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Palestinians in Lebanon’s largest refugee camp brace for another round of conflict

‘Nothing is stable now. It’s dangerous. No one knows what will happen with the war.’

A Palestinian refugee inspects the destroyed building after clashes in the Ein el-Hilweh camp for Palestinian refugees, in Lebanon's southern coastal city of Saida known as Sidon on October 03, 2023. Wassim Samih Seifeddine/Anadolu Agency
A Palestinian refugee inspects a building after deadly clashes earlier in the year in Lebanon's Ein el-Hilweh camp, where residents now fear spillover from the hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

Hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza are threatening to spill over into Lebanon, raising fears in the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp for Palestinians that residents still recovering from earlier unrest could once again see their lives upended.

Palestinian factions in the camp, located in southern Lebanon close to the city of Saida, clashed in July, uprooting at least 4,000 people from their homes. The clashes came after the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – the most powerful political force in the camp – accused Palestinian militant groups of killing one of its military generals: Mohammad “Abu Ashraf” al-Armoushi.

Another round of fighting erupted in September after these militant groups refused to hand over the general’s accused killers. More than 30 people were killed and hundreds wounded in the worst violence Ein el-Hilweh has seen in decades.

Ein el-Hilweh is home to nearly 60,000 people – mostly Palestinians, some Syrians, and a few other nationalities – according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). It is the largest of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Children in Ein el-Hilweh have suffered from the recent violence – some 11,000 students in south Lebanon were unable to start school on 2 October. Classes have been frequently disrupted, leaving many students behind. Children in the camp show signs of anxiety and other behavioural issues, including acting out aggressively, according to Raed Hamadeh, a teacher from Ein el-Hilweh who has worked for over 20 years in various UNRWA schools.

“It’s like we’re in a big prison, surrounded by guns and violence,” he told The New Humanitarian.

Since Hamas, the Palestinian political and militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, launched a deadly incursion into Israel on 7 October, the clashes have largely subsided. But residents fear another round of conflict, this time triggered by an expansion of the Gaza war into Lebanon. 

As Israel has bombarded and laid siege to Gaza in response to Hamas’ attack, Israel and Hezbollah – the powerful Iranian-backed Lebanese political party and paramilitary group – have been exchanging fire along Lebanon’s southern border, sparking fears of a broader conflict. Due to the presence of Palestinian political and militant groups in Ein el-Hilweh, analysts say the camp could become a potential target if hostilities expand.

Palestinians forced to flee repeatedly 

At the start of October, the parking spots in a normally empty garage in Saida were full, but not with cars. Some 25 tents made of tarps were serving as temporary shelters for families who had fled violence.

When The New Humanitarian visited on 30 September, Samea Deab, 38, and her friend were drying leaves to prepare molokhia, a traditional Palestinian and Lebanese stew.

It was Samea’s second time living for weeks in a shelter. Eleven years ago, she fled Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria. She thought she could find refuge in Ein el-Hilweh and a safe place to raise her daughter and son, who were just one and three at the time.

But more than a decade later, she has been forced to flee with her two children once again.

Recurrent displacement, the destruction of camps, and generational trauma have left Lebanon’s Palestinian population “deeply exhausted and antagonised”, according to a recent UNRWA appeal. Subjected to systematic discrimination and facing legal barriers, Palestinians have been unable to escape poverty in Lebanon. Their challenges are compounded by the country’s economic crisis.

People are sitting in a hall eating. There are two volunteers with blue vests carrying food.
Hanna Davis/TNH
UNRWA aid workers hand out breakfast at a centre in the city of Saida housing refugees who have fled violence in Ein el-Hilweh.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are restricted to the legal status of foreigners, which prevents them from owning property, working in certain “high-skilled” professions, and accessing healthcare, education, and other social services. 

“Palestinian refugees in Lebanon often have no other place to go than the camps,” said Dorothée Klaus, the director of UNRWA affairs in Lebanon. These enclaves are “the only location that permits them to call a house or an apartment their own”, she added. 

The camps were built after around 100,000 Palestinians were displaced to Lebanon by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. After 75 years, what were once tents have over time been replaced with concrete homes: The camp now resembles a small city, where families have lived for generations. 

Not far from the garage, 11-year-old Talaa Ibrahim and her family – who also fled Yarmouk camp several years ago – were living in another shelter opened by UNRWA. Talaa sat in one of the dormitories next to her severely handicapped sister, 26-year-old Nuwara, whose body was covered in scrapes and bruises.

Talaa told The New Humanitarian how she had to help carry her older sister when they fled Ein el-Hilweh. But Nuwara, too heavy for Talaa, fell twice while they were fleeing gunfire, causing injuries that left Nuwara in pain for weeks.

Most families have returned to Ein el-Hilweh, but hundreds more didn’t have a home to return to because they were destroyed in the fighting. Others were fearful violence would erupt again and found apartments to rent, or are staying with relatives, according to Zainab Ahmad Jumma, who grew up in Ein el-Hilweh and founded the Zaituna Association, the refugee-led organisation that set up the displacement shelter in the parking garage.

“I cannot even think of fleeing again,” Talaa’s mother, Khansaa Ahmad Ibrahim, told The New Humanitarian. “We don’t want to. It’s not at all easy to run away with a girl in a wheelchair.” 

Schools a ‘de facto battleground’

“Ein el-Hilweh camp is the capital of all Palestinian refugees,” Yusuf al-Zuraei, the media officer for Fatah in Saida, told The New Humanitarian. “It is a small Palestine.”

The eight UNRWA-run schools there have become the epicentre of the conflict, putting around 6,000 children at risk. “The schools have become the de facto battleground,” Klaus said.

Al-Shabab al-Muslim, the Islamist militant group in the camp accused of killing the Fatah commander, controls a portion of the school’s compound, which abuts the area controlled by Fatah.

In the latest clashes, two schools were occupied for over a month by al-Shabab al-Muslim. They have since agreed to withdraw, but the school was destroyed. Images show walls riddled with bullet holes, desks overturned, and other equipment ruined. The risk of leftover explosives makes it too dangerous for students to return.

Because of the occupation of the schools and their use as displacement shelters, UNRWA was forced to delay the start of school for 11,000 children in Saida – a quarter of all the Palestinian refugee school children in Lebanon. They have begun to gradually open three schools on a double-shift schedule outside the camp, and other schools are expected to start by early November, Klaus said. 

Classrooms in the camp were already overcrowded – with 50 to 60 students per class – and teachers, who some camp residents said were underqualified, are overwhelmed by the students’ needs.

Hamadeh, the teacher with 20 years’ experience in UNRWA schools, told The New Humanitarian the quality of education in Ein el-Hilweh is the worst of all Lebanon’s Palestine camps – citing the heavy presence of militant groups and the “repeated clashes during school days that prevent students from learning in a safe and secure environment”. 

UNRWA’s Klaus said the agency is taking “dramatic measures” to address the “deterioration” of education, including removing the policy of “automatic promotion”, which pushes students to the next grade regardless of their progress.

Childhoods disrupted

In a tent near Samea’s, eight-year-old Toleen al-Boubou sat patiently next to her grandmother when The New Humanitarian visited on 30 September. She and her seven-year-old sister fled after the clashes in September destroyed their home, spending six nights in the car with their father and their grandmother, who is 73. 

Jumma, from the Zaituna Association, told The New Humanitarian that the children showed multiple signs of trauma when they first arrived, including paranoia and sensitivity to loud noises.

“Many of our children [from Ein el-Hilweh] have mental health problems, as well as exhibit aggressive behaviours, and other developmental challenges, like speech difficulties,” she added.

Pictured are three children and one walking inside an underground parking lot.
Hanna Davis/TNH
Toleen and her sister hold hands with an aid worker from the Zeitouna Association in the parking garage in Saida where they've been living since escaping clashes in Ein el-Hilweh in September.

Hamadeh noted that he sees more aggressive behaviour in Ein el-Hilweh’s children than in the other Palestinian camps he has worked in: “Children are walking in the street and are always scared and worried that something will happen.”

To help children cope with the trauma, Jumma said the Zaituna Association encourages the children to dance, sing, and make colourful drawings. Toleen loves to draw, she told The New Humanitarian, and held up recent pieces of artwork.

In one of Toleen’s drawings, two houses are pictured beside each other. In another, Toleen has listed out the names of all her family members. “I hope we can all live together again one day,” Toleen said.

Continuing violence 

Jumma expects more violence in the coming months, and will re-open the garage if the need arises.

“Nothing is stable now. It’s dangerous. No one knows what will happen with the war,” she said, referring to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the clashes between Hezbollah and Israel along Lebanon’s southern border.

The Fatah spokesperson, al-Zuraei, said that if those who killed their commander are not turned in, he expects more clashes. 

Meanwhile, UNRWA and other organisations are trying to raise funds to cover the costs of the increased humanitarian needs and to rebuild damaged homes. UNRWA’S Lebanon office has appealed for $15.5 million, but so far only around $3.5 million has been raised, Klaus said. Even more will be needed for school reconstruction. 

Since UNRWA’s funding will also be used to address critical humanitarian needs in Gaza, the humanitarian efforts in Ein el-Hilweh will have to make do with the existing resources for now, Klaus added.

At the UNRWA displacement shelter, Talaa’s mother wrapped an arm around her son, who sat to her right, and another around her three-year-old daughter, who was perched on her lap. “I don’t want anything but a better future for my children,” she said. 

Edited by Tom Brady and Eric Reidy.

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