The Palestinians in Lebanon: Identity at the Margins
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A curious story is circulating in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. A young boy has a dream of the long-awaited and long fought for return to Palestine.
All the refugees board buses in Lebanon and head for the border. Once in Palestine, the people of Tarshiha return to Tarshiha, the people of al-Bassa return to al-Bassa, and so on. A bus load of people from Lebanon’s Shatila camp, site of the infamous 1982 massacre, do not return to their places of origin—as former Shatila residents they stay together and build a new village.
This futuristic narrative of return underscores the ways in which exile refigures a relationship between place and identity. People in the camps tell the story both as a commentary on who they are and the multiple places implicated in their identity and aspirations. It suggests a conceptualization of the experience of place and its meaning as mediating the seeming linearity of exile. But this story is just a dream. The reality is much less hopeful.
For Palestinians, refugee camps are a peculiarly twentieth century phenomenon—devised to contain, manage and re-invent identities and erase association with the spaces of Palestine. Yet, the camps have also served as sites of resistance to displacement and the enforced construction of desired identities. Indeed, they were implicated heavily in a process of identity formation in which resistance was positioned prominently.
I carried out research in Shatila camp in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it was a bustling, lively refugee camp under the authority of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Its borders were highly fluid, merging with surrounding Lebanese slum areas. In 1992, I returned to a completely devastated and tightly controlled community, with a high level of poverty and extreme despair.
My current ethnographic research addresses the global process of human displacement and its implications for identity and community as they are configured and experienced locally. In exploring the highly complicated relations between place and identity, I suggest that the meaning of place is neither constant nor essential, but a dynamic process of contestation. As the power nexus that gives meaning to places shifts, identities are unsettled and re-configured: the meaning of space is thus highly indexed to the power to define it. My specific concern is the relation between spatiality and the constitution of identities in conditions of exile punctuated by extreme violence.
Nearly half of the world’s 5.2 million Palestinians are refugees, with 300,000-400,000 in Lebanon. Denied the right to return or the right to compensation for lost livelihoods and property by the new state of Israel, the refugees were housed in camps established by the United Nations or in the capital city of Beirut and in other Lebanese towns. Although initially impoverished and unable to muster a leadership capable of addressing their aspirations, this state of affairs changed after November 1969 following a series of clashes with the Lebanese army. The government accepted an open, armed Palestinian presence in an agreement known as the Cairo Accords.
Thereafter, the Palestinian resistance movement assumed daily management of the refugee camps, providing security as well as a wide variety of health, educational, and social services. Autonomy from Lebanese authority was short-lived as the camps and individual Palestinians came under increased military attack from various Lebanese militias and continued Israeli incursions into and bombings of the camps. In the summer of 1982 came the Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut — the subsequent evacuation of the PLO's forces from Beirut left the Palestinian community traumatized, vulnerable and impoverished.
Palestinians live in many different circumstances, both inside and outside the territory of pre-1948 Palestine. Common denominators of Palestinian identity are continuing attachment to the notion of Palestine, the collective loss and trauma of exile, the outrage over the injustice of dispossession and mis-recognition, the idea of return, and the concept and practice of resistance.
Exile in a particular country and the specificities of host population-refugee interaction have been salient factors in Palestinian identity as well. Arab host countries vary in rights and restrictions accorded Palestinians. Lebanon, once a reluctant host to the resistance, is now intent on containing and controlling Palestinians in tightly bounded and surveilled refugee camps until the peace process determines their fate.
In a 1976 battle that pitted the rightist Christian Lebanese Forces against the allied forces of the Lebanese Progressive Movement and the Palestinians, Damour, a village just south of Beirut was devastated and emptied of its largely Christian inhabitants. Then in August 1976, the large Palestinian refugee camp Tel al-Zattar in east Beirut, fell after a nine-month siege, and hundreds (possibly thousands) were massacred. With the assistance of the resistance movement, many Tel al-Zattar widows and children temporarily were housed in the ruins of Damour. This was the situation when I spent several weeks in the village in 1980. Living among the ruins, as they struggled to feed, clothe and maintain homes for their children. Life for these widows was harsh and economically depressing. These women originated from different Palestinian villages in the Galilee. Many of these widows had family in other camps in Lebanon. When I asked the question, “Why are you living here and not with your family?” the reply, more often than not, was, "We are the people of Tel al-Zattar. We have suffered the same experience. We understand one another."
Over a decade later, in the summer of 1993, I visited an elderly woman in Shatila camp who just returned from a visit to her village in Palestine.  I soon realized that she was a widow from Tel al-Zaatar whom I had met in Damour in 1980. When I told her I had come to talk about the "days of Palestine" ( ayyam filistin), the woman's son calmly announced, " Ayyam filistin are here, in this camp."
For refugees place is a lived experience—an elsewhere—that is carried from one site to another in exile. As it travels, attachment to original place intersects with new places to nuance identity. My research suggests that identity remains territorialized but not necessarily confined by any single place. It is grounded in specific villages and regions or cities yet de-territorialized and re-territorialized: as identity travels, it is re-configured in new places and takes on new contours. Exile is a messy affair. It is difficult to map identities to place in any linear kind of way, as people move—usually propelled by violence and economic necessity—from one site to another. Identity is multi-sited, shifting uneasily between the original village and a trajectory of places of exile, apparent in the nostalgia refugees have for particular places of exile. Indeed, refugees become identified by other Palestinians through various places and the specific experiences associated with them. People who survived Tel al-Zattar are still known, nearly 20 years later, as "Tel al-Zattar" people. A new building in Shatila camp, built to accommodate refugees whose camps were destroyed in the Lebanese civil war, houses refugees from a number of camps but is popularly referred to as the "Zattar building."
Identity can be caught up with spatial boundaries and the way they produce and are reproduced by violence. By their very nature, refugee camps imply a transformation in identity in a situation of relative powerlessness. The camps are sites where national identity and relation to place are both denied and dismantled, and yet vigorously asserted. Camp residents' mapping of the camps point to such as assertion. Nearly fifty years after 1948, camps still are spatially organized by pre-1948 villages. For example, Bourj al-Barajneh camp near Beirut, a highly urbanized camp, houses refugees from the Palestinian villages of Kweikat, Tarshiha, Kabri, and Amqa, who reside in quarters named according to village. When I first visited the camp, I would find my way around by asking for directions to a particular village. These reference points gradually became overlaid with markers of the resistance movement—its offices, schools, cooperatives etc. Even with the demise of the PLO in the camps, space is still multivocal: more recent spatial references are to sites of massacres and death.
It is critical to pay attention to how refugees define themselves, especially vis-à-vis bureaucratic and administrative designations of "refugees." Terms of reference and categorization bear a particular correspondence to the relations of power in which a group is enmeshed. When I first arrived at the American University of Beirut in the early 1970s, I casually referred to Palestinians as "refugees." My Palestinian roommate promptly chided me for this injudicious choice of terms and told me in no uncertain terms that they were not refugees. They were, she informed me, returnees, militants, and revolutionaries. Such a deployment of terms defines present time and place as liminal and fixes identity to the practice of resistance and a future time, however ill-defined.
After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the PLO's evacuation from Beirut, and the Palestinian-Amal wars of the late 1980s, the camps were reestablished as tightly bounded spaces, and Palestinians once again referred to themselves as refugees. The term "refugee" as an appellation for camp residents does not arouse much reaction now. Palestinians in Lebanon are being re-constituted as “refugees” subject to severe restrictions on work, residence, travel, education, and political organization and expression. With the absence of alternative structural and institutional services, belonging to the category of "refugee" is a strategic necessity. In the wake of the PLO's demise in Lebanon, refugee status offers some services, however minimal, from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It also offers a starting point, as a legal status, for bargaining with the Lebanese government for some recognition of rights . This is not to imply that national identity has been by-passed or diluted, but to call attention to how the legal category of refugee identity can be crucial for survival.
Forefronting Palestine in definitions of self and community is central to resisting a project based on the myth of the empty landscape and political non-recognition. For Palestinians, this defining aspect of identity has been denied and denigrated, its expression and organizational manifestation have been met with swift and brutal violence. Given the context of mass dispossession (or occupation), it can be argued that through this denial and the resistance it generates, elevation of the identity denied should be examined with critical caution rather than flip condemnation. Palestinians in Lebanon have developed a distinct sense of themselves as Palestinians, or more precisely as the Palestinians in Lebanon.
Yet, they see themselves not just as different from Lebanese but also as different, albeit not irretrievably so, from the larger Palestinian body. Their bitter reaction to the Israel-PLO peace accords—an arrangement that effectively abandoned them—is revealing. In re-configuring a group identity and social location in Lebanon, the Palestinian are trying to negotiate for civil rights in Lebanon. The Palestinian presence in different locales strongly points to the emergence of a Palestinian national identity that is multi-sited and varies with locale. Does multi-sited mean political fragmentation? How do people work beyond and within the multiple sites in which they are situated?
After nearly two decades of war in Lebanon the Palestinians face the prospects for further displacement and tremendous economic pressures to migrate. How do they envision their future? While return lives on in dreams, the present and future are much less hopeful and oriented to life in Lebanon.
Palestinians envision a host country that is cosmopolitan and open to foreigners—the idyllic pre-war Lebanon. They envision a radically different notion of spatiality where difference is integral to the definition of place rather than (as is the case of refugees in the post-war reconstruction of legality) relegated to the margins. What they are asking for is the right to reside in Lebanon with all the rights of a citizen, except voting, passports, and military and government service. In short, they desire civil rights and permanent rights of residence and employment while retaining their national status as Palestinians. But post-war Lebanon is another story. Sectarian politics and identities are more entrenched than ever. The camps sit on land around Beirut that developers and the state are eager to turn into sports centers and shopping malls—places for leisure and the pleasures of consumption. Palestinians are out of place in post-war Lebanon.
Julie Peteet is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Univesity of Lousiville and a 1995-96 Sawyer Fellow at the International Institute.