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Rashidiyya Refugee Camp

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Rashidiyya Refugee Camp

Rashidiyya Camp

12 December 2009
Source: 
grabbelaar/Flickr

Rashidiyya Camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the Tyre region of South Lebanon, is the camp closest to Palestine geographically, lying only 13 kilometers  from the Lebanon–Palestine border and 5 kilometers  from the city of Tyre. The camp is surrounded on three sides by trees and gardens and on the western side by the Mediterranean, which means that the camp is largely isolated from its surroundings.

The camp has seen many upheavals over roughly three periods: since its inception and until the Cairo agreement between the Lebanese government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was signed  in 1969; between 1969 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982; and after the 1982 invasion until the present. 

Origin and Layout of the Camp

In 1949 the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) rented land from the Lebanese government on the outskirts of Tyre and the first Palestinian refugee camp was set up—the camp that later became known as the old camp. The Palestinians were not in fact the first people to live in a camp on this site. The French government had set up a camp there in 1936 to house Armenians who had taken refuge in Lebanon.

In 1963 the Lebanese authorities decided to move the residents of the Gouraud Barracks Camp in the town of Baalbek in the Biqa‘ Valley to Rashidiyya, and a second camp, known as the new camp, was set up. Some residents remained in the old Rashidiyya Camp and some lived in the new camp.

Rashidiyya Camp covers 228 dunams (51 acres) and is separated from nearby Tyre city by the Shawakir district, a relatively long sandy area that is untouched by urban sprawl and that is the preferred landing spot for Israeli infiltrators from the sea. This sandy area was the site of the “war of the camps” between the Amal movement and Palestinian armed groups in the 1980s when that conflict spread from Beirut. The fighting contributed to preventing the camp expanding northwards to merge with the city. 

In some ways Rashidiyya Camp might be preferable to other camps. Since it was built some years after the Nakba and since there were already several camps in many parts of Lebanon, UNRWA was able to build it in a more organized and less haphazard manner. But this process took several years and in the meantime the residents suffered greatly. They were housed in crowded, insect-infested rooms without water or electricity and had to use public baths.

The camp was built gradually on a regular grid plan, with generous spaces between the houses and with streets that were relatively wide. But this arrangement did not take into account the proximity of some of the houses to the seashore, and during the first winter the seawater washed away the first two rows of houses. This caused serious material damage and a certain degree of panic among the residents. UNRWA demolished the houses that were closest to the sea and built a wall between the sea and the rest of the houses.

However, as the population of the camp increased, more houses were needed, and building began to extend horizontally and vertically inside the camp until the houses were again adjacent to the seashore and the water again posed a threat to the houses and to the residents. No one had an effective solution to the problem.

The geometric layout of the camp gradually changed, especially after the Israeli invasion in 1982, when Israeli forces destroyed a large part of the camp. The rebuilding process was haphazard, the streets were narrowed, the cultivated areas disappeared, and the new houses were built in such a way that they were almost contiguous. But the building process came to a halt later, when the Lebanese authorities issued a decree on 1 January 1997 that banned Palestinian refugees from moving building materials into the South Lebanon camps. This ban was later extended to Burj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. The Lebanese state claimed that the purpose of the ban was to prevent the refugees from establishing permanent residence in Lebanon. The banned materials included cement, iron rebars, gravel, sand, tiles, aluminum, paints, water tanks, and electricity generators.

The ban specified that such materials could be confiscated and that refugees who violated the ban could be detained, questioned, and fined. Camp sources indicate that exemptions to the ban could be obtained with a permit from Lebanese military intelligence in the city of Tyre or through a request from UNRWA, but the Lebanese authorities rarely allowed such permits to be issued. As a result, the houses close to the seashore were liable to flooding and structural damage during the winter, which put the lives of the residents in danger. The same applied to other houses that required renovations or repairs.

The Demographic Composition

When the camp was established, most of the families living in it came from northern Palestine, and especially the villages in northern Galilee, such as Umm al-Faraj, Shaykh Dawud, Fara, Suhmata, Dayr al-Qasi, Sha'b, Alma, Kuwaykat, and al-Ghabisiyya. In all the refugee camps it was normal for people from each village to congregate in neighborhoods (harat) named after their village in Palestine. There was the Dayarna neighborhood (for people from Deir al-Qasi), for example, the Sahamna neighborhood (from Suhmata), and the Sha‘abna neighborhood (from Sha‘b). But these neighborhoods were not isolated from one another. In fact, the camp was a replica of the Galilee area with all its many villages, and the first groups of people to move into the camps planted fig trees and grapevines in their vegetable gardens, as they used to do in Palestine. Old people claimed that fig trees or grapevines carried the smell of Palestine.

As time passed, the demographic structure started to change, for several reasons:

1. PLO forces entered the camps in Lebanon after the Lebanese authorities signed the Cairo agreement in 1969. The Rashidiyya Camp took in Palestinian fighters coming from Jordan.

2. Many camp residents left the camp in the late 1970s and the early 1980s because of the repeated Israeli attacks and incursions. Whole families were forced to leave the camp. Some chose to live in the nearby city of Tyre, while others went to more distant parts of Lebanon. A considerable number of these families settled in the southern city of Sidon after the Israeli invasion of 1982.

3. The camp took in groups of families that fled from Syria after 2011. At the beginning of the war in Syria, the camp received about 500 displaced families, and then the number fell to about 200 families, when most of them migrated to Europe under family reunification programs, while some went back to Syria.

These changes had an effect on the camp. The division of the camp by Palestinian village was no longer as rigorous as it had been when the camp was set up. But a sense of national identity is still prevalent today. UNRWA says that the camp now has 27,000 residents, but the 2017 census of inhabitants and households in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, conducted by the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee, recorded only 8,641 people living in the camp. Sources in the popular committees say that the census figures are inaccurate and that the number of inhabitants is now between 20,000 and 22,000, or about 4,500 families—an average of about four people per family.

The Social Structure

Camps are microcosms of the wider societies around them, which include various classes. There are affluent families, middle income families, and poor families. But the camp has preserved a particular feature: although villagers of all classes became refugees after the Nakba, families with status retained their status in the camps, especially in the early years. It might be true to say that the affluent families did not lose much of their status, at least among people from the same village in Palestine. For example, the mukhtar of a village retained his title, even if he no longer held office, and the village elders continued to act as family authorities inside the camps. In the first phase prominent positions in UNRWA went to members of powerful and affluent families, while people from middle income and poor families held lower level jobs, worked as artisans or laborers, or were unemployed.

Relations with the Surrounding Community

Rashidiyya Camp was different from other camps in Lebanon in that it was some distance from the nearest residential areas, which meant there was little contact at first between the camp residents and the people in neighboring Lebanese villages. There were also Lebanese security personnel at the entrances to the camp to monitor movement in and out of the camp, so the camp was partially isolated. Farm laborers and building workers left the camp in the morning and went home in the evening. Over time, people from the camp got used to going out to shop in the city of Tyre, and gradually relationships developed between Lebanese employers and their Palestinian workers and between shopkeepers in the camp and traders in Tyre and the nearby villages.

Employment

The Rashidiyya refugees did not have many work options in the early days of the camp. Most of the jobs were in the agriculture and construction sectors. Since South Lebanon was known for growing citrus fruits, many camp residents took to seasonal work in the fruit orchards near the camp and to construction work at other times of year. Palestinian labor was a golden opportunity for Lebanese employers, who could hire skilled workers at low wages.

But things changed in the next phase, after the fedayeen moved into the camps. Some of the men were recruited into guerrilla groups, though work in agriculture and construction did continue. But one can say that the financial position of the refugee population improved considerably during this period because of the advantages that the PLO secured, especially with respect to freedom of movement and new fields of employment.

After the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the departure of PLO forces from Lebanon, work opportunities gradually diminished until most of the camp residents were unemployed. It was harder to leave or enter the camp, and Lebanese law prevented Palestinians from working in most sectors. In addition, the amount of cultivated land around the camp had shrunk, reducing the need for manpower in the agricultural sector. The number of jobs in the construction sector also fell because of difficult conditions in the Lebanese economy in general. In response to the very high rates of unemployment, small projects emerged in the camp: fast food restaurants, clothes shops, hairdressing salons for men and women, wedding reception halls, shops selling vegetables and other household necessities, and so on.

Even so, living conditions in the camp are not good compared to conditions in Lebanon as a whole, and this has led to some unwelcome phenomena, such as the expansion of the drugs trade, which has led to security problems and even to armed clashes among the camp residents, with some casualties. This has caused great anger and resentment, and there have been calls for the security forces to intervene in the camp to put an end to this plague.

The current unemployment rate is almost 60 percent, and many families and young men try to migrate to Europe in various ways, including by boat, despite the risk.

Services

UNRWA, the agency responsible for refugee affairs in the camps, provides public services in the camp, especially education and health, as well as food aid. Until the end of the 1980s, camp residents were still receiving some food rations through regular distributions.

Education

In the beginning UNRWA set up primary schools and then middle schools in the camp. Students who wanted secondary school education had to go to schools outside the camp, which required tuition. But then UNRWA set up a secondary school in the camp, which also took in secondary school students from al-Bass and the Burj al-Shamali camps.

The camp currently has four UNRWA schools—two primary schools, one middle school, and one secondary school—and five kindergartens. UNWRA has reduced its services in this sector in quantity and quality because of the financial crises it has faced. The issue of daily paid teachers has raised a storm of problems at the start of each school year when UNRWA decides not to call on their services, which then means they are deprived of the income on which they depend.

But despite all these problems, there has been a marked improvement in the level of education among the children in the camp. Dozens of them go on to universities in Lebanon and abroad, but the chance to find a job remains the greatest concern and challenge to graduates from universities and other academic institutes. 

Health

Until the early 1970s, UNRWA provided the only health services available in the camp. Its clinics occupied a large area between the old camp and the new camp. But when PLO forces moved into the camp, the various guerrilla movements began to set up small dispensaries. Eventually the Palestinian Red Crescent Society opened the Balsam Hospital, which marked a qualitative leap in medical services. The hospital provides the basic medical services that camp residents need and covers most medical specializations, including an obstetrical department, and carries out surgical operations. But the hospital does not have modern imaging devices, so some patients have to be referred to medical centers outside the camp. There are also several medical laboratories in the camp, as well as nine pharmacies in addition to the UNRWA pharmacy—a reasonable number given the size and population of the camp.

Public Services

When people moved into the camp, they did not have the luxury of public services such as electricity and piped water, and obtaining water was no easy matter. UNRWA then set up standpipes in certain locations and residents could fill up containers with water. Women would often have to wait for their turn to fill up a jerrycan. These were the only sources of water until piped water was made available to the houses.

The camp now receives water from springs and ponds inside the camp, to which UNRWA has connected pumps, cisterns, and a network of pipes. Artesian wells that belong to al-Jam‘iyya al-insaniyya li-l-tanmiya (the Humanitarian Association for Development) provide additional water through a special network of pipes in return for a nominal monthly payment. A small part of the camp receives water from the Litani River Authority.

A new sewage system was built in 2016, but it only covers three quarters of the camp. The remaining part has not been completed. There is also a network of channels for draining away rainwater. A central waste treatment station pumps the waste on to the central treatment station run by the municipal authorities in Tyre.

For years the residents of Rashidiyya relied on kerosene lamps for lighting, while wealthy families used gas lamps. Later UNRWA gradually installed a mains electricity grid, which was destroyed in the Israeli invasion of 1982. Camp residents now obtain electricity from two sources: the Lebanese grid, which is the main source, and privately owned generators, for which they pay a monthly fee that varies according to the price of heavy fuel oil. Because of the fuel crisis in Lebanon, camp residents have been experiencing severe blackouts, and many of them cannot afford the fees for access to private generators.

Camp Administration

After the camp was set up, the Lebanese security agency known as the Deuxième Bureau was in charge of security at the camp, while services were the responsibility of UNRWA. Until the late 1960s camp residents were subject to a strict security regime: policemen attached to the Deuxième Bureau clocked people in and out of the camp,  controlled such routine matters as house repairs and water supplies, and handled security in general. The institution's relationship with the camp was one of fear and apprehension on one side, power and oppression on the other.

This situation persisted until 1969, when the Cairo agreement was signed, regulating the presence of armed Palestinian groups in Lebanon. It said that the PLO would supervise the camps and that the Deuxième Bureau would have no role or presence in the camps. The people in the camps breathed a sigh of relief and felt a sense of security, strength, and freedom. But the camp was repeatedly attacked by Israeli forces from the land, the sea, and the air on the grounds that there were military bases in the camp.

In the first years after the Israeli invasion of 1982, ambiguity prevailed over the respective roles of the Lebanese security forces and the Lebanese party militias. While the Palestinian guerrilla groups were reorganizing in secret, the camp residents were in a state of uncertainty and anticipation. In 1985 the War of the Camps led by the Amal Movement broke out. A tight siege was imposed on Rashidiyya Camp and some camp residents were killed and wounded in shelling attacks.

Palestinian factions currently manage security in the camp through a joint security force that coordinates with the Lebanese authorities, while “popular committees” work alongside UNRWA to run services in the camp.

The Resistance

Any discussion of the Lebanese camps in general, and of the camps in South Lebanon is particular, would be incomplete without addressing armed struggle and resistance, which have gone through several stages. Until the mid-1960s the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon was fragmented, submissive, and lacking in unified leadership. But things begin to change when the Palestinian resistance appeared on the scene and Palestinian fedayeen armed with Kalashnikov rifles became, in the eyes of Palestinians and Lebanese fighters who supported the Palestinian cause, a symbol of freedom, revolution, and strength. Lebanon’s position on the borders of historic Palestine was the main reason why the fedayeen adopted border infiltration as their main military tactic. During the Israeli invasion of 1982, Israeli forces swept into the camp, as they did in the other Palestinian camps in South Lebanon. After fierce fighting with the defending forces, the Israelis occupied the Rashidiyya and Burj al-Shamali camps. Israeli sources say that the operation required a complete army division of more than 10,000 men fighting for three to four days and that the division suffered about 120 casualties.

Conclusion

Despite living in the diaspora and facing the tragedies of refugee life, the residents of the camp have had their own community through hard times and good times. The walls of their houses are full of pictures of smiling people who have been killed in conflict. People get married there, children go to school daily and play in the alleyways, and old people sit on the stoops outside their houses, reminiscing and telling stories. That is the rhythm of daily life. The abiding element is that Palestinians are weighed down by the cares of today and worries for the future. But at least the residents of Rashidiyya can go up to the roofs of their houses, look toward Palestine, and dream of returning.

Selected Bibliography: 

Khalidi, Rashid. Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Sfeir, Jihane. “Palestinians in Lebanon: The Birth of the ‘Enemy Within’.” In Muhammad Ali Khalidi, ed. Manifestations of Identity: The Lived Reality of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2010.

UNRWA. “Rashidieh Camp.” unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon/rashidieh-camp

الأمين، حازم. "الرشيدية مخيم الأوهام والحقائق الثقيلة، وفلسطينيو صيدا مختلفون عن المقيمين في عين الحلوة"، جريدة "الحياة"، العدد 13403 (18 تشرين الثاني/ نوفمبر 1999).

الشوفي، فراس. "جدار الرشيدية: لا لشيطنة الفلسطينيين". جريدة "الأخبار". 3 تشرين الأول/ أكتوبر 2018.

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