Crisis Group: Lebanon’s Palestinian Dilemma

Posted: March 1, 2012 by Rex Brynen in Lebanon, UNRWA

The International Crisis Group has issued an excellent new report on Lebanon’s Palestinian Dilemma: The Struggle Over Nahr al-Bared. The report highlights the shortcomings and challenges of rebuilding Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon, which was largely destroyed by fighting between the Lebanese Army and the radical armed Islamist group Fateh al-Islam in the summer of 2007:


2012 marks the fifth anniversary of one of Lebanon’s bloodiest battles since the end of the civil war: the deadly, three-month war pitting a jihadi group against the army in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. Since then, the camp’s displaced and resident population has suffered from slow reconstruction of their residences, a heavy security presence that restricts their movement and livelihood as well as the absence of a legitimate Palestinian body to represent their interests. Today, there are bigger and more urgent fish to fry, none more so than dealing with the ripple effects of Syria’s raging internal conflict on inter-sectarian relations in Lebanon and the risk that the country once again could plunge into civil war. But it would be wrong to toss the refugee camp question aside, for here too resides a potential future flare-up.

In Lebanon, attention typically shifts seamlessly from one crisis to another. What may look like a sign of stability should be a source of concern. It is the manifestation of a political system almost entirely focused on managing symptoms of conflict without genuinely tackling their causes. Instead, the state, refugee population and UN agency should work together to speed up the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared by freeing up as much land as possible for residential use; minimising the presence of Lebanese security forces in the camp; removing discriminatory laws in the camps; and introducing a Palestinian body to represent the refugees’ interests in decision-making.

The conflict that erupted in May 2007 brought face-to-face the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a previously unknown Islamist fundamentalist group, Fatah al-Islam, based inside Nahr al-Bared. A bank robbery swiftly snowballed into an armed confrontation against the militants who killed several soldiers at an LAF checkpoint on the camp’s perimeter. Backed by a public incensed by pictures of the soldiers’ corpses, the army entered the camp, from which state security forces traditionally had been barred since 1969. Lebanese forces prevailed, but in the process much of the camp was devastated and 27,000 residents were displaced.

From all this destruction and loss, something good was supposed to come out: a model of coexistence between the state and Palestinian camps. The government appears to have taken the task seriously, developing a new vision, the so-called Vienna Document. It has yet to live up to expectations.

Camp reconstruction, led by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and funded by international donors, has lagged. Responsibility for this falls on inefficient contractors and a tug-of-war between on the one hand the army and the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which want more space in the camp and, on the other, UNRWA, which needs more land to build residential buildings. Living conditions likewise are unsatisfactory. The LAF has imposed a strict permit system that restricts access to the camp by both Lebanese and non-resident Palestinians, isolating Nahr al-Bared economically and socially. Because the ISF gradually is expanding its presence in the camp, the refugees fear that the discriminatory employment and property laws they face in Lebanon will be imposed for the first time in a camp, thereby severely affecting their livelihood. The Vienna Document does not allocate a meaningful governance role to Palestinian entities, thus marginalising the local population when it comes to key decisions regarding camp management and security.

The Palestinian refugees – and Lebanon – deserve better. The typical model of camp governance has serious flaws and is in need of repair. Power traditionally lies in the hands of Popular Committees comprising unelected faction leaders who derive most of their legitimacy from their weapons. With state security forces essentially banned from interfering, residents often complain of chaos and inter-factional strife in large, armed, and unregulated pockets immune to Lebanese law and order. Nahr al-Bared offered a real opportunity to build something different insofar as faction leaders had lost out – because they no longer possessed weapons and because they no longer enjoyed the trust of refugees who largely blamed them for failing to protect the camp.

But the new model that is taking form is not the answer. It is failing the basic task of restoring refugees to a normal life – at least as normal a life as refugeehood can allow. The relationship between camp residents and the state has not improved; rather, given the overwhelming security presence, refugees tend to see the authorities in the least appealing light: not protecting them, but rather protecting the country from them. They fear enforcement of discriminatory laws. Rigid permit requirements and rough treatment at camp checkpoints hurt intercommunal relations, already significantly damaged by the conflict which many Lebanese blamed on Palestinian refugees for harbouring jihadi militants and during which some Palestinians felt their Lebanese neighbours had been either complicit in their displacement or unwelcoming in the crisis’s aftermath. Most importantly, lacking an effective representative, Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared feel more disenfranchised than before.

There is still time to get things right. Should that be the case, the experience of Nahr al-Bared – after all the death and destruction it has endured – could help put relations between Palestinian refugees on the one hand, and the Lebanese and their state on the other, on firmer and sounder footing.


To the Lebanese Parliament and Government:

1.  Host a new donors conference to mark the state’s commitment to rebuild Nahr al-Bared.

2.  Present an updated plan for the camp that clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities of each actor, including:

a) Creating a formally recognised governing role for a reformed Palestinian popular committee in Nahr al-Bared;

b) Defining and circumscribing the army’s decision-making powers in the camp; and

c) Ensuring UNRWA has adequate decision-making power with respect to camp reconstruction.

3.  Legalise Palestinian rights to employment, property and assembly inside the camps to formally protect Palestinian civil rights.

4.  Revive and strengthen the role of the Lebanese-Pal estinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) in all camps, especially Nahr al-Bared, in order to give the state a civilian face, and task it with producing recommendations on the government’s and security forces’ roles in the camps.

5.  Increase the number of town hall meetings that include Palestinian representatives and Lebanese residents from surrounding areas in order to improve relations between the two communities.

To the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF):

6.  Relax permit restrictions to increase the social and economic integration of the camp with the surrounding areas by:

a) Ensuring orderly conduct of security forces at checkpoints, especially regarding women, elderly and children; and

b) Establishing a clear, simple and uniform process for obtaining a permit until abolishing the permit system becomes possible.

7.  Limit LAF presence to the perimeters of the camp and coordinate security matters with the Internal Security Forces and the Palestinian popular committees inside the camp.

8.  Reconsider plans to establish a permanent LAF regiment and a naval base inside the camp, both of which undermine the camp’s civilian nature.

To the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF):

9.  Forgo plans to build a police station inside the old camp, which would disturb the reconstruction process; instead gradually deploy ISF officers from their base in the new camp to the old camp.

10.  Clarify the meaning of community policing to camp residents and ban practice of using camp residents as informants.

To the Palestinian Factions:

11.  Empower the popular committees by ensuring their representatives are elected and opening the elections to all adult members of society; in the meantime, develop a list of criteria according to which popular committee members should be appointed.

12.  Create a single representative Palestinian body that includes all factions to serve as a unified interlocutor for the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee.

13.  Ban the ostensible display of weapons in all camps, especially Ain al-Helweh; in Ain al-Helweh coordinate with the army outside the camp to prevent and punish acts of violence.


14.  Promote the establishment of a non-governmental organisation, independent of the factions and other political individuals, to bolster the effectiveness of consultations between camp residents and UNRWA architects.

15.  Fulfil fundraising commitments to speed up the reconstruction process in Nahr al-Bared and improve living conditions in areas where displaced Nahr al-Bared refugees are living.

Beirut/Brussels, 1 March 2012

The full report can be downloaded from the link above.

  1. Nadim Shehadi says:

    Greetings from Prague, I am at a conference and the report arrived while I was travelling and I hesitate to comment without a careful reading. Every ICG report is an important event and I know how much work goes into the very thorough research that constitutes the final product. Hence very excited about it and cannot resist making a few general comments.

    My main remark is about the recommendations which are confined to the framework of the current situation with little prospect of a major shift, if anything we are in an era of major shifts in the region. Recommendations thus consist of patching up measures applied to what is an undesirable situation to all the stakeholders without highlighting the need to move towards a different state of affairs or recommending the way forward. .
    • On the security front, there is an assumption of a continuing but reduced and more palatable military role. This is not sustainable and not a model that can be replicated in all camps. There is a need to shift away from the ‘military zone’ status of the area altogether. Same with the ISF, which has to think of the manpower requirements to replicate any model in other camps. The problem is not confined to the position of a police station.
    • On the governance front, there is an assumption of a unified Palestinian leadership inclusive of ‘all the factions’. Such a model will end up having the same issues as the PLO’s PNC and is also non-competitive and maintains the hegemony of the ‘factions’ of whatever side over the lives of a predominantly civilian population. One of the main problems facing the camps, in the last 30 years, is the division and infighting amongst the factions and their control of the camps. This division is parallel to political divisions in Lebanon and each has affinities with its Lebanese counterparts.
    • While the report was probably reaching the end of its editing process we saw the development of a protest movement in the camps directed against that hegemony of the factions, a kind of refugee camp spring. This and the events in the region will have a major impact on the situation in the camps. Dissatisfaction with the rule of the factions is not new.
    • There is also no need for a single unified Palestinian body to dialogue with LPDC. This gives the impression that there is a unified Lebanese side that would have a Palestinian counterpart. Reality is that many of the main issues are both inter-Palestinian and inter-Lebanese rather than Palestinian vs Lebanese. The LPDC has been active in such dialogue but more at the grassroots level and by engaging on the issue with both Lebanese and Palestinian civil society.
    • Many of the issues are also purely Lebanese and need to be fixed for Lebanon’s sake and not just as part of negotiations with Palestinians. Civil-Military relations are the main example of that, also ISF-LAF relations and division of labour. These are related to the establishment of the rule of law in the whole country and not just in the camps. Same applies to the delicate issue of sovereignty and of civil-military relations and their application. Community policing is part of security sector reform in Lebanon even though it started as an initiative for NBC.
    • Much of what the Palestinians suffer from in Lebanon are repercussions of problems in the Lebanese system itself and Lebanon would benefit form resolving them as much as, if not more than, the Palestinian refugees. Hence the futility of stop gap measures.
    • In a nutshell you cannot have an area ruled by military intelligence and ask military intelligence not to use informers; they would not be military intelligence if they did not. The question is how to shift away from the necessity of having a military governance model which is necessitated by having to turn the region into a ‘military zone’ which has an effect on the lives of both Palestinians and Lebanese.
    • There were real reasons for the area to be pronounced a military zone in the first place and such a zone has its procedures and its not a matter of having a military-zone-light but a question of if, when and how to make a transition away from it. This is a difficult but necessary politial decision that the Lebanese government needs help to make.

    This was a quick knee-jerk reaction after a glance at the report. I look forward to studying the report more carefully and see what it says about other problems like those of UNRWA with the reconstruction and other issues that are not addressed in the recommendations. I will probably find that the report answers most of the above concerns.

  2. Sam Lev says:

    This report is limited and does not acknowledge the changes in the region. Its a report that embodies the carelessness of Palestinian Human Rights.

    1. No weapons should be allowed
    2. Palestinian deserve civil rights not ONLY within the camp!

    The one recommendation should have been “grant citizenship to all Palestinians and integrate them into all walks of life in Lebanon.”

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