sectarian mix.

‘Battle of the whole nation’

Many of the Palestinians who arrived in Lebanon and their descendants still live in 12 refugee camps around the country, which now hosts about 174,000 Palestinian refugees.

The walls in Burj al-Barajneh, like other camps, are covered in graffiti backing Palestinian factions, which are effectively in control. Security and governance is in the hands of Popular Committees and Palestinian factions, the United Nations Palestinian refugees agency UNRWA says. Lebanese security forces generally stay outside the camps.

Since Hamas launched its deadly attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel launched its devastating airstrikes on Gaza in response, more graffiti has appeared.

“The battle of the whole nation, Al Aqsa Flood,” reads one stencilled message spray-painted on a wall, referring to the name Hamas gave to its Oct. 7 assault on Israel.

Zahra Steitiyeh, 51, a Palestinian embroidery seamstress, said she hoped the latest conflict would one day open the way for her and her family to go back to their original home: “The resistance (Hamas) gave us a lot of hope by what they did in Palestine, that we would return.”

Meanwhile, many in Gaza, a narrow strip of land just 40 km (25 miles) long where 2.3 million people live, most of them also Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel, have been displaced again.

They have fled their homes in north Gaza after Israel told them to move south for their own safety, even as Israel has continued to bombard sites all over the strip.

This time, however, they cannot leave the confines of the Gaza Strip. Arab leaders, notably from Jordan which borders the West Bank and Egypt which shares a frontier with Gaza, have said Palestinians must not be pushed out of their land again.

For Steitiyeh’s mother, Khadijeh Astateh, who was nine when her family was dispossessed of their home in Safed in what is now northern Israel in 1948, the news of the latest mass displacement of Palestinians in Gaza is a fresh trauma.

“What do I feel? The whole of my body shakes,” she said. “Although I am constrained and I need a walking frame, my feelings are strong.” — Reuters

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