Shatila Refugee Camp

Shatila Refugee Camp

Shatila camp

30 October 2012
Courtesy of Hala Caroline Abou Zaki
Hala Caroline Abou Zaki

Located in the southern suburb of Beirut in Ghobeiri Municipality, Shatila Camp became one of the most famous Palestinian refugee camps in the region after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, a symbol of the Palestinian exile.

Origins of the Camp

Shatila Camp was created in 1949. Abed Bisher, a Palestinian from Majd al-Kroum village in Upper Galilee, is considered to be the founder of the gathering that gave birth to the camp. According to historian Rosemary Sayigh, Bisher arrived to Lebanon with his family (about twenty members) in 1948, during the Nakba. He rented a one-room apartment in Beirut but after a few months, he was not able to pay the rent. He decided then to buy a big tent and pitched it in the Horsh area, on the outskirt of Beirut. Then he started to look for the neighbors of his village and to gather them. He met with a Beiruti notable called Saad al-Din Pacha Chatila, who was living in a villa near the encampment, and asked for land where he could settle with his co-villagers. The landowner, a Lebanese man, was in Brazil and Pacha Shatila, the authorized representative of the plot, let them move to his land. Fearing that the Lebanese authorities would transfer the refugees to another place, Bisher started to look for the inhabitants of the villages near Majd al-Kroum to convince them to join the new gathering.

In 1950, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recognized the gathering as a camp. One year later, UNRWA took over the camp and named it “Shatila,” in reference to the Beiruti notable. Some believe that Palestinians wanted to call it “the camp of al-mujahidin.” The camp’s terrain, covering 39,567 square meters, was made up of many hills and was surrounded by fig and prickly pear trees.

In the early 1950s, around a hundred Palestinian refugees were living there. A few years later, the camp expanded and according to UNRWA there were more than 2,000 refugees. The majority of Shatila’s population originated from Majd al-Kroum while the others came from twenty-five other villages, including al-Birwa, Dayr al-Qasi, Shaab, Saffuriyya, Amqa, al-Kabri, Balad al-Shaykh, Kuwaykat, Safsaf, and al-Manshiyya. There were also about twenty-five families from Jaffa.

While in the other Palestinian camps in Lebanon people gathered based on their village of origin, such spatial division could not be clearly established in Shatila because of the numerous localities of origin and the small size of the camp. Some inhabitants recall that social divisions arose from the distinction between the refugees’ rural (fallahi) and urban (madani) origins.


During the 1950s and the 1960s, the built environment in the camp developed slowly for two main reasons. The Lebanese authorities placed restrictions on the camp to prevent its development into a permanent settlement for the refugees. Moreover, the refugees themselves were suspicious of the development projects proposed by UNRWA; they considered them aimed at permanently settling the refugees outside Palestine.

The Red Cross initially distributed about twelve tents in the camp. Each tent measured 9 square meters and housed two families. When UNRWA took over the camps, the size of the tents increased to 16 square meters, and each family had its own tent. The Lebanese authorities forbade the reinforcement of the tents, which were cold in the winter, and so the refugees reinforced the tents from the inside with wooden boards, stones, cheese boxes distributed by UNRWA, sand mixed with water, and other materials. In 1955, following an agreement with the Lebanese authorities, the Palestinians were allowed to reinforce the tents from the outside. During that period, shantytowns began to form in the immediate surrounding of the camp with the arrival of destitute Lebanese from rural areas and migrant workers (mainly from Syria).

In the early 1960s, the tents in Shatila were gradually replaced by permanent housing with breeze-block facades and a corrugated iron roof (zinco).

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) took over control and management of the camp in the 1970s. People started to develop housing with solid roofs and build new constructions, and the PLO developed the camp infrastructure. At that time, the population increased and the camp extended outside its initial perimeter, blurring the limits of the camp. Many Palestinian refugees from other regions of Lebanon as well as those who arrived in Lebanon with the PLO moved to the camp and its neighboring areas. During this period, which is referred as the “days of the Revolution” (ayyam al-thawra; 1969–1982), the Palestinian space—in terms of political, military, social and cultural influence—moved out of the camp: the surrounding areas of Shatila, extending to the Arab University of Beirut, came under the control of the PLO, which concentrated the majority of its political and administrative offices there. At the time, according to Sayigh, 20,000 people were living in Shatila and the close surrounding; this number quickly reached almost 50,000. In the immediate environment of Shatila, Sabra Street became a main artery with its meat, fruit, and vegetable market and with several PLO institutions such as the Gaza hospital or Samed institution.

During the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990), Shatila Camp was particularly damaged during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the siege of Beirut and the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, and the Battle of the Camps between 1985 and 1988. In the late 1980s, Shatila was almost entirely destroyed and its population was displaced. The reconstruction process immediately started in the aftermath of the war and was completed in the mid-1990s. Whereas the camp had previously spread horizontally after 1969 with two or three-story houses, the new camp was reborn through vertical extension, with several buildings more than six stories high. The Lebanese government wanted to limit the Palestinian space to the camps.  

Since then, the camp went through several waves of population increase, which resulted in the development of the buildings and the reduction of the open space of the camp with extremely narrow alleys and tall buildings, affecting the environmental health of the camp (high humidity and overcrowded houses) and the well-being of its residents, who experience high noise levels and lack of privacy, among other adverse conditions. This population growth has not been matched with a sufficient development of the sewage system, water and electricity supplies, or services such as trash collection. In 2018, UNRWA identified 452 buildings, with an estimated camp area of approximately 70,000 square meter.

Shatila camp, 30 October 2012, Hala Caroline Abou Zaki.


Socioeconomic Conditions

Of the twelve Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Shatila is the most densely populated. Since the 1990s, Shatila has gone through dramatic changes and a population growth. The majority of its residents did not return after the Lebanese Civil War: many families emigrated in the 1980s, mainly to Europe and more specifically to Denmark, Germany, and Sweden, and  others remained in their new places of displacement, mainly in South Lebanon. UNRWA rehoused in Shatila hundreds of displaced Palestinian families (from Tal al-Za‘atar and Nabatiyya Camps, for instance) who were squatting in Beirut. Lower income Lebanese families, who had also been displaced by the war, Syrians (mainly workers) as well as Dom people (usually known by nawar) settled in the camp and its outskirts where rents are less expensive than elsewhere. 

The camp’s population continued to increase over the years following internal, regional, and international migration flows—from Iraq, Nahr al-Barid Camp, Bangladesh, Egypt, and elsewhere. Since 2011, due to the uprising against the Syrian regime and the war in Syria, thousands of Syrians and Palestinians from Syria have taken refuge in Shatila. According to the 2017 survey conducted by the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, the camp houses about 14,010 people of which only about one third are Palestinians (29.7 percent are Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and 3.8 percent  from Syria), and slightly more than half are Syrians (57.6 percent). The remainder are Lebanese make up (8.2 percent) and people from other nationalities (about 0.7 percent).


Since their forced exile to Lebanon, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been banned from many professions. Shatila’s Palestinian residents are often employed as laborers; they run grocery shops or work as street vendors or cleaners and some are UNRWA employees. When the camp was established, Palestinian refugees mainly depended on UNRWA’s rations. Families of rural origin, who represented the majority of the camp population, could not immediately adapt to the urban labor market. The establishment of the PLO in Lebanon in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the establishment of its institutions in Beirut (e.g., Samed institution, Gaza and Akka hospitals, political institutions), and the Sabra market have provided new job opportunities for the Palestinians, improving their economic conditions.

However, the situation deteriorated after the PLO departure in 1982 from Lebanon and the closure of most of its institutions. After 1982, labor regulations for Palestinians grew more restrictive. Moreover, Palestinians have faced strong competition on the labor market from Syrians, as they both invest in the same sectors of activity. This has been particularly true in the 1990s and 2000s and since the mass migration from Syria after 2011 especially since Syrians represent a cheaper labor force. The Lebanese financial crisis since 2019 led to deteriorating living conditions for Shatila residents, like everyone in the country.


The majority of Shatila’s Palestinian pupils are enrolled in UNRWA schools, located within the camp and its surrounding areas. The schools are named after Palestinian towns, cities, and regions (e.g., al-Manshiyya, Ariha, Haifa, al-Jalil).

In the early 1950s, UNRWA set up a primary school for boys in Shatila, which consisted of three large tents. Then it opened a preparatory school for boys outside the camp, in the Ghobeiri area. In the 1970s, there were two elementary schools in the camp—Ariha for boys and al-Manshiyya for girls—and a junior high school for boys (Grades 6–9), Al-Jalil preparatory school. Girls attended Haifa preparatory school, in Sabra area. During the War of the Camps in the 1980s, two of the Shatila schools were completely destroyed. The third one was heavily damaged and was reconstructed in the mid-1990s to provide elementary and preparatory schooling for boys and girls. At the end of the 1990s and due to the restricted access of Palestinians to Lebanese public schools, UNRWA opened Al-Jalil secondary school (Grades 10 to 12), one kilometer from the camp. In the early 2000s, two schools have provided elementary grade education for Shatila children: Ramallah (for boys) and Hemmeh (for girls). They shared the same building and operated on a split shift schedule. Since then, the two schools have merged: Ramallah elementary school provides education for boys and girls in the camp.

Following the mass migration from Syria after 2011, several NGOs have opened in the camp to provide informal education for Syrian children.


In the 1950s and the 1960s, Shatila was under the control of the Lebanese authorities. UNRWA was also indirectly involved in monitoring the Palestinians. Its employees in the camp noted activity of residents, and it banned Palestinian employees from taking part in political meetings in the camp and cut off aid to those who did.

At the end of the 1950s, the Lebanese authorities reinforced control of the camps through the Second Bureau, the state security body whose mission was to monitor and prohibit all political activity. Various methods of intimidation and pressure were used against anyone suspected of political activity. These measures were combined with those of the police who was inside the camp and enforced a series of laws concerning the residence and daily practices of the inhabitants. These years left a deep mark on the minds of the Palestinians in the camps and remain synonymous with humiliation. Between 1969 and 1982, PLO factions took over camp management from the Lebanese security services following the signing of the Cairo Agreement in 1969. In 1973, popular committees were formed to manage the camps; their members were refugees from the camps nominated by the Palestinian political factions. In Shatila, Palestinian factions opened offices inside the camp, and the neighborhoods where they set up became known by the organization’s name (e.g., the Fatah region or the Democratic Front region).

With the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 and the period that followed, the camp became the place of the Lebanese and regional political pressures on the PLO as it became the place of internal Palestinian rivalries. Several wars within this period deeply affected the camp: (a) the Sabra and Shatila massacre, after the Israeli invasion of Beirut, which was carried out by Lebanese militiamen (Lebanese forces, Saad Haddad men, Guardians of the Cedars) under IDF surveillance and claiming thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese victims; (b) the War of the Camps (1985–1988), led by the Lebanese Amal movement with the support of the Syrian regime, during which Shatila was besieged for three years; and (c) the internal Palestinian battle in 1988 that broke out between the Palestinian pro-Syrian organizations (Fatah-Intifada, the Popular front for the liberation of Palestine-General Command (FPLP-GC), Al-Saiqa) and Fatah. The first group took control of the camp and the Fatah members were expelled from Shatila. During the 1990s, the political and security climate in Shatila was tense due to a strict control of the camp by these factions and the Syrian army which maintained a checkpoint at the entrance of the camp until 1993. At that time, the Popular committee was formed, consisting of the political factions of the Palestinian National Salvation Front (PNSF) which was replaced, in 1993, by the Alliance of Palestinian Forces.

In 2005, the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon after a 30-year presence weakened the Popular Committee of Shatila. Fatah was then able to officially reappear in the camp and to form, along the other PLO factions, another Popular Committee in addition to that of the Alliance of Palestinian Forces. During the same period, Shatila held the first local elections in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon to form a committee of Shatila camp residents (lajnat ahali mukhayyam shatila). However, this committee was short-lived. Since 2005, Shatila has two popular committees and suffers from a governance crisis. People complain of a lack of a clear representation in the camp and of factionalism and political rivalries that sometimes end with armed clashes. Another concern in Shatila is related to the trafficking and use of drugs. Palestinian residents in the camp have organized several demonstrations to protest this situation. In June 2020, for instance, a march was organized in Shatila following the death of a woman killed by a stray bullet during clashes between drug dealers.

Civil and Political Organizations

In addition to UNRWA, many local and international NGOs provide services in the camp. The oldest and best-known are Beit Atfal al-Soumoud, al-Najdeh, and the Children and Youth Center (locally known as Abou Moujahed Center). Some of these organizations run kindergartens or provide vocational trainings. Since 2011, the Syrian migration has transformed the organizational landscape in the camp; several local and international NGOs provide services for Syrian refugees, such as Basmeh & Zeitooneh that offer services such as education, vocational trainings or shelter renovation

Selected Bibliography: 

Abou Zaki, Hala Caroline. “In the Shatila ‘Cocktail’: Discourses and Narratives on Past, Present and Future Loss.” Ethnologie française  51, no. 2 (2021): 319–32. (Translated by Elsa El Hachem Kirby)

Abou Zaki, Hala. “Chatila, le devenir d’un camp de réfugiés palestiniens.” In M. Agier, ed., Un Monde de camps, 35–46. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2014.

Abou-Zaki, Hala. “Revisiting Politics in Spaces 'Beyond the Center': The Shātīlā Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon.” In Malika Bouziane, Celja Harders, and Anja Hoffman, eds., Governance beyond the Centre, 178–95. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.

Allan, Diana. Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.

Doraï, Mohamed Kamel. Les réfugiés palestiniens du Liban: une géographie de l’exil.  Paris: CNRS Editions, 2006.

Al-Husseini, Jalal. “Les camps de réfugiés palestiniens, soixante ans après : évolution des discours, adaptation des pratiques.” In Kamel Doraï and Nicolas Puig, eds., L’urbanité des marges: Migrants et réfugiés dans les villes du Proche-Orient, 39–62. Paris: Téraèdre, 2012.

Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, Central Administration of Statistics, Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The Population and Housing Census in Palestinian Camps and Gatherings—2017, Key Findings Report (Population, Buildings and Housing Units). Beirut: Authors, 2018.

Nuwayhed al-Hout, Bayan. Sabra and Shatila: September 1982. London: Pluto Press, 2004.

Peteet, Julie Marie. Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Sanyal, Romola. "Squatting in Camps: Building and Insurgency in Spaces of Refuge." Urban Studies 48, no.5 (2010): 877–90.

Sayigh, Rosemary. "Palestinian Camp Refugees Identifications: A New Look at the ‘Local’ and the ‘National’." In Are Knudsen and Sari Hanafi, eds., Palestinian Refugees: Identity, Space and Place in the Levant, 51–64. London: Routledge, 2011.

Sayigh, Rosemary. Too Many Enemies. The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon. London: Zed Books, 1994.

Sfeir, Jihane. L’exil palestinien au Liban: le temps des origines (1947–1952). Paris: Karthala-ifpo, 2008.

UNRWA. Shatila Camp. https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/lebanon/shatila-camp

UNRWA. Inventory and Needs Assessment on Environmental Infrastructure and Environmental Health in the 12 Palestine refugee camps in Lebanon, Response Plan 2018 – 2021 by Field Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Programme (FICIP). https://www.pseau.org/outils/ouvrages/unrwa_environmental_health_response_plan_in_the_12_palestine_refugee_camps_in_lebanon_2018_2021_with_inventory_and_needs_assessment_2020.pdf

 مخيم شاتيلا، موسوعة المخيمات الفلسطينية 


كلّم، محمود عبدالله. "مخيم شاتيلا: الجراح والكفاح". بيروت،: المنظمة الفلسطينية لحق العودة (ثابت)، 2008.