Jalil Camp lies at the entrance to Baalbek, the town known as Heliopolis or the City of the Sun in ancient times. Located close to the Roman temple complex and covering an area of no more than 0.4 square kilometers (100 acres), it is the smallest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. It is the only official camp in Biqa‘ Governorate; the governorate is home to Palestinian communities in Bar Elias and Taalabaya. The number of Palestinians in the governorate, as a proportion of the overall population, is lower than in any other governorate. The camp is 90 kilometers from the capital Beirut and about 100 kilometers from the border with Syria.
The Origins of the Camp
In 1949 the Lebanese authorities decided to set up a camp for Palestinian refugees in the Biqa‘ Valley in an abandoned military camp used during the French Mandate period. It included housing for officers and soldiers and stables for horses. Groups of Palestinians from the border area of Bint Jbeil and the Biqa‘ area of Anjar were moved to the barracks, which was initially called the Wavell barracks after British Field Marshal Archibald Wavell. It was renamed Jalil (Galilee) Camp in the early 1970s as requested by the camp residents, many of whose families came from Galilee.
For the first residents of the camp, their arduous journey into exile began when they reached the Bint Jbeil border area, where they spent several days under the trees. They were then moved away from the border, in line with the general policy adopted by the Lebanese authorities regarding the influx of refugees fleeing Palestine, and moved to the Biqa‘ town of Anjar. But when problems arose with the Armenian residents of Anjar, they were moved to the Wavell barracks.
At first the families were housed in the rooms and stables of the barracks (the term still used by the residents). Initially the refugees were not allowed to build on the empty spaces inside the barracks, which meant the families were confined to a limited area. They used primitive methods to separate themselves from other families, such as setting up blanket and jute sacks. Families tell stories about having conversations with one another through the blankets, which of course were not soundproof. But things changed later for two reasons: the Palestinian political organizations assumed responsibility for the camp in the early 1970s, and civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975. Unregulated building and expansion then began in the empty spaces, and people also began to build upward until the Lebanese authorities banned any further building inside the camp.
At present, those who live in the barracks share the roof and the balconies, but the small inner rooms receive no sunlight and are poorly ventilated, so they are dark and stifling during power cuts. A few small areas in the camp offer play areas for children.
Like other camps, the Jalil camp mirrors the geography of the villages in Galilee from which the original refugees came. The most prominent of these villages were Lubya, Saffuriya, al-Mujaydil, Farada, Hittin, Sa‘sa‘, Sahmata, and Shafa Amr.
Initially refugees from each village chose to live near their old neighbors, and these “neighborhoods” in the camp later came to be known by the name of the village. So there are areas called Hayy al-Lawabna (the Lubna people’s quarter), Hayy al-Safafra (from Saffuriyya), and Hayy al-Majadla (from al-Mujaydil). But with the passage of time, as the population increased and there was more intermarriage, the areas became mixed and the inhabitants were no longer exclusively from one village, even if the areas preserved their names.
In the early 1950s the camp had a population of 2,800 people, which increased to about 5,000 in the mid-1980s. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, 8,000 camp residents were registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); camp sources indicate that 3,500 refugees (about 560 families) live inside the camp and 3,200 refugees (about 540 families) live nearby in the town of Baalbek and its suburbs because of overcrowding inside the camp.
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the camp has taken in a considerable number of displaced people, especially from Yarmouk Camp in Damascus. This has added to the pressures on housing and services. In 2022, about 1,000 Palestinians (200 families) were displaced from Syria and now live in the camp, and 1,500 Palestinians (about 300 families) displaced from Syria live outside the camp. No more than twenty Syrians live in the camp. All of the displaced Palestinians, whether they live inside or outside the camp, receive services in the camp.
UNRWA is the body responsible for providing services of all kinds in the camp, and the constant reductions in these services have had a seriously negative effect on health and education. The secretary-general of the popular committees in the Biqa‘ region provided the information in this section about the services provided in the camp (water, electricity, fuel, health, education, and employment).
UNRWA supervises the provision of water to the camp from underground wells and large cisterns. The residents buy drinking water because, although UNRWA has a contract with the Baalbek water authority, the water received in the camp is insufficient and unfit for drinking. The popular committee has installed a water purification station that sterilizes water constantly and makes it available to refugees inside and outside the camp. The well water in the area is often inadequate and polluted. Several aid providers have previously tried to dig additional wells, but tests showed that the water was polluted and unfit to drink.
Electricity in the camp usually comes from the Lebanese state company Électricité du Liban. There are official meters and company officials who collect payment, but there are many encroachments on the network, which leads to transformers burning, and the maintenance team in the popular committee then have to repair the lines. Because of the economic crisis that began in Lebanon in late 2019, most of the electricity consumed in the camp now comes from private-sector generators through monthly subscriptions. But the crisis has meant that some families have had to cancel their subscriptions and rely on older, alternative methods for lighting.
The harshness of the climate makes life hard for the camp residents. Extreme summer heat and the severe cold and the snow in winter aggravate their sufferings, because the high cost of fuel oil since 2019 makes it impossible for people to store sufficient quantities to run oil-fired heaters. Although UNRWA and some NGOs provide modest amounts of fuel oil, it is limited to certain special cases. On top of that, most of the houses have leaks in winter, so the ceilings and walls get damp, which contributes to disease spread.
The camp has an UNRWA clinic with a section for general health and dentistry, a laboratory and a pharmacy, and a cardiologist and a gynacologist. There are two dispensaries, one of them run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society, providing general health services. It has a laboratory and a dental clinic. The other is the Bilal ibn Rabah dispensary, which has a general health department, a dental clinic, a pharmacy, a laboratory, and a physiotherapy department. Health services are available to Palestinians residents in and around the camp. Palestinians in other locations such as Bar Elias and Taalabaya receive UNRWA health services locally.
UNRWA and the dispensaries have limited quantities and a limited range of medicaments. UNRWA has contracts with three hospitals in the area, covering 90 percent of costs in two hospitals and 60 percent in the third. Coverage for some chronic diseases such as kidney diseases, cancers, and multiple sclerosis is limited, and UNRWA covers only part of the treatment costs
The camp has a complex of UNRWA schools called Jalil Coeducational Secondary, with secondary, intermediate, and primary classes. According to sources in the popular committee, there are 335 students in the secondary and intermediate stages and 580 in the primary stage. The schools are short of teachers because of a policy of reducing the services that UNRWA provides. The schools do not have a modern laboratory. Despite these shortcomings, the school’s performance in official examinations is one of the best among all the camps in Lebanon, and very few children drop out of school early.
There are two kindergartens run by local organizations: al-Aqsa Kindergarten and al-In‘aash Kindergarten.
Civil Society Organizations
A striking feature of Jalil camp is the number and range of civil society associations considering the camp size and population. There is the Najdeh Social Association, the Jalil Children's Center, the Sumud Association, the Bara‘em Association for Social and Charitable Services, Al-Ghawth – Humanitarian Relief for Development, and the Women's Programs Association. There are also four clubs: the Beit Jala club, the Fallouja club, the Naqab club, and the Filastin club.
In the 1950s and 1960s seasonal agricultural work was the main source of work for camp residents, along with other artisanal work. The camp residents would travel to Zahle and the surroundings plains for work, depending on the season, and in other seasons they would work in construction. The people of the area benefited from Palestinian labor in two respects: the laborers were cheap and had farming experience, because most of the camp residents were from farming families.
Starting in the 1970s, when Palestinian resistance groups took control of the camp, new opportunities for work became available. Many camp residents joined the resistance groups, partly because they paid regular monthly salaries and partly because they gave Palestinians a sense of security, confidence, and national belonging. The new circumstances made it possible for camp residents to start simple businesses in and around the camp. But the political and military developments that followed the Israeli invasion of 1982 led to a large decline in individual income levels in the camp. Waves of migration to Scandinavian countries acted as a safety valve for camp residents, as remittances from relatives abroad saved them from poverty and destitution.
Since the end of 2019, Palestinians in Lebanon’s camps have been suffering from the economic crisis in the country. In an interview, one camp resident said a considerable number of Palestinian teachers were working in the best schools in the area. All of them were qualified and they included engineers who could find no work other than teaching. Despite their excellent qualifications, they had no rights because of the Lebanese labor laws, which prevent Palestinian refugees from holding most jobs. For new graduates, the situation is tragic: most engineers, doctors and business graduates are idle in the streets of the camp or working as taxi drivers while they wait for a chance to emigrate.
The camp contains a considerable number of shops and small businesses that try to meet the needs of the residents. For example, there are clothes and grocery stores, small restaurants, Internet cafés, cell phone stores, beauty salons for women, pharmacies, bakeries, and other services.
Emigration by Camp Residents
When some European countries opened their doors to Palestinian immigrants in the mid-1980s and the 1990s, poor conditions in the camp drove many of the residents to emigrate. Some sources say that about 7,000 people from the camp and the surrounding area left for Denmark and Sweden (and to a lesser extent Norway). Almost every family in the camp relies on remittances from relatives who have migrated to Scandinavian countries. The families tell many harrowing stories about emigration. “There are people who sold their houses, women who sold their gold and other possessions,” for example.
As a whole, the economic situation in the camps in Lebanon is abysmal, and the unemployment rate is high. Many families depend on help from relatives in Europe and the Gulf or from Palestinian organizations.
Politics and Security
Responsibility for camp security has changed hands over the years. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Lebanese security forces were in charge of the camps, and they imposed severe restrictions on camp residents. Since Jalil Camp had been an army barracks, the barracks gate was the only entrance point. The Lebanese security forces opened the gate in the morning and closed it at sunset, and it was forbidden to leave the camp after a certain time. One resident told stories about the concerts that were held in summer in the Roman temple complex nearby and how the camp residents heard the music as if it came from another world. They couldn't afford to buy tickets and they couldn't get back into the camp after their curfew.
But the situation changed after the Cairo agreement was signed by the Lebanese authorities and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1969. The camps then came under PLO control, and all the restrictions on movement into and out of the camps were abolished. The economic situation improved and, most important, the camp residents had freedom of political expression, which did not exist previously.
After PLO forces left Lebanon in 1982, the camp saw many fluctuations in the security arrangements at Jalil Camp because of internal divisions between Palestinians. Factions loyal to Syria were often in control, and this may have been the most important reason that young camp residents and their families opted to emigrate. At the same time, the camp was untouched by the Lebanese civil war, except for a few incidents. The political and military authorities in the camp also managed to keep the camp neutral during the War of the Camps (1985-87). But the camp was not spared attacks by Israel. In 1984 Israeli planes attacked the camp directly, killing many people.
The camp is now under the control of PLO factions and the forces of the National Alliance, and popular committees are in charge of residents’ social and day-to-day concerns. The popular committees work together as a miniature municipality. There is a unified leadership that handles internal camp affairs, with UNRWA and with the Lebanese authorities. Jalil Camp differs from other camps in that it does not have a Lebanese Army checkpoint at the entrance. There is a main entrance for vehicles and two side entrances for pedestrians only.
Camp residents participate in all national actions. In the Return Marches that Palestinians organized to the Lebanese-Palestinian border in May 2011, camp resident Khalil Mohammad Ahmed, 22, was killed by Israeli troops who opened fire on peaceful protesters. Other protesters were injured.
Relations with the Surrounding Environment
Camp residents report having strong relations with the residents of Baalbek and the nearby villages; the camp is in effect a part of the town and they share the same interest in security. They also share the same economic hardship and lack of some services. Sources in the popular committee say the committee has excellent relations with the municipality, the governor, and the Lebanese security forces in the area. There are many ties of kinship between Lebanese and Palestinian families, which tend to reinforce the links. Some of the townspeople go, for instance, to the dental clinic in the camp because they cannot afford the high fees charged by private clinics.
Life in this marginalized and forgotten camp exemplifies the Palestinian experience in Lebanon and demonstrates the importance of political and social cohesion inside the refugee camps in this town. At the entrance to the camp, a large sign says, “From Generation to Generation, No Concessions on the Right to Return or Jerusalem,” and a creative hand has drawn a beautiful and colorful mural with a Palestinian flag and under it in elegant calligraphy: “Will I see you … at peace, prosperous, safe, and dignified?”
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