Posts Tagged With: Lebanon

The eternal return of Jean Said Makdisi’s Beirut Fragments (1990)


(Tripoli’s blast, North Lebanon, August 23 2013. Photograph by

“We are unforgiving judges of those who have not shared our experiences. We are like a secret society. We have our own language; we recognise signs that no one else does; we joke about our most intense pain, bewildering outsiders; we walk a tightrope pitched over an abyss of panic that a novice does not even perceive, let alone understand. We are provoked to anger and fear by the smallest detail while suffering calamity calmly”.

(Jean Said Makdisi, 1990)


(Dahiye’s explosion, Beirut’s Southern Suburbs, August 15 2013. Photograph by

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Assessing humanitarianism in Lebanon with a practitioner (by Estella Carpi, June 2013)

Thu 27 Jun 2013

clothes distribution in Tripoli, showing the Syrian opposition flag; photograph by Estella Carpi

A practitioner and a researcher assess humanitarianism in today’s Lebanon

By Fiorenzo Conte and Estella Carpi

In our combined effort of providing the perspectives of the practitioner and the researcher, we would like to take as a point of departure Italian scholar Roberto Belloni’s theses according to which humanitarianism, on the one hand, ends up being the short-term substitute for development, and, on the other, tends to reproduce the same cleavages it tries to overcome.

Humanitarianism as a short-term substitute for development

While conducting research and grounded humanitarian work in Lebanon, we have noticed how humanitarianism, while providing increasing quantity of aid, avoids addressing the root causes of Lebanese chronic poverty, administrative anarchy and recurring war-like events. Predominantly Western and Gulf countries have focused their attention on managing the symptoms of the malaise without effectively addressing its causes and hence engaging in the long term.

The humanitarian needs in Lebanon are surely huge for both Syrian refugees and long neglected Lebanese host communities. With the massive influx of Syrian refugees since August 2011, the Lebanese community, living in the poorest regions, has felt the pinch. Indeed, many residents are currently trying to tackle increased expenditures and a drop in income caused by a variety of factors: the closure of the border and the consequent inaccessibility to Syrian cheaper goods through the usual border-cross smuggling; fierce competition in the labor market that has been increased by the presence of Syrian workers; a deteriorating security situation; and reduced access to the agricultural lands strewn with landmines (1).

The situation for Syrians is similarly grim: according to a recent report, more than 50% of Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees live in substandard conditions, as Lebanese host communities are no longer able to absorb new flows of refugees in their houses. The vast majority cannot afford their medication for chronic-diseases, while others are foregoing hospital-level care because of the prohibitive cost and insecurity conditions. Many of them do not even have enough food to meet their families’ nutritional needs.

bread provided by NGOs to Syrian refugees in the aid kit in Wadi Khaled (Akkar); photograph by Estella Carpi

While some of these needs were not preventable, as they are inherently related to the Syrian conflict (i.e. interruption of trade and smuggling with and through Syria), widespread insecurity and an abysmal lawlessness stem from the structural weakness of the Lebanese state in asserting its control (meant as monopoly of violence) over the entirety of its territory. The state, however, neither asserts its authority, nor does it offer sufficient basic services. Feelings of abandonment, lack of authority and economic precariousness in Lebanese realities – like Tripoli and Arsal – end up feeding the militia culture, triggering, therefore, a recurrent spiral of violence.

The paradoxical result of this flimsy post-war order led in fact the Lebanese of the peripheral regions to access basic services, such as healthcare, in Syria before the recent violence broke out. The international community has always been happy with simply patching up, while the deep root causes of the generalized malaise could wait longer. In this sense, humanitarianism is the short-term substitute for development in Lebanon: foreign powers still hold political sway in the domestic scenario while apparently preserving the neutrality of the humanitarian aid. This disguising mechanism gives birth to a fake apoliticization of the foreign humanitarian market, while the latter is not marginal at all to local political realities. Many humanitarian organizations have therefore abandoned previous local development projects in Lebanese areas that have been less targeted by the Syrian migration flow, and have consequently joined the humanitarian efforts meant to deal with the Syrian crisis. Such a dynamic is often dictated by the direction into which donors’ funds are channeled, since emergency relief is constantly prioritized with respect to challenging development plans.

In a nutshell, humanitarianism is actually the answer to failure in development policies, and, as such, it has been proving that emergency plans just serve its purpose of refreshing funds and commitment for the humanitarian structures.

Humanitarianism reproduces the same cleavages it tries to overcome

Humanitarian providers in Lebanon, with their way of operating, tend to reproduce the same cleavages that pre-existed the crisis humanitarian actors aim at alleviating. There are two cleavages that humanitarianism is reproducing, and they are stigmatized in a “national” – sometimes depicted as “ethnic” – opposition: one is that between Syrians and Lebanese; another cleavage between the central state and pseudo-feudal decentralization of administrative power and resource management is also identifiable among the “side effects” of how humanitarianism is locally implemented.

In Lebanon, Syrian refugees and Lebanese returnees are considered by humanitarian organizations as the primary victims of the Syrian conflict. The funds allocated for the Syrian emergency in Lebanon are therefore earmarked for intervention that primarily or exclusively targets Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees, however, do not officially live in refugee camps – where implementation is so far refused by the Lebanese government – and are therefore scattered across different regions in Lebanon. Either hosted or as rent payers. They are mainly concentrated in the poorest Lebanese regions due to greater life affordability.

Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, thus, actually share a similar condition of poverty, exclusion and marginality. Nonetheless, they differ in one dimension: the first are formal recipients of aid, the second are occasional recipients of aid. This divide has inevitably created tensions. Moreover, the way humanitarian programs have been implemented has ethnicized the human needs of such areas: the fact that every kind of assistance is provided according to the “ethnic category” – or, in any case, the specific social group – one qualifies for, has rendered eligibility a watershed between who is entitled to be helped and who is not. This is definitely not a humanitarian side effect. By so doing, the humanitarian programs address beneficiaries by labeling them in a unilateral way and ignoring the variegated spectrum of their experiences of deprivation and neglect. In other words, these programs totally ignore the process behind the attribution of social labels to potential beneficiaries, and condemn the latter to survive within – and weirdly in the name of – the spot they occupy in the taxonomical pyramid of aid for Syrians, Lebanese affected by war, Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese and so forth. Hence, the humanitarian programs feed into such cleavages with their modus operandi – that is to say, working on the basis of categories – by establishing who is entitled to what and consequently engendering further tensions.

The Syrian influx also feeds into underlying inter-confessional tensions: some segments of the Christian community do not hide their fear of the Sunni influx (the majority of the Syrian refugees is in fact Sunni). Likewise, some residents in Alawite villages in Akkar perceive more tension now among their neighbors, who are allied with or against the Asad regime. With the economic situation deteriorating and Syrian migrant workers being an easy scapegoat for the generalized malaise, Lebanese from other sects are taking the matter into their hands, while cases of military raids and mob violence against Syrians are multiplying. The humanitarian response has failed to alleviate such tensions and, on the contrary, it has inflamed them by allocating the most visible part of aid (household items, food vouchers, blankets) almost exclusively to Syrian refugees. If, on one side, it is not the duty of humanitarianism to end local violence, on the other, it should not even fuel such tensions by identifying the local capacities for peace.

To its credit, humanitarian organizations have tried to channel as many resources as possible through the Lebanese public service: in the case of healthcare, for example, primary health care centers have improved both for Syrians and Lebanese. The support for Syrians is also based on the principle of equal treatment: Syrians pay as much as Lebanese to access any basic service. The fundamental caveat however remains, as aid was mobilized and allocated only when Syrians arrived, and Lebanese perceive that they were not, once again, the priority. The resentment and the sense of abandonment that the several areas of Lebanon receiving Syrians today have developed throughout the past century cannot be eradicated now, but should carefully guide humanitarian actors in the planning of their programs.

From the point of view of the humanitarian practitioner, the challenge lies in the search for eligibility criteria unlikely to create tensions. The latter are a material imperative, as the amount of resources that the humanitarian structure can benefit from is limited, and is, thus, bounded to differentiate between who is entitled and who is not to access services. Apparently, newly designed programs, as affirmed by UNHCR in Qobayat (Akkar) last February, are increasingly reflecting the moral logic of humanitarianism, according to which the needy beneficiaries should be addressed through assigning to them a unique moralized and victimized identity. Nonetheless, even the humanitarian modus nominandi dealing with homogenized categories of beneficiaries would still generate frictions, in that the beneficiaries unavoidably carry a diversified experience of historical neglect, war trauma, eviction and deprivation. Besides the fact that the access to some Lebanese areas is still filtered by local leaders that distribute resources through a confessional – and sometimes ethnic – network, the humanitarian structure, while concealing this material compromise behind the human label of universal assistance, keeps implementing projects as though it acted in a social void, deprived of past tensions and present social frictions, de facto fueled by the way aid itself is distributed and people get selected (2).

This apparent apoliticization of the humanitarian actors towards the conflict in which they are working serves to implicitly blame internal actors for not being able by themselves to dismantle the pseudo-tribal social structures of several Lebanese rural towns, which still impinging on humanitarian dynamics proposed by the internationals that, after a local social renewal, from their perspective, would run smoothly.

The second reason for contending that the humanitarian assistance tends to recreate and reassert the cleavages that it is supposed to dismantle – in the name of neutrality – is the local decentralization in administrative terms, certainly not leading to major coordination and better resources management in Lebanon. In order to operate, humanitarian agencies, most of the time, have to comply with the regulations imposed by the local leader and a sort of commissioner – in Arabic respectively mukhtar and mas’ul – who usually are the people in charge of managing all local affairs. This tendency often ends up legitimizing the corrupted dusty structure of pseudo-tribalism and nepotism, all along present in Lebanese society. This feeds an anti-state vicious circle.

In light of this, Lebanese areas that have always been neglected have suddenly hosted a massive presence of non-state actors, often international, importing standardized models of emergency planning from outside, and, at the same time, not aiming at supporting reformist internal tendencies and winking at pseudo-tribal local leaders that have interests in monitoring the aid distribution process. Thereby, small Lebanese villages are thrown into the bipolar schizophrenia that leads them, on the one hand, to desire an administrative modernization in marginalized contexts that have not been addressed by the Lebanese state yet; on the other, external actors basically feed the feudal structures that, in some cases, local people would like to liberate themselves from . The humanitarian actors instead seem to show “cultural respect” – and therefore detachment – whenever it turns useful to them in political terms, as they can access some areas just through local mediators, not always appreciated by the local community.

Thus, humanitarianism as implemented by international structures, both eastern and western, seems to lead to the reproduction, nay reinforcement, of the social, confessional and, in some cases, ethnic cleavages present in Lebanese society. Aid, therefore, unfortunately turns into a paradoxical factor of international supremacy and interference, feeding into internal cleavages while advocating for their elimination. Yet, such a compromising supremacy is pragmatically paraded as humanitarianism.

(1) Rapid Assessment of the Impact of Syrian Crisis on Socio-Economic Situation in North and Beqa’, 2012, UNDP Lebanon.
(2) Interviews conducted throughout 2012 and 2013 in the Akkar towns of Halba, el Bahsa and al ‘Abdeh (North Lebanon).

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Inside Hezbollah’s thirty-year struggle against Israel (May 2013)

Warriors of God, Blanford on Hezbollah’s 30-year struggle against Israel

 3 MAGGIO 2013

(di Estella Carpi*). The last work of American journalist Nicholas Blanford takes the form of an autobiography about his own life as a reporter, having the privilege of being constantly immersed in the insider world of whom he explores.

Blanford begins his book with a historical excursus of Hezbollah’s roots and Imam Musa al Sadr’s legacies in the ongoing Shi’a ethics: such as the conception of armaments as adornments of men. Men who want vengeance and revolt against tyranny.

Throughout the ‘80s and the ‘90s, the growing conviction that the only way to establish justice is to organize a revolution and use weapons, as Musa al Sadr suggested, is also confirmed by Lebanese scholar Mona Fawaz, that has observed how Hezbollah instead does not speak anymore of mahrumun – term initially assigned by Musa al Sadr, “the deprived” – rather mustadafun, term contained in the Holy Koran, meaning “the weakened”, which opens the door to change more easily than the former term.

Hezbollah, in fact, fosters the Shiite refusal of victimization and the status of passive oppressed, long date label of the Shiite community that is alleged to reflect their internalized existential status, culturally expressed through the annual ceremony of ‘Ashura, which commemorates Imam Hussein’s death.

The author highlights the position of Hezbollah as a Trojan horse carrying Iran’s influence into the majority Sunni Arab Middle East, who used to name the Shi’a “metwali”, as not grown in an urban environment unlike Sunnis in Lebanon’s history.

Blanford seems to look for political objectivity, in the full hope of its feasibility, by representing facts in their faithful chronological order, factual reality and endemic ways of living them. The several ethnographic snapshots of the detailed military operations, including flashbacks that focus on the evolution of particular war strategies and weapons used by both sides, leak an American-style taste for spectacularization of war scenarios or sensationalism of some scenes whose the author is the narrator (i.e. when he finally discovers one of Hezbollah’s bunkers after a seven month search).

For instance, Blanford reports the 16th October 1983 incursion of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) into the ‘Ashura ceremony in Nabatiye, contending that the trucks made the “mistake” of driving into the throng and inducing the celebrant Shi’a to throw stones. The Israelis are described as “frightened” in that episode. He seems to be committed to proving his will of embracing both sides’ interpretation in the name of objective historical truth.

To the same extent, however, he highlights where Israeli interests have resided behind all aggressive attacks against Lebanon, such as the annexation of Arnoun in 1998 to the Israeli occupied zone, with the alleged purpose of protecting the IDF and the South Lebanese Army (SLA) from Hezbollah’s attacks against the Beaufort castle.

With respect to Augustus Norton’s representation in the chronicles of the struggles between the two Lebanese Shi’a parties Harakat Amal and Hezbollah, Blanford reminds that South Lebanon people, especially Christians, actually had no other choice than trading with the Israelis. He therefore discards the “natural” friendship and harmony between the two sides that are instead perceivable in Norton’s work.

Yet, Blanford puts in the foreground the local differentiation of the Islamic Resistance as experienced and deployed by Palestinians and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and, on the other hand, promoted and lived by the Shi’a, once spiritually led by Musa al Sadr, and, later, by Fadlallah, carrying ideological innovations.

As evidence of this local differentiation of the Islamic Resistance, Amal used to view the PLO as occupants and, thus, used to be compliant with the IDF during the Lebanese “war of the camps” (1985-1989). On the contrary, Fadlallah absorbed the Palestinian cause into the Shi’a struggle for social justice and equality, in the full respect of all communities.

While narrating the gradual emergence of a common Shi’a political sphere, Blanford unravels the roots of such Shi’a cosmopolitanism between Iraq (where Fadlallah was born and every Shiite influent leader studied), Iran (homeland of Musa al Sadr and cradle of Shi’ism), and Lebanon (“action” scenario of every Shi’a spiritual leader).

In some pages, to my mind, Blanford’s desirability of historical accuracy gets lost in a sort of self-focusing, which paradoxically unearths his de-empathization with the reported events, giving up an emotional inner perspective. He makes an exception when he gets deep into the 2006 war, in which all his dismay is perceivable among the pages that are dedicated to his experience between the displaced and the families of the martyrs.

He describes Hezbollah as a special guerrilla force, although not yet as a fully-fledged conventional army. In this section, Blanford also mentions the reiteration of forced evacuations to which these miserable people have been doomed throughout the years, as though their suffering were written in an inescapable destiny.

One of the stories that rarely finds room in historical analyses on South Lebanon, is the narrated sense of unremitting anxiety and isolation that pervaded the South Lebanese Army in the border zone – where they used to cooperate with Israel – once they became aware that their defeat was looming due to Hezbollah’s strength and steadfastness.

In the domestic political scenario, Blanford brilliantly smashes the myth of a polarization between Hezbollah and Hariri and between the current March 8 and 14 coalitions, as well as of an antagonism of interests between Syria and Israel, showing therefore the schizophrenic state behaviors of all parts involved.

The Syrian regime is instead represented as a big Leviathan, never confronting Israel, never accepting Lebanon’s independence and practically supervising all negotiations between these two countries, like in the case of the Shebaa Farms at the Lebanese southern border and their territorial dispute. While denouncing the machiavellic moves of all states implied in Hezbollah’s affairs and plans, the author succeeds in representing the things from within just from a macro-political perspective, since he reports, most of the time, the official discourses and private conversations that he had with the members of the Party of God.

What would have been interesting to find in this insightful piece of work is a – even just hinted – view of common local residents, in order to find out how they make meaning of these events. This was not probably the goal that Blanford meant to achieve, in the attempt to blur the lines between the military and the civilian in Hezbollah’s realm. Struggling between journalistic style, autobiography and essay-style objectivity, a reporter that has been living in Lebanon for decades, nonetheless, would have been expected to abdicate his self-seeking, particularly in the second section of the book.


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No confessionalisation, no “party” (April 2013)


(“No to confessionalism”. Picture taken by Estella Carpi, Downtown, Beirut, 7th January 2013)

I have just got through yesterday’s article “The Cold Front” on NowLebanon: one of the worst aetiological interpretations of the 2006 war (between Israel and Lebanon) I’ve ever come across.

Abdul-Hussain, the article’s author based in Washington, thinks he can brilliantly explain how the July war has broken out: Hezbollah is the only one that has interests in opening fire first. Israel has not. Not even for a preemptive war.

Going beyond these quite arguable assumptions on the 2006 war, the author, in a bid to denounce the artificial construction of the Zionist enemy, ends up creating a new construction by merely replacing the previous one: the chronic confessionalisation of war commitments and inputs. In the case of Hezbollah, therefore, he denies the engagement of the party in the Palestinian issue by portraying the latter as a sunni cause that Shiites would have no interest for. The author does recognise the big hoax that the Axis of Resistance implies about protecting Palestinians. It is in fact enough to spend some time in the Palestinian camps throughout Lebanon and in the shiite areas stricken by the 2006 war, to find out that the idea of Islamic Resistance should be unpacked into several conceptions and experiences, highly diversified among Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians in Lebanon.

I also agree with his need for unearthing the hypocrisy behind the supposed protection of the Palestinians – bombed by the Asad regime and even fought by Hezbollah in Lebanese history (and we could also mention a lacking homogenised rhetoric around the “value” of Resistance in the everyday narratives of people from the two groups).

I categorically refuse, however, to adopt the confessional lens to justify Hezbollah’s actual disengagement in the Palestinian cause, in that “there is nothing shiite about Palestine”, as the author contends.

In a similar vein, Abdul-Hussain seems to justify the absence, the neglect and the shameful corruption of the Siniora’s government throughout the days of the July war, by identifying such a (failed) state behaviour with Hezbollah’s anti-sunni propaganda among “its people”. And it is exactly in the form of a “from anti-Israel to anti-sunni struggle” that Hezbollah’s evolutive behaviour is interpreted by Abdul-Hussain.

All these are clear signs that old epistemological confessionalisation is still hard to die. Why on earth, in order to dismantle regional myths about political balances, should we need to resort to confessional explanations?

(Estella Carpi)

P.S. My sources about the corruption of the Lebanese government and its total military “laissez-faire” – apart from hundreds of local people’s accounts – are the unofficial declarations of the governmental ministers and of the ex PM Fouad Siniora contained in the Wikileaks cables (July-September 2006).


April 15, 2013

The Cold Front

How long will the Israeli-Lebanese border remain peaceful?

A Lebanese soldier (right) and a member of UNIFIL stand guard on the Isreal-Lebanon border. (AFP)

The Lebanese live on the edge. They expect war all the time, whether it spills over from Syria, or is provoked by a strike on Iran, or is predicated by hot tempers reaching a boiling point and Sunnis and Shiites take their fight to the streets. One front, however, looks colder than usual. For the first time in decades, Lebanon’s southern border is quiet, and neither Hezbollah nor Israel are interested in escalation.

UNSC Resolution 1701, which ended the war and now governs the peace, is flimsy on paper, but has proven durable on the ground, giving the region its second-longest stretch of calm with since the creation of Israel. Tel Aviv, therefore, has no interest in launching war against Hezbollah, preemptive or otherwise.

So for war to breakout, Hezbollah will have to open fire first, and many believe that because Hezbollah’s decisions are inspired by its patrons in Tehran, it will only go to war when it is instructed to. But even for a regional proxy like Hezbollah, all politics is local.

In Lebanon, the Shiites support Hezbollah, but not unconditionally. The 2006 war jeopardized Hezbollah’s standing among the Shiites who saw their villages razed. Iran came to Hezbollah’s rescue by shipping bags of cash that were doled out to hard-hit families and individuals.

During the 14 weeks that followed the end of the war, Hezbollah tried to contain Shiite anger by dispersing cash. But Shiite frustration proved insurmountable even with Iran’s petrodollars.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah thus understood that while most of his supporters were blindly following for benefits, the majority of Shiites were not particularly dedicated to liberating Palestine, historically a Sunni issue that Iran’s Ruhollah Khomeini tried to exploit in order to spread his revolution to Sunni Arab countries.

Yet despite Khomeini’s efforts, there is nothing Shiite about Palestine; no Shiite imams or their families ever set foot or are buried there, unlike in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Even the third-holiest site in Islam, Jerusalem’s Omar’s Mosque, carries a name the Shiites abhor and never give to their children.

Without links to Palestine and with the 2006 inferno, the Shiites found it counterintuitive to keep fighting Israel, a lesson that was not lost on Hezbollah.

During the 2006 war, an embattled Nasrallah became all-encompassing in his speeches, especially as Shiites took refuge in non-Shiite neighborhoods. His allies praised Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, calling his government a “resistance cabinet” for its diplomatic role in shaping 1701.

But after the war, the Shiites had a change of heart, and Hezbollah had to follow.

In December, Hezbollah started a sit-in in downtown Beirut demanding Siniora’s resignation, blaming him for the ills that had befallen the Shiites during the war and condemning what they called the corrupt and deliberately slow relief and reconstruction efforts. Hezbollah was looking for a scapegoat, and the Sunnis fit the bill in a way that resonated with the majority of the Shiites.

Until then, Lebanon’s Sunnis had accused Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad of killing their leader Rafiq Hariri in 2005. But with the rise of Shiite anti-Sunnism, Hezbollah displaced the Assad regime as the Sunni’s number one enemy.

Hezbollah’s transformation from ‘anti-Israel’ to ‘anti-Sunni’ was complete, with the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.

Even though Nasrallah argued that his support for Assad was because of the latter’s alignment with the ‘resistance axis,’ Nasrallah never explained why the Shiite militia in Syria was called the Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas brigade, a reference to Imam Hussain’s half-brother who was killed with him in Karbala in 680. If Hezbollah was fighting in Syria for resistance reasons, then why not call its fighting force after someone who had died fighting Israel, not the Sunnis?

Meanwhile from a logistics perspective, the Syrian conflict has strained Hezbollah resources to the extent that it makes sense for Nasrallah to favor extending the freeze on his southern border.

But Hezbollah’s transformation does not mean it has given up on fighting Israel, only it won’t be fighting Israel the ‘Palestine usurper,’ but Israel the partner in America’s ‘World Oppressors Inc,’ which Iran and Hezbollah have been dedicated to fighting since 1979.

As such, Hezbollah’s conflict with Israel is being transformed from direct confrontation to clandestine operations. The Borgas bombing and Hezbollah’s foiled attempts in Cyprus, among other less-publicized attempts, are only the beginning.

Hezbollah’s international network is not as formidable as its militia. But if history is any guide, the party learns fast. It might soon cultivate assets and form cells, around the world, to be used for attacks in due time.

Should such attacks invite Israeli reprisal across the border, like those against Palestinians in the 1960s and 70s, then engaging Israel in direct war could become justified in the eyes of the party’s Shiite base.

But no such scenario seems in the making. The Lebanese-Israeli border will remain cold, at least for now.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain.

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Media and Humanitarianism in North Lebanon (April 2013)


(Picture taken by Estella Carpi in Wadi Khaled, Lebanese-Syrian border, 13th December 2012)

The alliance of media and humanitarianism in Lebanon

ESTELLA CARPI 2 April 2013

With the growing Syrian refugee crisis, media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order – as conceived by them – rather than educating the public.

International media, closely connected to humanitarian agencies, often hasten to show North Lebanon’s ‘outstanding’ hospitality of Syrian refugees, arriving in large numbers to flee destruction, scarcity, repression and chronic fear. However, unlike the idyllic scenario humanitarian practitioners usually provide, such hospitality is actually part of a larger picture. At the same time, the media, while providing positive accounts in an alleged bid to pacify further social frictions, paradoxically rely on ethnicised desciptions – in this specific case, Lebanese versus Syrians.

A few months ago, some Lebanese threw stones at humanitarian workers during the distribution of food kits for Syrian refugees in Akkar, the northern most region of Lebanon and host to the majority of Syrian refugees. The episode was considered an outburst of tension by local people themselves with the sudden massive presence of humanitarian organizations in an area of little political interest, often neglected by state and non-state actors. Non-state actors have always been more localized in Beirut and the south of the country, concentrated on the humanitarian consequences of the Israeli occupation and the subsequent aggravated local impoverishment.

The humanitarian agencies operating in that town decided not to let journalists report on the episode at the time. Some published about it instead by contending that local people in North Lebanon would stop ‘hostilities’ and warm up if aid was provided to them too. The main reason behind the omission of the episode would seem to be the preventing further inflammation of tensions between the local community and Syrian refugees.

The humanitarian phenomenon of hospitality however serves the interests of aid providers in showing that they are acting in a responsive and compliant environment. Local hospitality in north Lebanon is often used in the media to express the ‘truly humanitarian essence’ of Northern Lebanese identity – as stated by aid providers politically affiliated to the March 14 coalition, presently allied with the Syrian opposition. Such a politicization of aid was similarly used by March 8 political coalition (that counts among its most important members the Hezbollah and Michel Aoun alliance), during the 2006 war with Israel.

Except for mixed families that host Syrian relatives who have escaped the war, such hospitality very often relies on financial returns through house rents paid in cash by humanitarian organizations to Lebanese landlords, as in the case of Taiba, a Saudi NGO in Halba. Other refugees, unable to access the housing refurbished and provided by agencies, end up paying, at a minimum, 100 USD to Lebanese landlords just to rent a piece of land or receive a tent.

News reports covering the area intentionally disguise these local money circles that renew classic patron-client relationships in Akkar, reflecting its social roots. This is often done in an illusory attempt to protect the moral reputation of north Lebanon’s people. Media coverage thus ties morality to the local material (in)capacity to host and welcome refugees.

Indeed, the role of the media should be to highlight the desperate fight for economic survival in Akkar, whose people have been chronically neglected in the years since the French mandate (1920), the post-National Pact State (1943) and the post-Taef Agreement State (1990). Nowadays, local residents of the northern region must still deal with a twenty-hour power cut every day, lack of drinking water and scarcity of public schools and local hospitals.

Media entrepreneurs seem to care more about protecting the orthodox morality of humanitarianism, with the excuse of preserving social order – as conceived by them – rather than educating the public. On the one hand, it advertises north Lebanese hospitality to maintain the international image of the welcoming Akkaris, as prompted by humanitarian workers; on the other, whenever it decides to distance itself from the humanitarian mainstream, it portrays Akkar’s people as greedy beings getting profit from the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Humanitarian organizations should realize by now the infeasibility of intervening in an empirically ‘empty space’, ideally void of social frictions, expectations, paybacks, resentment and mutual mistrust. The implementation of humanitarian projects, hence, should take these conditions into consideration. Further research is needed on how failure and success of humanitarian projects can grow within an organization and gradually affect social history, regardless of the good intentions of the working staff.

National and inter-community relations seem to be the only media narratives to explain the social frictions in Akkar. This obsession for categories is unluckily a common trend of international journalists attempting to grasp violence outbursts in the religiously mixed Akkari villages. As a result, individual reasons and disputes, therefore, go totally unseen.

The media directly connected to humanitarian organizations omits the kind of information that we, international philanthropists and middle class locals working in the humanitarian sector, would feel uncomfortable with. Such unpleasant truths might undermine the nature itself of our ‘for-the-sake-of-mankind’ work. All the ‘side effects’ humanitarian work engenders – as it normally occurs in any enterprise – need to be disguised in the name of its survival.

The intellectual effort to explore the historical reasons for the present social frictions to avoid the oversimplified ethnic lens between ‘Syrian-takers’ and ‘Lebanese-givers’ is dangerously left to the public. By adopting arbitrary descriptive terms in the media, such as civil war, sectarianism, terrorism, Islamisation and so forth, and by ‘ethnicising’ the explanation of social facts, we have already created human imaginaries of Lebanese against Syrians and Syrians against Lebanese.

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Palestinian refugees: UNRWA betrayed mission and the debate on naturalization and right to return

Two articles I wrote for ResetDOCThe first one is about UNRWA, its marginalization and its betrayed mission within the framework of the forgotten right to return. The second one on the debate on naturalization and right to return and how the first option should not come at the expenses of this untouchable right (as this is the discourse implied by those willing to ‘shrink’ UNRWA’s definition of Palestinian refugees). On the other hand, the protection of the right to return should not jeopardize the living conditions of Palestinians in Arab host countries (and this is the definitely the case of Lebanon and Jordan). 

UNRWA: an agency neglected to forget about its mission

Andrea Glioti

In the face of a new exodus from Syria, the assistance of Palestinian refugees is in the hands of a neglected UN agency, sidelined by the marginalization of the only UN-sanctioned route to improve their conditions: the right to return to Palestine. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Western powers prepared the ground for this scenario through the Oslo Accords (1993).

Out of more than nine million Palestinian refugees worldwide, around five million are registered under the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the PA. According to the UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee, besides the original residents of Palestine between 1 June 1946 and 15 May 1948, all the descendants of Palestinian refugee males are entitled to receive its services. Palestinians refugees still dream of returning to their homeland and this right is sanctioned by UNGAR 194 (III).

At odds with these aspirations, during an interview with an Israeli TV channel last November, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the official representative of all Palestinians for the international community (i.e., the West), Mahmud ‘Abbas Abu Mazen, denied his right to live in Safed, the native village he had to leave after the establishment of Israel in 1948. The declarations of ‘Abbas predictably sparked off indignation among Palestinians, since the descendants of those who fled the ’48 territories refuse categorically any resettlement in the PA. “The right of return doesn’t mean being resettled in Gaza or the West Bank,” affirms Yahya, a young refugee from Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp, originally from Acre, “it’s not only a struggle for ourselves, we are also defending the right of return of our sons.”

Palestinian activists and academics understand Abu Mazen’s position in line with the Oslo Accords, which resulted in the marginalization of refugees and cuts on the UNRWA budget. The current outlook is particularly bleak, taking in consideration the massive inflow of Palestinian refugees coming from war-ravaged Syria into Lebanon. Until February 19,2013, 30.000 Palestinians crossed the Lebanese border from Syria; speaking at a meeting of the Syrian Humanitarian Forum in Geneva, the UNRWA General Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, denounced that half of the 500.000 Palestinians living in Syria had to flee their homes. The crisis is intertwined with the marginalization of Palestinian refugees, as a consequence of ‘Abbas’ appeals to the UN to direct Palestinians from Syria to the PA and the renunciation to their right of return to the ’48 territories Israel has allegedly required to accept this. The head of the PA seems to have temporarily rejected this plan, but there is already enough evidence of his willingness to negotiate on the right of return.

Any resettlement of ‘48 Palestinian refugees within the UNRWA’s territories, thus including also the PA, implies a crucial role for the agency. However, the UNRWA appears financially neglected, subject to Western political agendas and actively involved in the marginalization of the right of return.

Over the last two decades, the agency saw its budget drastically reduced. UNRWA’s website states that “at the end of April 2012 the agency’s cash deficit stood at USD 69.4 million and the average annual spending per refugee has fallen from about $200 in 1975 to around $110 today.” While facing a crisis started in the first half of 2012, the UNRWA could not afford to pay the rents of those Palestinians, who fled Syria to settle in the Lebanese refugee camps: only on February 25, a 2.5 million euros agreement has been reached between the EU and UNRWA to shelter in Lebanon Palestinian refugees from Syria (“The contribution to Lebanon is part of a total amount of 7.5 million to UNRWA to assist the most vulnerable Palestine refugees in Syria and those refugees who have fled Syria to Lebanon.”).

In a wider picture, the lack of funds is ascribed to the marginalization of the right of return ensued from Oslo. “The right of return has been already put on the backburner by Oslo,” maintains the American activist of Palestinian descendants,  Jacqueline Husary, “the focus has always been on creating a State.”After the Accords, as pointed out by the Oxford professor and former PLO representative, Karma Nabulsi, in her Civitas Report (2006), Palestinians ‘inside [Gaza and the West Bank] received considerable international funding, whilst the political and civic aspirations of those living outside […] were ignored, […] at best they were classified as objects of humanitarian relief.’

Quite predictably, Palestinian authorities hold a completely different view on the relations between the peace process and the condition of refugees. “A peaceful settlement with Israel would empower the Palestinian State to negotiate a solution on refugees,” affirms the UN Palestinian ambassador, Ibrahim Khraishi, “the last talks between Olmert and Abbas [N/A: 2008] proceeded on the right path to agree on compensations and allow the return of some refugees.” On the contrary, this was a partial renouncement to the right of return and Olmert actually wrote in his memoirs that the proposal to take into Israel an annual quota of 1.000 refugees for five years was actually rejected by ‘Abbas.

Moreover, it goes hardly unnoticed that Oslo and the UNRWA share the same Western sponsors:  according to the agency’s website, until the last year, Europe and the US contributed to 42% of UNRWA core program budget. In January 2010, the Canadian treasury, which accounts for 11% of UNRWA’s funding, decided to withhold its support to the agency: it was announced that donations would have been reallocated to projects administered by the PA in ‘alignment with Canadian values regarding democracy, equality and safeguarding Israel’s security.’ Such a move has been understood by conservative pro-Israeli organizations as motivated with the disagreement on UNRWA’s employment of Hamas supporters. The last attack on UNRWA came from the US Congress in May 2012, when a distinction between 1948 refugees and their descendants has been proposed to “shrink” UNRWA’s definition of Palestine refugees.

Although ensuring the return has never been the agency’s mission – it was the goal of the currently inactive UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) – UNRWA was supposed to cooperate with UNCCP and even its foundational resolution (UNGAR 302 (IV)) confirmed the right of return sanctioned in UNGAR 194 (III). According to its mandate, the agency was originally created as a “temporary” solution to the plight of Palestinians, but its activities are motivated 60 years later with the pending ‘just resolution to the question of the Palestine refugees.’ “What is a just resolution?” asks sardonically the Palestinian researcher Mahmud al-‘Ali, who works for the Lebanon-based NGO (‘Aidun), “it means that, to gain support, UNRWA started supporting  the peace process and the focus on the development of the Palestinian Authority.”


Palestinian refugees stuck between naturalization and right of return

Andrea Glioti

The hard daily lives of Palestinian refugees remain stuck between the impossibility to return to their homeland and the difficulties presented by naturalization: all Arab countries oppose it for political reasons and the West is criticized for understanding any new citizenship as a renouncement to the right of return. Naturalization (tajnis) is considered by many Arabs as a preamble to settlement (tawtin), meaning the loss of any claim on the original homeland, even though denying citizenship is often equal to blatant discrimination.

The dichotomy entrenched between naturalization and right of return is extremely relevant to the aftermaths of the Syrian uprising, which is forcing Palestinians outside one of the few countries where they were treated fairly. The runaways found themselves with limited options: most of them stopped in Lebanon, some are still waiting for Jordan to open its borders to Palestinians, others prefer to remain in Syria rather than being discriminated in these two countries.

In Lebanon, Palestinians are not yet allowed to work in at least 25 different professions. Despite law amendments easing access to certain professions in 2010, Palestinians are paid 20% less than Lebanese for the same job. The Lebanese Government has been  criticized for not implementing the amendments and, by law, Palestinians are still not allowed to register properties.

In Jordan, the disengagement from the West Bank in 1988 was accompanied by revoking the Jordanian citizenship of 1.5 million Palestinians living there. Since then, the Hashemite Kingdom kept on stripping other categories of Palestinians of their Jordanian nationality. “There are some 1.25 million Palestinians in Jordan without citizenship rights, that is they lack the basic protections  enjoyed  by citizens in access to education, health services, voting,  movements, ownership,” confirms prof. Jamil Hilal, a sociologist at Ramallah’s Birzeit University.

In Syria, Palestinians used to enjoy equal rights to nationals, apart from nationality and political rights, according to Law 260 of 1957, although Palestinian do also face restrictions on property rights. According to a study conducted in 1999 by the Palestinian NGOBadil, ‘Syria […] serves as an example, which confirms that secure civil and social rights in the host countries can protect refugees from falling victim, for fear of discrimination, to the dangers of re-settlement and loss of their national identity.’  Syria, Lebanon[1] and Jordan have all signed the League of Arab States’  Casablanca Protocol in 1965, which obliges Arab countries to grant Palestinian refugees rights to employment, residency and freedom of movement, while maintaining their Palestinian identity by not naturalizing them. However, Amman and Beirut didn’t live up to their commitments.

In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees aspire to fair treatment, but they remain wary of resettlement and naturalization, as these options have been often interpreted by the West and Israel as a renouncement to their right of return. This regardless of the official UNRWA definition, which qualifies a Palestinian refugee on the basis of his/her lineage and regardless of his/her nationality. “A refugee nowadays chooses to remain in the worst living conditions to preserve his sacred right of return,” affirms Rami Suleiman, a Palestinian activist from Damascus, “this situation would change, provided that the international community starts considering us Palestinians, regardless of our nationality.”  With regards to this issue, Mahmud ‘Aidun, a Palestinian researcher from the Lebanon-based NGO (‘Aidun),  quotes past examples of UN-sponsored quick resettlement without any consideration of Palestinian peculiarities. “After the fall of Saddam, UNHCR turned immediately to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees leaving Iraq[2] in third countries like Brazil, after it realized the return was not accepted by the Israelis,” recalls al-‘Ali. There is no doubt that these Palestinians found better living conditions in Brazil, but in the eyes of al-‘Ali they practically lost their right of return.

Most Arab Governments stopped naturalizing Palestinians in 1952, despite a $200 million offer from the UN Refugee Rehabilitation Fund to find ‘homes and jobs for the refugees’, since they rejected any project that could be interpreted as promoting resettlement. “If we can achieve a status like the one enjoyed by Palestinians in Syria, without any need of being naturalized, it would be enough,” says Yahya, a young Palestinian refugee in Beirut’s Burj al-Barajneh camp.

But even now, as the craved refuge in Syria is vanishing, Palestinian officials in Lebanon seem keen on belittling the grievances of the newcomers and reassuring Lebanese authorities about the absence of any resettlement purpose. “The figures of Palestinians coming from Syria are not so high yet,” told me the Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ashraf Dabbur, on November 26, “and we need to take in consideration that, God willing, they will remain for a limited period.” Dabbur stressed also his gratitude for the Lebanese Government for helping Palestinians arriving from Syria, even if they were facing tribulations to extend their residency permits, while living in overcrowded refugee camps. While the ambassador was speaking, the Yarmuk Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus was under heavy shelling: on February 19, UNRWA’s General Commissioner Filippo Grandi denounced that only 20.000 of its 150.000 Palestinian residents are still there. Palestinian and Lebanese authorities cling to the idea of a community bound to return, the focus is not on improving its conditions, but on ensuring ‘that it doesn’t feel at home’.

In Lebanon, the real political and sectarian reasons behind the refusal of the naturalization of Sunni Palestinians have been masked behind an ethic adherence to the right of return. “The denial of political and social rights is justified under the slogan of persevering the right of return to Palestine,” notes prof. Hilal, “such claims hide practice of exploitation- Palestinians provided cheap labor for decades in Lebanon and other places of refuge- political petty mindedness and discrimination.”

In Jordan, Palestinians are denied political and civil rights under the guise of preserving their right of return and support their struggle for self-determination. Among the excuses given by the Jordanian kingdom for stripping Palestinians of their Jordanian citizenship, there is the aim to keep Palestinians in Palestine, to stop the indiscriminate expansion of Israeli settlements. The ‘alternative homeland’ vision of the Israeli right-wing, that is the belief that Palestinians should move to Jordan, is thus used as a pretext to violate their human rights. Naturalizing over one million stateless Palestinians in a country of around 6.500.000 inhabitants, which is home to almost two million Palestinian refugees, has clear political repercussions. Jordan. Needless to say, political calculations should not come at the expense of human rights.

[1]Even if Lebanon added some reservations on the articles related to freedom of movement and employment.

[2]UNRWA has never been allowed to work in Iraq, as the country is not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention on to the protection of refugees. This is the reason why Iraqi Palestinians have been registered under UNHCR after 2003

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Lebanon’s phenomenology of protest (by Estella Carpi – November 2011)

Lebanon and the phenomenology of protest

25 NOVEMBRE 2011

(by Estella Carpi) Last November 5 I attended a roundtable discussion to commemorate the journalist Samir Kassir – murdered on 2nd June 2005 – as a visionary of the Arab spring, which took place at the “Foire du Livre Francophone” in Beirut. One of the speakers, Ziad Majed, Lebanese political researcher currently based in France, got a burst of applause when he denounced the use of Lebanon as a battleground to serve foreign interests. Apparently, the “war of others” imaginary is still an effective palliative for the plights of Lebanese society.

Amid the series of Arab pro-democracy uprisings that spread throughout North Africa and the Levant, Lebanon is the-odd-one-out. For in Lebanon the scene is considered “surprisingly very calm” and “becoming a sleepy backyard”, as Fatima el Issawi recently wrote on Open Democracy. The Cedars Country, however, is apparently on the Arab cutting-edge as it grew to offer a wide scenario of protests, rallies and press freedom. It is told to be a “quasi-democracy”, as many put it, where journalists like Samir Kassir and Gibran Tueni had to pay with their life for their freedom of expression.

Within such an atmosphere, Rafik al Hariri’s assassination on 14th February 2005 and the so called harb tammuz(the 2006 war that Israel sparked with Lebanon) can be considered the watershed of Lebanon’s contemporary historical landscape. Hezbollah’s renewed strength in the aftermath of the 2006 war and its subsequent increased popularity has also contributed to engendering a political dichotomy within a multi-dimensional country shattered by a 15 year civil war. To suggest an idea of fragmentation and absence of consent about a single national narrative, is to make light of the way the Lebanese rather use the word ahdas, which literally means events, when referring to the civil war.

Such political dichotomy around Hariri’s murder and Hezbollah’s victory in the 2006 war seems to have given rise to a new binary set within Lebanese society in terms of social ethics framing ways of living. The origin of such a binarism of political “forces” can be traced back to 2005, when March 8 coalition, mainly led by Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, took down the streets in support and gratitude to the Syrian power. In opposition the March 14 alliance emerged – known as Cedar Revolution – led by ex PM Saad al Hariri and the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea. The latter coalition returned to the streets of Beirut last January 2011, chanting “from Beirut to Tehran, we don’t want the Pasdaran” – the 1979 Iranian revolution’s guards – when Hezbollah walked out of the Parliament seeking to have their de facto legitimization addressed. Since January 25 the March 8 Alliance has been the ruling coalition.

Lebanese society has increasingly rallied around these two internally variegated contrasting blocs in their attempt to have their rights upheld and to attain the respective concept of “justice” that their community and – particularly – family culture has left to them throughout the generations. Indian theorist Gayatri Spivak coined a term that best captures the case in point: “strategic essentialism” takes place when heterogeneous groups – in our case people aligning themselves with one of the two 2005 March coalitions – present themselves as a single bloc despite internal differences. In such settings, it becomes advantageous for them to temporarily essentialize themselves and bring forward their group identity in a simplified way to achieve their goals. Whatever the latter are: unanimous political de facto legitimization of Hezbollah and its ethics of Resistance, liberation from Syrian interference, political secularism or (il)legitimacy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as the road to national “truth”.

Albeit the Lebanese can boast they have always had great spirit of protest and hasten to say that they represent one of the few oases of freedom with expression in the region, individuals still occupy job positions and have access to health, education and other primary services on the basis of their confessional belonging or, better yet, of their personal connections, rather than universal civil rights and personal status. In a place where urbanization did not exceptionally produce an erosion of kinship ties and traditional values, what could be defined as “Lebanese daily way of living” apparently remains untouched by protests despite its inner will for change.

As Slavoj Zizek wrote recently, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: “the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere”. Rather, the real freedom is thought to reside in the “apolitical” network of social relations, “from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in social relations”. In other words, if real political changes should burgeon in the bosom of everyday relations through the everyday dismantling of social labeling and stereotypes, speaking out for rights and protesting in a noble bid to overthrow a boorish system, or a lack of system, will not lead to any real change.

In the Lebanese “not-war-not-peace” everyday life, scholars and civil society activists have often spoken of an aesthetic approach to existence  – perhaps not particularly exceptional – that Lebanese youth adopt, as they tend to live their ordinary experiences in wild pursuit of pleasures and consumerism of the new world order. In such a frame, the active attempts to force society to acknowledge its plights seem to remain weak and unachieved, despite the strong capability that they embody.

Wide consumerism and the mentioned ethic aesthetism, however, do not bury contemporary issues that are pending addressed. Most commonly you find on a daily basis Lebanese people of any generation putting forward the issue of secularism, or the already mentioned “war of others” syndrome, as well as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s strategy to uphold foreign interests in the country, and Beirut’s reconstruction. A reconstruction that has been rebaptized by dissenters “architectural betrayal”, which was carried out by company Solidère, founded by Rafik al Hariri in the postwar. The company is currently accused of misconceiving the city’s original morphology and was also target of fatwas issued by religious parties. These issues comprise the cornerstones of the everyday Lebanese civil society’s agenda, which flaunts how it has been expressing its dissents for longer than other Arab civil societies, such as its Syrian neighbor.

Revisiting Marx’s argument and its current relevance, the strength of protests risks withering away or being expressed in vain, insofar as it is mutilated by self-seeking youth’s voyeurism or ephemeral consumerism; the strength of protest is then scattered throughout an allegedly fake and disaffected atmosphere. This begs the question of whether the phenomenological dynamics of today’s protests are in danger, perhaps more so in the western world in terms of material efficiency and transformative potential.

These public space narratives of dissent that are brought to the fore on a daily basis, involve confessionalism, Beirut’s demolishing reconstruction, the Special Tribunal’s hoax and the everyday criticisms on basic services scarcity. For instance, it is a norm to experience 3 hour daily power cut within Beirut, and an up to 18 hours cut per day outside the capital. Notwithstanding, these criticisms and protests are often advanced by people that lead a life style which heavily contribute to feeding and maintaining communal lines, who go pub crawling in places that are nowadays replacing old urban heritage spots, or who contest the tribunal and its fake nature in the bid of bringing out “real justice”, while showing reluctance to share family memories and still worshipping political party members that used to be civil war criminals; or, in a similar vein, while pretending to express socio-political disinterest and distance from the political present.

The rift between social effectiveness and phenomenological formality of protests is a looming risk faced by states that can boast years of demonstrations and rallies. Here comes the importance of the Arab spring, which, in spite of the profound pessimism of several scholars, simply unravels the Arab will of telling different stories and of proposing their own way of shaping their identity as a bottom-up phenomenon in the making. The Arab spring is a genuine lesson to better off complainers occasionally wearing the clothes of steadfast protestors, despite the widely spread pessimism of some “neo-orientalists” who, protected by their “third-worldism” and imbued with academic ubris, argue that these uprisings have been triggered by the US and its strategic interests in the region. Thereby, these opinionists end up representing Arabs as beings incapable of struggling and even longing for radical changes. Yet, some of these scholars actually wish protesters to be defeated, and express the need for acknowledging the people’s “choice” of other forms of statehood than western-style democracy. The “Arab Street” seems to prove its anger to be truly revolutionary instead, and the region is not “naturally” doomed to be governed by authoritarian regimes.

If and when macrocosmic changes will stem from and refresh their lifeblood in the microcosmic daily – though temporary – sacrifice on an individual level, the Pandora’s box of privileges, interests, impunity and lack of rule of law will be likely to be opened up. In order to guide the stream of changes to a commonly supported direction, in the abovementioned new cristallysed social dichotomy, everyone should be up to temporarily give up their own everyday balance and gradually reshape their raison d’etre in a country that is still moving, in some way or another, along communal lines. In the first instance, if this “loss” of balance were portrayed as a far-sighted national common achievement rather than as communal identity threat, a new social order built through consent and inclusiveness would be more likely to be established.

Nonetheless, assuming that the act of taking down the street is by this time void of meaning in Lebanon and in the Western world would merely serve to feed the rhetoric of the conservatives. Rather protest, beyond its formal essence, ought to be largely fueled by individual sacrifice in the private sphere on an everyday basis. Likewise, sufficient popular commitment to changing things from below is not a phenomenon that rules out the high responsibility that governments and regimes should be burdened with as to address people’s needs and, in some cases, to annihilate themselves for the sake of people.

In some realities, authentic changes can afford lie in the people’s willingness to everyday sacrifice, given that the liberation of the individual from an oppressive or shattered state doesn’t seem to be enough. The Foucaultian argument is still enlightening on this purpose: individuals should also liberate themselves from the type of individualization linked to their state – tribal and communal in the case of Lebanon. No other deus ex machina will come and rescue us.

Categories: Lebanon | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The challenges of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled

The last two IRIN reports I contributed to, after travelling to Wadi Khaled (Northern Lebanon) in early December 2012. The situation was slightly better than six months before, although many Syrians were sleeping in sheds without any window…and the region is particularly cold in the winter. Medicines for certain diseases were completely absent, according to the complaints of the refugees. 

The first version of the report is the original one, which was significantly different and included a section on Lebanese local authorities allegedly stealing part of the aid for Syrians. This and some other considerations prompted the UNHCR to prevent the first piece from being published, as it was believed it would have harmed aid workers in Lebanon. I believe in transparency and i’m not a UN spokesperson, hence I leave the judgement to you on what’s detrimental for humanitarian aid. 

The second and the third report are the ones published by IRIN.

1. Lebanon’s Wadi Khaled: where Lebanese and Syrians compete to receive humanitarian aid


10 December 2012- Wadi Khaled (Akkar- Lebanon)

Out of the 133.000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon by the UNHCR, 10.862 live in the Wadi Khaled area, a North-Eastern strip of land secluded from the rest of the country by a military checkpoint in Chadra. Access is often a complicated issue to this remote area, where Syrians complained with IRIN about the slowness of sheltering and medical assistance. Some reports from both refugees and NGOs ascribe this also to a lack of transparency in the mediation of local actors, while all humanitarian actors stress the challenges presented by delivering aid in an already impoverished Lebanese context.

Shelters and medicines

In order to address the needs of Syrians, who cannot afford to pay rents, cash has been provided in installations to Lebanese landlords to rehabilitate houses and complete unfinished ones. “The rehabilitation has never been completed, look at that house without windows,” says Mahmud Ghazal, the Lebanese mukhtar of the village of Muqayble, while pointing the finger at a building in front of his residence, “here we have a cold wind penetrating your bones in the winter…How are refugees going to cope with this?” The mukhtar showed IRIN another apartment void of doors, where nylon substituted windows and a family of twelve people from Qusayr (Homs) has been waiting one month and a half without receiving fuel coupons to refill its stoves. “The UNHCR usually sends the first committee to verify the needs, then there’s another one to assess the costs, then a third one…too many committees without any achievement,” complains Mahmud Ghazal. As IRIN visited a school turned into a collective shelter, Syrians were particularly upset, as a result of the numerous fruitless visits they allegedly received from humanitarian workers.

“The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is providing shelter to roughly 800 families1 in Wadi Khaled, but rehabilitations take from four to six weeks,” explains NRC’s program director, Martino Costa, “we’ve been the only organization offering shelter solutions since one month, thus being perceived as THE organization responsible for this, but we do face budget limits.” In consideration of the growing needs, even the UNHCR is currently revising for the fourth time its $84 million fund appeal.

Among the most widespread needs, there is the availability of specialized costless medicines. “He’s one of the two Syrians working out of 100 refugees living in this school,” says Mohammad* from Talkalakh (Homs), after a man in working suit entered the room, “the UNHCR is covering 85% of medical expenses, where do we get the remaining 15% from, if we are unemployed?” While Mohammad sits talking on a carpet, his daughter affected by the Down syndrome wanders with curiosity around the room. “According to Lebanese law, we cannot cover more than 85%, it’s the same percentage covered by the State for the healthcare of Lebanese,” objects UNHCR spokesperson, Dana Suleiman.

“Even Doctors Without Borders told us they lack medicines against thalassemia, asthma and diabetes, therefore people started to collect money to purchase them” says the mukhtar Ghazal. Among the twelve people from Qusayr living in the unfinished house, there is Latifah ‘Akkari*, a lady in her sixties, laying on a mattress in the corridor. “In the six months I’ve been here, I always had to pay on my own for medicines against high blood pressures and rheumatisms,” Latifah told IRIN.  The only drug she claims to have received is a box of Isodol, the Spanish trade name for nimesulide, an anti-inflammatory drug actually used for the symptomatic treatment of arthritis, but useless against blood pressure. In the school converted into a collective shelter, a woman from Talkalakh complained about the daughter being given a medicine not suitable for her age to treat an infection.  “We have doctors, what is needed is a dispensary with all the necessary medicines,” concludes Mahmud Ghazal.

“We do cover chronic primary diseases like diabetes, but not those requiring hospitalization,” explains the UNHCR spokesperson, Dana Suleiman, “Wadi Khaled is a remote area, some of the refugees cannot even commute to an area where medicines are available, but our mobile medical units are a response to this.”

In general, NGO workers reply by belittling some of the complaints of refugees. “In the end refuges complain about everything,” says NRC’s Martino Costa, “for example, we brought them food in the Biqaa valley and they asked TVs and refrigerators!” In late October, when IRIN visited the Biqaa village of ‘Arsal, the Syrian refugees stressed the need to receive support for rent expenses. “They’re lying to receive more money, the Norwegian Refugee Council is actually covering their rents,” Amel Association’s coordinator, Maraay Flity, told IRIN, after having listened to the complaints in a collective shelter. NRC is indeed working in ‘Arsal through its sheltering programs based on rehabilitation.

Access to Wadi Khaled and transparency of local actors

Having said this, the discontinuous access to Wadi Khaled due to security reasons is recognized as an obstacle in speeding up humanitarian aid.  “The army is one of the main obstacles, we haven’t been able to access Wadi Khaled for almost three weeks between September and October,” remembers Martino Costa, “as we work through installments, Lebanese landlords ended up threatening us, for the delays we faced in settling debts with those who paid in advance.” Access was also restricted over the last weeks, as the Syrian army shelled bordering areas on the 27th of November. During IRIN’s visit, mortar shots were clearly audible on the Syrian side and the Lebanese military intelligence cautioned against circulating after the sunset, due to frequent gunfire.

The Norwegian Refugee Council voiced its suspects on the transparency of the Lebanese intermediaries. “The Qataris put lots of money in the hands of local people in Wadi Khaled, maybe their relatives, but not the Syrians,” adds Martino Costa. Some of the refugees proved equally skeptical of the role played by local intermediaries. “Humanitarian aid is delivered to the Lebanese responsible of the protection of a number of families [N/A: the so-called mahsubin],” affirms Hassan Bayut, a 40-year-old Syrian from Bab ‘Amro (Homs), who arrived one year and a half ago, “I’m not blaming Mahmud Ghazal, but many other mukhtars are stealing!” It should be taken in consideration that, in Wadi Khaled, the mukhtars are in charge of communicating the names of those in need of UNHCR mobile registration, as they crossed the border illegally and they cannot travel outside the valley.

Nevertheless, UNHCR rejects the idea of local corruption being a relevant problem. “The system became more efficient, after initial reports of corruption,” says UNHCR’s Dana Suleiman, “we distributed something through mukhtars, as some of them opened their houses to refugees, but now each registered family must pick up personally the kits.”

A poor hosting community

The main obstacle in delivering aid seems to remain the impoverished conditions of the Lebanese hosting community.

“The initial reaction of the Lebanese community was different, they were even picking up Syrians from the border, but 20 months have passed since then,” says Dana Suleiman, “we prefer to sign contracts with local shops and distribute food coupons among the refugees to benefit also the Lebanese community.”

Some locals tried to exploit the situation at their advantage. “Some Lebanese landlords attracted Syrians into their houses to have them rehabilitated by us,” says NRC’s country director Mads Almass, “when they got told that their houses didn’t meet our criteria, we received threats to expose us to the media.”

The unique feature of Wadi Khaled in the Lebanese context is that those Syrians who entered illegally cannot live the valley, due to the military checkpoint in Chadra. Such a restriction on freedom of movement has prevented Syrians from finding jobs outside this impoverished area. “There’s no job here and I cannot leave,” complains Hassan Bayut from Bab ‘Amro, “I came here without any documents and I’m wanted in Syria: if I reach the checkpoint they’ll send me back to my country.”

Rather than creating job opportunities for Syrians and fostering resentment in the poor hosting community, the UNHCR is working to normalize the legal status of people like Hassan. “Legalizing the status of those who crossed the border illegally would serve the purpose of helping Syrians to find a job,” says Dana Suleiman, “we already had a positive response from the Lebanese General Security: Syrians are not required to renew their residency permit at the border anymore and the $200 renewal fee has been officially waived.”

As refugees keep flooding Wadi Khaled, the challenge of the coming months will be to keep the balance between Syrian and Lebanese beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. “There are also untraditional actors, let’s call them like this, who come into Lebanon without any control with either in kind distribution or cash coming from people in the Gulf,” says NRC’s Mads Almass, “their assistance is getting to Syrians rather than Lebanese and this creates differences.”

1 The average is of five persons per family.

*The interviewee didn’t wish to reveal his/her real name.

2. UN: To avoid tensions with refugees, Lebanese hosts need support

28 January 2013 (IRIN) – Donors channelling funds towards Syrian refugees in Lebanon must also assist their poor Lebanese hosts to diffuse rising tensions, aid workers and a government official said ahead of an international pledging conference for humanitarian aid to Syria and its neighbours.“We have seen a growing sense of resentment among the Lebanese host communities that see assistance going to refugees and not to them,” Robert Watkins, humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon, told IRIN. “It is causing some tensions.”Most of the more than 220,000 Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon have settled in the poorest parts of the country, in districts like Akkar in the north and Ba’albek or Hermel in the eastern Beka’a Valley.The North Governorate is home to 20 percent of Lebanon’s population but 40 percent of its poor, with more than half the people living under US$4 a day, according to a 2005 study.

Despite their poverty, people of the north have been undeniably welcoming to refugees, taking them into their homes for months and covering their food, water and electricity needs, aid workers said.

Nearly two years later, more than 60 percent of the refugees are now renting their own homes. But their presence – in some 550 villages across the country – has depleted government-provided supplies in pharmacies, increased competition for jobs, raised the price of housing, and, in some cases, more than doubled the population of the town or village.

“Changing winds of opinion”

“We are reaching the point of suffocation for Lebanon,” said Hala El Helou, emergency coordinator at the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, which is responsible for helping the refugees.

“There have been many reports by the security forces of an increased number of security incidents that include Syrians,” both as aggressors and as victims, she told IRIN, pointing to killings, beatings and thefts. Reports of forced prostitution, early marriage and child begging have also increased, she said. “It’s a reflection of the social and economic situation.”

One of the early incidents was the October launching of a Molotov cocktail into a municipal building hosting refugee families in a village in Akka’rs Wadi Khaled area. No one was injured.

“It was simply a sign of the changing winds of opinion whereby the period of unrestricted hospitality and generosity was beginning to change,” said one aid worker who preferred anonymity.

In a more recent incident this month, explosives blew off the roof of a house sheltering refugee families near the town of Aidamoun, also in Akkar.

Sahar Atrache, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Lebanon, said Syrians are now taking an unfair share of the blame for all the ills in society: “Whenever you have a robbery, a rape, it’s because of the Syrians, as if Lebanese don’t do these things.”

“The initial reaction of the Lebanese community was different,” explained Dana Sleiman, spokesperson of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon. “They were even picking up Syrians from the border. But 20 months have passed since then.” 

Implications for aid

This tension has also had implications for aid workers.

One Western researcher said locals near Qobayat Village in Akkar initially “welcomed” aid workers there with stones, a sign of the indignation at the aid delivered only to Syrians in a region historically neglected by the Lebanese government.

Some locals have also tried to exploit the situation to their advantage.

“Some Lebanese landlords attracted Syrians into their houses to have them [the houses] rehabilitated,” said Mads Almass, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which gives landlords funding to make their homes more fit to shelter refugees. “When they got told that their houses didn’t meet our criteria, we received threats to expose us to the media.”

Watkins said the aid community has seen this shift in the feeling of host communities and tried to design programmes accordingly, focusing on improving the overall conditions and services in these areas to benefit both refugees and their hosts. These include programmes that would buy drugs to replenish pharmacies, inject cash into the economy by offering cash-for-work projects for Lebanese people, and provide credit to help small businesses start up.

“But these [kinds of programmes] are, unfortunately, very difficult to find donors attracted to,” Watkins said.

“Conceptually, [donors] understand how important that is,” he continued, “but if they are told they have a limited amount of resources and they will choose between injecting cash into the Lebanese economy to help the Lebanese population or injecting cash into a relief operation which is providing food and shelter to refugees who are bereft of both, they generally opt for the latter.

“But there are tensions, and those tensions will only get worse.”

Donor interest?

An international conference to take place on 30 January in Kuwait aims to garner funding for aid projects inside Syria and in neighbouring countrieshosting nearly 700,000 registered refugees. The appeals amount to more than $1.5 billion, but donors have given less than $50 million since they were launched in December.

UNHCR has implemented so-called quick-impact projects – such as equipping mosque halls, opening a public library, and supporting agricultural co-operatives – after holding sessions with Lebanese communities at which residents expressed their village’s needs as they saw them.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has also done similar projects in Wadi Khaled and in the Beka’a Valley’s Arsal town, both home to many refugees. Country Director Luca Renda said he hopes to expand these kinds of programmes across the country and is in contact with many donors on this issue: “We hope the Kuwait meeting will yield results,” he told IRIN.

The Regional Response Plan, spearheaded by UNHCR, includes projects supporting host communities, as does the Lebanese government’s separate appeal for $180 million, which was launched in December and is currently being revised in line with the constantly growing refugee numbers.

Observers say the government’s capacity to deal with the mounting refugee crisis is limited, given the economic problems the country is facing and its polarized politics. Lebanon is the only neighbouring country in which refugees are not housed in camps, but rather are living in towns and cities with the support of local people.

The Minister of Social Affairs, Wael Aboufaour, recently told the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star that camps may soon be the only solution.

One quarter of population

El Helou said there were 811,000 Syrians in Lebanon – including refugees, migrants and visitors. Added to a Palestinian refugee population of at least 450,000, the foreign “guests” are equivalent to a quarter of the Lebanese population. The UN expects the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, already equivalent to five percent of the population, to increase to at least 300,000 by June.

“Without additional support, Lebanon cannot handle that,” El Helou said. “Lebanon has reached the limit.”

At all levels, observers say, the government has become consumed by the Syrian crisis and its impact on Lebanese soil.

As a result of upheaval in the region, the Lebanese government has downgraded economic growth estimates for 2013 from 4 percent to 1.5 to 2 percent, Sami El-Daher, adviser to the prime minister on economic affairs and development, told IRIN. The crisis has hit Lebanon’s exports through Syria, border trade with Syria and tourism industry.

Aid agencies have already tried to tailor their programmes accordingly. Instead of distributing food, for example, the World Food Programme (WFP) gives refugees vouchers to redeem food at local shops with which it has signed contracts. Instead of creating jobs for Syrians specifically, UNHCR is trying to regularize the status of those refugees who entered illegally to make it easier for them to move around freely and access the common job market. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is rehabilitating schools in which both Syrian and Lebanese students study in an effort to ensure that its emergency work for Syrian refugees feeds into long-term development of the region.


3. Lack of funds hits refugee health care in Lebanon

BEIRUT, 8 February 2013 (IRIN) – The Lebanese government and UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) say they are trying to scale up their assistance to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees but are hampered by a lack of funds.

On 7 February Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released a report, entitled Misery Beyond the War Zone, which painted an alarming picture of the living and health conditions of refugees in Lebanon and called on both the UN and the government to increase registration and aid.

In December, MSF surveyed 2,100 refugees in three areas of Lebanon and found more than half of those interviewed, whether they were officially registered or not, were housed in substandard structures and could not afford medical care, with nearly one-third of them having suspended treatment already under way because it was too expensive.

“Something has to be done. We can’t accept that someone who is fleeing a war has to negotiate with NGOs to get medical assistance,” Fabio Forgione, head of mission for MSF Lebanon, told IRIN.

Aid agencies in Lebanon are facing growing difficulty keeping up with worsening conditions, as the number of refugees increases and the financial situation of those already present degrades.

There are 163,036 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, another 74,587 awaiting registration, and a further 50,000 unregistered refugees, according to MSF estimates, though others have given much higher figures.

In November, IRIN visited dusty Muqayble village in the remote Wadi Khaled area of northeastern Lebanon. One of the most widespread needs refugees expressed was medicine. UNHCR covers 85 percent of medical expenses, in line with the Lebanese government’s coverage for its own citizens. But so high is the need, that for some, even this is not enough.

“Where do we get the remaining 15 percent, if we are unemployed?” asked Mohammad*, a refugee from Homs. He lived in a school sheltering 100 refugees. Only two of them had work.

In one of the unfinished homes nearby, Latifah*, in her sixties, lay on a mattress in the corridor. She suffered from high blood pressure and rheumatism, but said she has received nothing but an anti-inflammatory drug in the six months she had been there. Instead, refugees and host communities had been collecting money among themselves to pay for medical expenses.

Problem with the registration system?

According to the MSF report, the most vulnerable refugees are the ones who are not registered with UNHCR. While some NGOs do specifically target unregistered refugees with assistance, 63 percent of the unregistered refugees interviewed by MSF said they had not received any assistance.

“There is a lack in the organization and the delay to be registered is too long,” Forgione said. “In the meantime, the unregistered refugees don’t get sufficient assistance.”

MSF, which will increase its own activities in Lebanon, called on the Lebanese government and UNHCR to scale up their registration system, set up transit sites for new refugees, and help unregistered refugees.

Ninette Kalley, UNHCR representative in Lebanon, acknowledged the delays but said the organization is constantly scaling up. It has increased staffing levels from around 60 at the start of the crisis to more than 250 today.

“We have double shifts in some of our centres. New registration centres will be opened in Beka’a and Tyre this month. We are also working to increase registration capacity in Beirut, where waiting periods are longest,” she told IRIN.

In January, UNHCR registered 38,000 refugees, compared with 24,000 in December.

“We have agreements with several NGOs to help any refugee, even the unregistered ones and we’re expanding these partnerships,” she added.

UNHCR said it is working with the Lebanese government to identify transit sites, focused around Beka’a and the north of Lebanon. This would allow for identification of vulnerable persons in the unregistered population, and rapid assistance in a situation of increased influx.

Urgent need for new funds

Nevertheless, UNHCR and its partners in Lebanon have received less than 15 percent of the funding needed for aid work until June, as part of the Regional Response Plan for Syrian refugees.

“This necessitates the prioritization of activities,” Kalley said. “The first priority is saving lives. From this point, there are competing priorities for shelter, food, health care, cash assistance.”

On 30 January, donors pledged more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and those in need inside Syria, but aid agencies are worried nonetheless.

“We don’t know when the money promised will be sent. The situation cannot wait,” Forgione, of MSF, said.

To face this emergency situation, the Lebanese government announced in December a plan – now updated to seek $370 million – to be able to help refugees.

“Lebanon is now sounding the alarm,” Lebanese President Michel Sleiman told donors in Kuwait.

Last week, Hala El Helou, emergency coordinator at the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, told IRIN the government had only received a few in-kind donations from Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, some financial contributions from the UN to do capacity-building, as well as $700,000 from Norway, and around a $1 million grant to be channelled through the World Bank.

“We’ve had some pledges and we’ve had some promises. Very few have so far provided us with actual funds,” she said.

The government had received no contributions for the health sector of its plan, “which is one of our most crucial at this point…

“We have a huge lack of medication at the centres of the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Public Health. The medication we have is barely enough for the Lebanese,” she said.

According to UNHCR, the number of refugees fleeing Syria to neighbouring countries could top one million by June 2013.

*not a real name


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Lebanese army beating Syrian migrants…only xenophobia?

A piece I wrote for IRIN. I tried to read the event from the political angle. The Ministry of Defense refused to meet me. I won’t try to organize a meeting with a minister anymore, it’s just a waste of time and money and you know what they’re going to say anyway.

Analysis: Catch-22 for Syrian migrants in Lebanon

syrians beaten by leb army


BEIRUT, 1 November 2012 (IRIN) – Syrians in Lebanon are increasingly coming under attack as lingering anti-Syrian sentiment intensifies amid the current conflict next door.

The Syrian imbroglio has polarized various sects and factions in Lebanon. While Sunni Lebanese in the north have welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the last year and a half, Lebanese of other sects and in other parts of the county are less welcoming.

On the streets of Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood of Geitawi, a stronghold of the Lebanese Christian right, their intolerance of Syrian migrants, who have worked in Lebanon for years, is palpable:

“Syrians ruled us for 30 years, how can we like them?” protested Kamal Sa’ad, 48. “God willing, the war will kill them all. They’re an Arab people; we [Lebanese Christians] are Europeans.”

Residents of the neighbourhood have gathered around 60 signatures demanding the governor of Beirut take “the necessary security and legal measures” against Syrian workers who are perceived to pose a threat.

“We are sending this letter to warn the authorities that if they don’t intervene, we will organize ourselves and solve the situation through violence,” warned Cesar, a local butcher who preferred not to divulge his second name.

“Drunken Syrian workers are always around harassing women at night,” said Charbal Issa, 29. “You know what we will do? [Impose] a 6pm curfew for Syrians, so that they work and sleep – nothing else.”

Military raids and mob violence

The estimated 300,000 Syrian seasonal workers in Lebanon before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 were often the object of anti-Syrian sentiment – a legacy of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon, starting in the 1970s.

“Following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon [in 2005], each bombing blamed on the Syrian regime was followed by the beating of some Syrian workers,” said Yara Chehayed, a member of the Beirut-based Anti-Racism Movement.

But since the conflict in neighbouring Syria, when Syrians started fleeing to Lebanon in large numbers, fears that the Syrian opposition will use Lebanon as a base for its own struggle – the way Palestinians did in the lead-up to the Lebanese civil war – have intensified pre-existing xenophobia. Military raids are now increasingly replacing the usual mob violence.

On 7 October, the Lebanese Army raided the apartments of around 70 Syrian, Egyptian and Sudanese workers living in Geitawi and another Christian neighbourhood in Beirut, Mar Mikhael, late at night. One week earlier, on 1 October, soldiers stormed a construction site where migrants worked and slept in the adjacent Ashrafieyeh neighbourhood, according to residents who toldHuman Rights Watch (HRW) they “heard screams from the building”. Several `mukhtars’, administrators of the neighbourhood, reportedly issued a statementencouraging more such raids.

On 17 October, in the coastal neighbourhood of Ramlet al-Baydah, a mob of more than 20 Lebanese men attacked Syrian workers with knives and sticks, injuring 10 people.

Targeting Syrian Sunni dissidents?

The military defended its operation in Geitawi, claiming it was responding to increased complaints about sexual harassment and crimes committed by foreign workers. Lebanese residents in the area blame Syrian workers for thefts, sexual harassment, fights and even murders.

The army said it detained 11 people, but HRW only witnessed the arrest of African migrants who presumably did not have legal residency documents. The army has not confirmed who was arrested or why. But according to HRW, the evidence against them is scarce and the military operation looked more like collective punishment than proper policing.

“No clear investigation has been carried out. Why didn’t the army look for specific suspects?” said Beirut-based Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle Eastern division of HRW. “We advocate the rule of law and police enforcement, not this kind of mob violence.”

The army also argued it was checking work permits, but Syrians are allowed to work in Lebanon without papers, as per a longstanding unwritten agreement.

Ahmad*, a Syrian tailor in his thirties, who arrived from Hama several years ago, said not a single Syrian was arrested on specific charges. Instead, he said, soldiers beat the Syrians, including minors, for nearly five hours, using electric shock batons until 2am. “They didn’t allow us to talk and started beating us straight away,” he said. He still bears the scars of the beating, a large haematoma covering half of his back.

Sectarian motives?

Syrians say they believe they were victims of a factional and sectarian army.

“While they were beating us, they asked us: ‘Don’t you know these punishments from the time you served in the Syrian army? Or are you with the [rebel] Free Syrian Army?’” said Ahmad. “They even checked our names to single out the Sunnis and, judging from their dialect, we suspect they were Alawis from Jebel Mohsen,” he said, referring to a neighbourhood in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli inhabited by people of the same sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The Lebanese military [intelligence] leadership is controlled by Christians and Shias and both sects are worried by the growing presence of the Syrian Sunni opposition in Lebanon,” explained Khaled*, a Syrian activist from Hama, who arrived at the building just after the 7 October raid to check on friends. “The operation was a message to Syrians: ‘Don’t think you’re protected; we know where you are’.”

Ahmad said the army took notes about where the migrants worked and for whom. “The army came with the intention of recording our names and checking if there was someone wanted in Syria,” he suggested.

“Politics are always behind these aggressions, even if they tell you it was all about harassments,” said Chehayed, of the Anti-Racism Movement. She compared it to an incident last November, when Lebanese Armenians assaulted Syrian Kurds in an Armenian majority neighbourhood in the suburbs of Beirut for their role, she said, in the Armenian genocide under the Ottomans.

Others dispute this version of events, saying the army did indeed round up suspects and ask Lebanese women to identify those who were guilty of harassment.

Nevertheless, observers are more hesitant to confirm a political agenda. “Two months ago we documented an instance where the army rounded up Syrian workers, looking for someone who had purchased a satellite device,” admitted HRW’s Houry, “but I think in Geitawi, it was more of a provocation than a political interrogation: if it was purely political they wouldn’t have rounded up also Egyptians and Sudanese.”

The Syrians, Ahmad and Khaled, disagreed, saying the round-up of other nationalities was “a cover for the real aim of the operation.”


Some residents of Geitawi show no prejudice against Syrians and they reject the fabrication of an easy scapegoat.

“There is no problem with Syrians. The scoundrels [responsible for theft and harassment] come from all sorts of countries: Sudan, Sri Lanka, Egypt,” said Rami al-Abyad, a barber in his sixties. “Not all the migrants are bullies.”

Even Ahmad, the Syrian tailor who was beaten, pointed to the good relations he has always had with his Lebanese landlords: “The house-owners were upset by the military operation and they even hid some Egyptians in their apartments.” Others don’t conceal their politically biased racism against Syrians.

“The irony is that many of these workers support the Syrian opposition,” said HRW’s Houry. “They have always been double victims: the regime didn’t offer them job opportunities and in Lebanon they were seen as part of the Syrian occupation, even if Beirut has been rebuilt on cheap Syrian labour.”

Local landlords are also profiting from the increased Syrian presence, Lebanese residents admitted.

The untouchable army

HRW is calling for a transparent investigation into the 7 October raid, but the army said any possible violation would be dealt with internally. The Ministry of Defence did not respond to IRIN’s request for information.

“There is a [lack of] accountability of all security forces, including the army,” said Houry. As the only respected security force in Lebanon amid many sectarian militias, the army is considered something of a sacred, less-easily criticized institution.

Syrian workers who appeared on TV to comment on the raid say they have been threatened by the military, but feel they have no recourse, given the links between large parts of the Lebanese government and their ally in Damascus.

“Since the revolution started, no one defends us and I cannot go to the Syrian embassy to complain about what happened,” said Ahmad.

*not a real name



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Palestinians fleeing Syria for Lebanon: the eternal refugee.

IRIN piece I contributed to, after visiting the Sabra camp in Beirut, already overcrowded with Palestinians coming from Syria. My part is the one on Lebanon.

Analysis: Palestinian refugees from Syria feel abandoned

Palestinians fleeing yarmuk

5,000 Palestinians flee to Jordan and Lebanon
Destabilization fears
Palestinians cite discrimination
UNRWA lacks resources

RAMTHA/BEIRUT/DUBAI, 29 August 2012 (IRIN) – In Jordan and Lebanon, the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) has registered nearly 5,000 Palestinian refugees from the 17-month conflict in Syria. As both countries are already home to large Palestinian refugee populations, the newly arrived have become a political issue – with Palestinians feeling they are treated unfairly.

“It has been quite bad living like a prisoner, especially when you see other people come and go but you are trapped,” said Samir, a Palestinian at a dormitory-style facility known as Cyber City, 90km north of the Jordanian capital Amman.

When Samir arrived in Jordan five months ago, Syrian refugees without a visa could move and work freely within Jordan with the signature of a Jordanian guarantor, while Palestinians, many of whom have family in Jordan, were prohibited from leaving the camp to visit or stay with relatives. This month, the Jordanian government discontinued the sponsorship system for Syrian refugees.

Samir’s wife Hanah could have left the camp because she is Syrian. “Can you imagine such discrimination?” she asked IRIN. “I will not leave them.”

Palestinians said they were not allowed to move more than 30m from the building. The camp is 12km from downtown Ramtha and is not served by public transport.

UNRWA told IRIN only 185 Palestinians without a valid visa – i.e. those who were smuggled over the border, or who had to leave their papers behind – have been sent to Cyber City, while another 770 live outside the camp. Refugees IRIN interviewed at the camp said Palestinians not holding Syrian or Jordanian nationality had been sent to the camp.

Palestinians at Cyber City told IRIN that family members trying to flee had been turned back at the Jordanian border, a phenomenon also noted by Human Rights Watch.

Reacting to the allegations, Samih* Maaytah, minister of state for media affairs and communications, told IRIN: “Each country has the right to protect its sovereignty. At some point, we did not allow some Syrians to enter Jordan via air, for example, because we have the right to check who is coming in. Jordan should not be questioned over its sovereignty rights. Turkey, for example, had recently said it needs to regulate how many Syrians are entering its borders. No one has given a reason for it or questioned it.”

Most of those at the camp are Palestinian Jordanians who had their citizenship withdrawn years ago in a Jordanian attempt to discourage Israeli transfers of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan.

“I was born in Jordan, but moved with my family to Syria. In 1995, they withdrew my citizenship from me and my brother. Although it is my country, I cannot move freely inside along with other people,” said Samir, who showed his Jordanian birth certificate to IRIN.

Maaytah told IRIN: “Whether it is Palestinians or not, those who came without Jordanian or Syrian nationalities will be given basic rights but any additional benefits are not Jordan’s responsibility. These people came to Jordan seeking security and Jordan gave it to them.”

But Jordan’s fears might go deeper. While Palestinians are estimated to make up more than half of Jordan’s population, the Hashemite dynasty relies on its non-Palestinian tribal support base for power. Since “Black September” in 1970 when Jordanian and Palestine Liberation Organization forces battled for control over the kingdom, the issue of how many Palestinians reside in the country has become taboo. During the second Gulf war, when scores of Palestinian expat workers fled to Jordan, the country found itself in a similar position as today.

“Jordan has experienced 500,000 Palestinians coming from Kuwait in 1992. It changed the way our society functions. In a country of just three million people, 500,000 refugees [are a lot],” a government employee, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN in March. “As Jordanians we are worried for the interests of our country.”


Similar dynamics are at play in Lebanon, which hosted 455,000 Palestinians before the Syrian crisis.

“The Lebanese have made it clear they don’t want to see more than a certain number of people coming here,” a high-ranking aid official told IRIN on condition of anonymity.

Some 4,000 Palestinians have registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, many of them in the last month. Many more may not have registered because of their “vulnerable” status there, said Roger Davies, acting director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon.

According to Palestinian-Syrian journalist Nidal Bitari, the problem in receiving Palestinians is rooted in the Lebanese civil war and the long-standing tensions between the Lebanese government and Palestinian factions.

Most of the Palestinians fleeing from Syria to Lebanon have gone to one of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps, but the camps in Beirut are overcrowded slums. With limited opportunities for Palestinians to find jobs and leave, many of these settlements have become breeding grounds for extremism. Fear that the new refugees might be recruited by armed Palestinian fractions such as Fatah al-Islam is influencing government decisions, thinks Bitari.

Forced to pay

Officially both Jordan and Lebanon are keeping their borders open for all refugees from Syria. But unlike Syrians, who can freely enter Lebanon for up to six months, Palestinians receive only a one-week residency permit. Once that expires, they must pay 50,000 LBP (US$33) each month to renew it.

“There is a clear distinction between Palestinians from Syria and Syrians from Syria,” said Davies.

For some of the Palestinians, the fee is hard to afford: “My son arrived on 18 July and is still here [without a permit]. Where do we get the money from?” said Umm al-Khayr, a sick woman in her sixties from Damascus. “Why don’t they just give us six months like the Syrians?”

Corruption is also a problem: “I saw a Palestinian woman at the border, who did not know anyone in Lebanon and she was forced to pay $300 in bribes, $40 for each child,” said Darim, a teenager from Damascus. Palestinians who want to leave Syria still need permission from the Syrian government. While UNRWA said the procedure has been eased, NGO worker Rawan Nassar told IRIN that people have been asked to deposit large sums of money to obtain permission from the Syrian authorities, or have even been forced into providing sexual favours by border officials.

According to Palestinian sources close to Fatah, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is expected to visit Lebanon shortly to negotiate better conditions with the government.

Costly, cramped camps

In Lebanon, already poor conditions in the camps are affecting the Palestinians. But even in these camps, rents remain high. Refugees complain that even when they pay $200, the rooms they get are in an awful condition. “In Sabra there is another family of 12 and they are all sleeping in one room without any mattress,” said Abu Ahmad, an old man bearing the hallmarks of the Syrian intelligence’s brutality: broken teeth and bullet wounds on his arms.

Jordan’s Cyber City, visited by IRIN, houses about 400 refugees, both Palestinians and Syrians.

Families are given separate rooms; singles have to share. “The room is too small for a family. I feel awkward walking to the bathroom with so many strange men around. We are nearly 40 people on this floor,” said Hanah.

Refugees who have to share kitchens and bathrooms with 30-40 people complained about unsanitary conditions in the camp.

“It is quite smelly here. Some of the mattresses had bugs. People caught skin infections and head lice,” said Hanah.


Many Palestinians feel betrayed, and blame the government and aid agencies. While Syrian refugees receive assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Palestinians fall under the mandate of UNRWA, with its smaller relief budget.

“UN agencies turned their backs on us,” said a refugee in Jordan who did not give his name. Refugees in Lebanon had similar stories to tell: “There is a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy who arrived two weeks ago with four kids and so far she hasn’t received anything from UNRWA,” said Umm Ahmad, Darim’s mother.

UNRWA Jordan told IRIN that while funds are limited “we acknowledge all Palestine refugees registered with the agency. Those who live in the agency’s five areas of operations are eligible for its services.”

UNRWA is providing primary health care free of charge, but has only limited additional funds for the new refugees. The extra strain that refugee children might put on UNRWA’s schooling system is of special concern. UNRWA has appealed to donors for an additional $27.4 million for its consolidated regional plan, but so far has only received $4.71million.

“We do not know our future,” said one of the refugees. “People come and take pictures and speak with us, but they all leave at the end.”

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