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Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon As a Space of Exception

Sari Hanafi


Sari Hanafi, "Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon As a Space of Exception ", REVUE Asylon(s), N°5, septembre 2008

ISBN : 979-10-95908-09-8 9791095908098, Palestiniens en / hors camps., url de référence: http://www.reseau-terra.eu/article798.html


Why has the violence erupted in the Lebanese camps and not in the Jordanian or Syrian camps ? This paper argues that for 60 years, the space of the refugee camps in Lebanon was treated as a space of exception and an experimental laboratory for control and surveillance. Exception is not promulgated by one sovereign ; many actors involved in the different modes of governance have been contributing to the suspension of this space under the cover of the laws and regulations. These actors, involved in the politics of space, are mainly the host authorities, and to a lesser degree the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), but also Islamist groups and different local political commissars.

Introduction [1]

The armed battle between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam inside the Nahr El-Bared refugee camp, north of Tripoli, lasted three months, resulting in the killing of over 40 Palestinian civilians, 167 Lebanese soldiers and over 200 Fatah al-Islam militants, and the destruction of almost all of the camp’s premises and the flight of around 33,000 to the other camps. In Ein al-Hilweh, many arguments develop into clashes between armed young men. Some other camps are besieged by the Lebanese army in an attempt to control human and arms flows into the camps. Fatah-al-Islam (200 persons), Usbet al-Ansar (League of Partisans, 200-300 persons), Jund al-Sham (Army of Greater Syria, 100 persons), are names of extremist Islamist organizations, franchises of al-Qaida, which invest progressively in the space of the camp. What is interesting about these three groups is the rumors spreading like wildfire about their respective commander(s) and bankroll(s) : serious hypotheses have pointed the finger at Syria, at Saudi Arabia, [2] and at al-Qaida as supporting these groups. It is also probable that the Syrian security apparatus has facilitated their entrance into the camps, rendering it a competition between Syria and Saudi Arabia to control and at least neutralize these groups, making the group dynamic go far beyond the original objective of these countries. Taking the case of Nahr al-Bared, how come Fatah-al-Islam installed themselves in this particular camp at the end of July last year, and, after one year, became a very well armed 200 member Arab and Lebanese extremist group ? Regardless of the authorities behind them, they all know very well that the camp is a space of exception, a space out of place.

How have we arrived at this point ? Why has the violence erupted in the Lebanese camps and not in the Jordanian or Syrian camps ? This paper argues that for 60 years, the space of the refugee camps in Lebanon was treated as a space of exception and an experimental laboratory for control and surveillance. Exception is not promulgated by one sovereign ; many actors involved in the different modes of governance have been contributing to the suspension of this space under the cover of the laws and regulations. These actors, involved in the politics of space, are mainly the host authorities, and to a lesser degree the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), but also Islamist groups and different local political commissars.

II. The Example of Nahr al-Bared Camp

The Actors’ Competition

Many actors play a role in alleviating the plight of the displaced Palestinian people. The most important actor has been UNRWA. In spite of its slowness, as some interviewees complain, it has done a great job. Donors and International NGOshave provided financial support as well such as the Welfare Association, the Norwegian people’s Aid, and ECHO. . NGOs such as the Islamic Relief, Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) Al Soumoud, Najdeh, as well as some Islamic organizations have assisted the population and ensured the basic needs of the displaced population and the returnees. In addition to these institutions, the Saudi Arabia paid seed money ($1200) to each family through the Lebanese government, and some Lebanese political parties, especially the Future Movement, provided food for the families.

Grassroots organizations were quickly established to help the Palestinians with their struggle. For instance, an AUB-based initiative composed of AUB students and faculty has helped the displaced people. However, what has been extremely helpful is the establishment of the committee for the reconstruction of Nahr al-bared. The idea came from a group who has already helped several cities in South Lebanon (such as Bint Jbeil and Aita al Shaab) in their reconstruction. The significance of this group is that its members understand the importance of empowering populations by organizing them. They established along with the Palestinian population the “Committee for the Reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared camp”. This committee has surprised UNRWA with the large amount of work completed through consulting the population of Nahr al-Bared about probable reconstruction options and preliminary indispensable work for future design.

Nevertheless, the matter at hand is not to which extent there is solidarity and aid for these 33,000 displaced people but in fact it is the lack of coordination, and this again cannot be understood without referring to the vacuum of power in the refugee camps and the fact that these camps are under both the state of void and the state of exception.

The Nahr al-Bared camp crisis has shown the weakness of all the Palestinian political factions in managing the crisis. We can distinguish this at two different levels : the relationship with the Lebanese state and society and the level of dealing with the displaced people. Concerning the first level, the PLO has played a very careful and wise role with a clear position of unconditional support to the Lebanese Army against Fateh al-Islam. [3] Hamas has taken a very intriguing stand : either a stand of the “empty chair” or the non-stand. Calling for a political solution, Hamas and Jihad leaders refused to clearly denounce Fateh al-Islam. While other organizations like the Popular Front or the Democratic Front of Palestine Liberation have criticized Fateh al-Islam, they have also given preference to a political solution, if possible. In the beginning, the Palestinian factions, led by Fatah and PLO, were ready to offer 200 guerrilla men to support the Lebanese Army. Unfortunately, Lebanese authorities and some European and American diplomats seemed to refuse this initiative. For them, the Nahr al-Bared camp battle should not give any credit to the Palestinian armed forces. This option has proven to be not only a disaster from human point of view (almost 167 Lebanese soldiers were killed) but also because the long battle ended by the total destruction of the old Nahr al-Bared refugee camp and partial destruction of the new one. But what is truly quite tragic is that all authorities did not take into account the importance of reinforcing the PLO’s legitimacy in the camp towards camp population, incapable to realize the importance of establishing a legitimized body in the camps.

At the second level of crisis management, the situation is at the verge of chaos. The constant competition between the PLO factions and the pro-Syrian factions inside the camps has even impeded the possibility to take technical decisions on the ground. Let us take the case of the displaced people settled in the schools of al-Baddawi camp. Until the end of November, the Palestinian factions were incapable of taking a unified position in favor of evacuating the schools. In one school around 20 displaced families has de facto prohibited the schooling of 1000 pupils. The consequences of the lack of leadership are also extremely serious on social peace : tension has risen between the al-Baddawi camp population and the displaced people. The Palestinian factions and several NGOs are criticizing UNRWA and its bureaucratic apparatus for not being able to solve the problem of the remaining displaced people living in many institutions and UNRWA schools. For the first time, Palestinians who used to consider themselves as victims found themselves both in competition and confrontation with other victims. Certain displaced people deployed a heavy political slogan in a sit-in they conducted that stated “From Badawi to Naher al-Bared”, alluding that they will not leave the Badawi camp except if it is directly to the Nahr al-Bared camp and nowhere else, no matter how long this will take ; the “sacredness” of such a slogan come from its ethnological resemblance to another slogan important to refugees : “From the Camp to Palestine”. The absurdity of this situation is not due to the situational ephemeral anger but more to the organized character as there are some political factions who join the sit-in. Can we actually talk about egoistic victims, victims who hinder pupils to join their schools two months after the opening of the academic year ? Victimhood has been since long constructed by humanitarian organizations which provide temporarily solutions instead of political ones.

A quarter of century has passed since the exit of PLO from Lebanon. These years have proved to be years of complete vacuum of legitimate authority in the camps. Camps are delivered to their old and new notables, rending their situation disastrous. Many witnesses confirmed that mosque imams, who have been given the role of new notables, ‘normalized’ the presence of Fateh al-Islam in the camp by their Friday sermons. I am not suggesting a complicity but at least the ignorance or simplicity of many Islamic organizations who are fascinated by the devotion of these ‘pious’ people. After two clashes between the population and Fateh al-Islam fighters, at least two imams in this camp were asking the population not to harm them as they are “pious faithful people”, as many interviewees reported. Their presence had almost not been noticed as the camp has grown full of men with long beards since dozens of years, even if those don’t have the same Islamist jihadist ideology as Fateh al-Islam. The camp dwellers have moved between fascination and apathy because they are hopeless. They are unemployed people feeling the weight of the discrimination of the Lebanese labor market and the promiscuity of their urban and living condition, seeing no light from the current peace processes and the propagation of American hegemonic projects in the region. While Fateh al-Islam had established itself due to the need of some innocent people, obtaining the help of some Islamist groups in Lebanon (and specifically in Tripoli), from one side, and a very favorable regional context (Iraqi crisis, Syrian-Lebanese crisis...), from the other side, there is a kind of responsibility that both the camp dwellers and their factions should assume and from this they should both think of how to stop such similar jihadist phenomena in the other camps.

Looting in the Space of Exception

The destruction of the Nahr al-Bared camp is one main of the consequences of the camps being a space of exception, but after the fighting ceased, there came more. From the official end date of the fighting in early September until October 10, the camp was placed exclusively under the control of the Lebanese army, not allowing residents of the new camp to return. Later, thousands returned to houses that had been burnt, looted and vandalized. Interviews we conducted as well as those by the Amnesty International Fact Finding Mission attest to what appears to be a systematic pattern of burning and looting. Racist graffiti written in many homes of the camp is accompanied by the names of various Lebanese army commando groups (Amnesty International, 2007). While the preliminary looting had committed seemingly by Fatah al-Islam and some camp inhabitants, however, who has been doing that if nobody can enter the camp except the Lebanese Army ? What is significant is that the camp is perceived by some of the Army officers as a space of exception and out of law. It can be looted and vandalized, and thus, so far no independent investigation has been carried out, although Amnesty International has written to the Lebanese Primer Minister and to Ministry of Defense calling for an investigation to be initiated and those responsible to be held accountable (2007).

It is very interesting that there is almost no public debate over such an important issue. As a space of exception, the camp has constituted an emergency zone where witnesses are not allowed : even journalists and human rights organizations are being denied entry to the camp. It is this suspension of laws that facilitates the potentiality of vendettas and looting. The Palestinian population is homo sacer : people whose property is not only destroyed but also looted without allowing the criminals to be prosecuted.

III. Conclusion : Camps as Laboratories

The space of the camps has four principal functions : a place of habitat, economic space, a space of memory and identity affirmation, and a space for exercising power including its function as a type of military base (Dorai 2005). These functions render the camp a laboratory of Palestinian society/state-in-making, but also an experimental laboratory for control and surveillance, and a technical model of repression developed by its sovereigns’ know-how, implemented and deployed in other parts of the world that do not ‘behave’. But beyond this, as formulated by Bernard Rougier (2007), the camp has emerged as a sort of laboratory or microcosm for the vast range of thought relating to politicized Islamism. However, compared with the other Islamist groups, the question is not the emergence of new ideology for the al-Qaida but new mode of action. My interviews with the Syrian Palestinian refugee camp dwellers who have gone to fight with al-qaida in Iraq show clearly that they are fighting against the American project in the region and not against the Western values.

The portrait I paint, though seemingly dark and threatening, does not concern all the refugee camps in Lebanon at the same level. However, it is time to ring serious alarm bells about what is going on in the specific space of refugee camps, as exemplifying the state of exception and the politics of void.

For Mohamed Kamel Dorai (2005), the different functions created a Palestinian socio-spatial dynamics based on three aspects : territorial permanence (a place of stability and continuity), communitarian space and space of contact with Lebanese society. However, stressing this last point, he illustrates that while the al-Buss camp is integrated into the urban fabric, the other camps are very different. This is why camp dwellers in Lebanon are very communitarian compared to other Palestinian camp dweller communities in the diaspora.

While I look at the refugee camps as an extreme case and on the legal edge at times as a state of exception and at other times as a state of void, I do so by applying the typology of camps as open or closed. The closed camp is subject to the state of exception, albeit in different modalities ordered by various types of sovereignty : real, phantom or local, where Palestinian refugees are examples of bare life, subjected to extreme legal conditions, by revolting and resisting these conditions they are expressing their agency.

The dominant Palestinian and humanitarian organizations’ imaginary discourses have narrated the conflict in terms of human suffering and victimhood. Portraying closed camps as museums enables such narratives. Moreover, these spaces are considered the primary units for maintaining the refugees’ Palestinian identities in Arab host countries. As a result, the camp as a quasi-political entity has been investigated by social scientists, journalists and experts and has been shown to reproduce the structure of pre-1948 Palestinian society, including the reproduction of the place of origin inside the camps, as if Lobieh, Safad, etc. are often socially reconstituted in such camps as Ein Al-Hilwa and Yarmouk camps. This ethnicization of the refugees’ history overlooks the importance of the economic, social, and cultural relationships with the host countries. Very few ethnographic studies were able to see the ties with the host countries (Zureik 2003 : 159).

The image of a refugee in the Arab region is thus confined to those who dwell in miserable camps and not necessarily those who dwell outside. The assumption, in popular thought and within the scholarly community, was that the more miserable the camp, the less people would want to settle in the host countries and would ultimately return home. The discourse of misery revolves around stagnation and control of camp dwellers. The relationship between Palestinian national identity/belonging and the type of residential area is indeed very loose. There is no relationship between place of residence and being a supporter of the right of return.

Although the right of return movement was initiated by West Bankers and linked to the PFLP, and started out with a meeting in Farra camp near Hebron, it has flourished in Europe and North America rather than in the Arab World. We therefore do not need to be members of a closed refugee camp to maintain a right of return and Palestinian identity. Contrary to the popular belief that the camp nurtures Palestinian national identity, the camps, where radical national movements mingle with religious conservatism, have produced a new in-docile urban identity rather than a national one. Ein al-Helweh, which has a long history of resistance to the Israeli colonial system, has today become disconnected from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and from Palestinian nationalism, reaching out to a broader world of Islamicist activism, with frightening consequences for the camp dwellers, the Lebanese population and perhaps the whole region. Bernard Rougier has the merit since 2004 to caution us about this radical transformation inside of the camp project (see for instance 2007). We may be witnessing a definitive rupture between the camp and its roots in Israel/Palestine, while remaining ideologically and financially connected to a network of Salafi or Wahhabi support for the camps, carried through specific clerical figures from Saudi Arabia and sometimes Iran.

While the PLO is currently pushing for cooperation between the Lebanese and Palestinian authorities in governing the camp, as has been clear from the declaration of the Palestinian Ambassador in Lebanon Abbas Zaki on many occasions in 2007, many local pro-Syrian and Islamist actors have refused this and pressed to keep the status quo of the state of exception. Many scholars, in the name of supporting the Palestinian national movement, are unaware of the form of authoritarian nationalism being cultivated in the camps. In addition, our observations of school pupils a decade ago showed that less than a third wore the Islamic foulard (a veil that covers the hair but not the face), today, virtually the sweeping majority do so, some covering the face too. New emerging scholars, such as Khaled Hroub (2007) and Oraib Rantawi, have opposed the right of return in favor of the ‘right of survival’, alluding to a form of camp nationalism based on an abstract discourse of the right of return which is threatening the survival of the Palestinian national movement and even the Palestinians as a nation. The success of the Al-Awda network derives from its capacity to organize many activities, such as meetings, peaceful demonstrations and information campaigns. By the force of this movement, many Palestinian communities in the various western countries began to organize themselves. However, this movement seems not to be interested in related the improvement of living condition of the Palestinians in host countries with their claim for the right of return. Al-Awda Network stated unequivocally : “Our advocacy includes the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland, and to full restitution of all their confiscated and destroyed property.” (see http://www.al-awda.org/faq-al-awda.html)

We must re-think the refugee camps as a space of radicalism and a space that contributes to perpetuating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict rather than resolving it. There is a real need to empowering camp dwellers by giving them civil and economic rights, recognizing the transnational character of their identity, and radically improving the urban conditions of their space. This will not be possible without connecting these spaces to the urban tissue of the neighboring cities and creating a transparent mode of governance based on local elections.

I am not advocating a tabula rasa approach but rather the rehabilitation of the refugee camps and their design as an urban space, not only with reference to their political and social status, but also to becoming part of the city and not opposing it, like in the Yarmok refugee camp in Damascus. An urban master plan based on rehabilitation should take into account the physical, socio-economic, and cultural fabric of the concerned spaces. A bottom-up participatory approach should be used to outline the differentiated needs of the Palestinian refugee population : women, men, children, working class and middle class, etc. A solution grounded in the right of choice (between return, settling in the host land, Palestinian territory or in other countries), and close cooperation (not competition) between the PLO, the Palestinian National Authority, UNRWA and the host country, is the first step in alleviating the problems of the refugees. Alleviation would form the basis for empowering the refugees as transnational subjects. Some efforts are being made in Jordan and to a lesser extent in Syria to include the camps in the state’s urban infrastructure but nothing has yet been initiated by the Lebanese authority. In this perspective, such authorities should recognize the transnational and flexible nature of the identity and citizenship of the refugee community (Hanafi, 2005). There is no opposition between rehabilitation of a place where a refugee lives and the ardent desire of some of them for their return. A refugee is able to place him/herself in a succession or a superposition of many temporalities or spaces of reference.

Towteen (implantation) is the scarecrow which can release a public phobia against the basic rights of the Palestinians. Any debate about civil and economic rights starts by affirming that the objective should not be towteen and ends with the same melody to the point that rights become substituted by fast humanitarian or security solutions. The only common ground between the various Lebanese political parties is the use of towteen as taboo. Browsing just the headings of the main Lebanese newspapers (Al-Nahar, al-Akhbara and al-Safeer, and Orient de Jour), one can realize the very recurrence of one Lebanese political group opposing another by portraying the latter as promoter to towteen, which is paramount to the treachery : “The program of al-Bared Camp reconstruction is the beginning of the towteen” [4] (first page heading of Al-Akhbar, July 2, 2007). Others (including religious authorities) consider the mere talk about the Palestinians’ right to work the first step of towteen.

Throughout this debate the individual Palestinian is invisible. The deployment of bio-politics by humanitarian organizations (regarding Palestinians as bodies to be fed and sheltered, bare life without political existence) is one end of the spectrum, the towteen discourse is on the other end. For those having such a discourse, the Palestinians are mere figures, demographic artefacts and a transient political mass waiting for return. Between humanitarian discourse in the zones of emergency on the one hand, and the towteen discourse on the other, the rights-based approach for the Palestinians as individuals and collectives, as refugees but also as citizen-refugees with civil and economic rights, as well as the right to the city, is lost.

Palestinians play a minor part in the ‘new’ Lebanon. Politically, economically and socially marginalized, they constitute a minority sect without a recognized place in a sectarian system, no longer a vanguard of the revolution (Mattar 2004). However, to cite Alessandro Petit (2007), the problem of this sect is that it is almost spatially enclaved. We live in a world where enclaving undesirable, risky groups and confining them in the space of exception is seen as the very condition for the ‘free’ circulation of ‘civilized’ people in the global Fortressed archipelago.

Many refugee camps are at the verge of catastrophe and no security solution can stop this route. It can only be helped by engaging in a serious process based on the following elements : allowing the Palestinian refugees to have full access to the labor market, including liberal professions ; allowing the Palestinians the possibility to possess land and property ; establishing an elected popular committee in each camp, a quasi-municipality, to be in charge of the camp administration ; establishing joint Palestinian-Lebanese police centers in each camp ; and, finally, the ending of the space of exception status of the camps by submitting the camps to the full Lebanese laws.


Doraï, Mohamed Kamel (2006) Les Réfugiés Palestiniens au Liban. Une géographie de l’exil. CNRS Editions, Paris

Hanafi, Sari (2005) ‘Reshaping geography : Palestinian community networks in Europe and the new media’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 31, no. 3.

Hroub, Khaled (2007) ‘Between Right of Return and “Right to Survive” !’ al-Ayyam, 8 June 2007.

Dina (2004) ‘Containment and Exclusion : A Comparison of Jordanian and Lebanese Conflict-Regulating State Strategies towards the Palestinians between 1948 and 1988/89’. Unpublished Thesis.

Peteet, Julie (2005) Landscape of Hope and Despair : Place and Identity in Palestinian Refugee Camps, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Pettti, Alessandro (2007) Arcipelaghi e enclave. Architettura dell’ordinamento spaziale contemporaneo, Rome : Bruno Mordadori, 190 p.

Rougier, Bernard (2007) Everyday Jihad : The Rise of Militant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon. Barnes and Noble, New York.

Zureik, Elia (2003) ‘Theoretical and Methodological Considerations for the Study of Palestinian Society’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East vol. 23, no.1-2, 152-162.

Amnesty International (2007) Lebanon : Amnesty International calls for inquiry into reports of looting and abuses at Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. Public Statement. AI Index : MDE 18/015/2007, 31 October 2007.


[1] I would like to thank those who contribute to enriching the first version of this paper, especially Ray Jureidini, Michal Givoni,Yael Barda, Marwan Khawaja, Aage Tiltnes, Manal Kortam and Rima Rassi. A special thank to Ronit Lentin for her thorough reading of this paper.

[2] In an article in The New Yorker magazine earlier this year, respected investigative journalist Seymour Hersh accused the Sunni-dominated Lebanese government of funding the rise of Sunni militant groups in north Lebanon, as a bulwark against Shia Hezbollah - a charge the government denies. Didn’t he also say the Americans were involved in this ?

[3] However, treating the demonstrators of June 12 who wanted to express their anger towards their situation as demagogues and trouble makers gangster (ghawghaiyyeen) was terribly negative in the eyes of the displaced people.

[4] Under such a heading, Ambassador Khalil Makawi, the head of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, argued against what he called “Towteen business”. (al-Akhbar, 2007)