The following is the translated transcription of a Skype interview that was conducted on Friday 22 June 2012. It features Lebanese activist Ghassan Makarem. The interview explores the particular events that transpired last week in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, locating them within the broader political and historical context of Lebanon. Makarem discusses both the current and 2007 events of Nahr al-Bared, highlighting similiarities and differences. Most importantly, Makarem addresses the general status of Palestinians in Lebanon, how this status has intersected with broader Lebanese dynamics, and the complicity of all major Lebanese political forces (on both the right and left of the spectrum) in the racism and discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon. The interview ends with Makarem’s assessment of the most important factors to keep an eye on as both this particular situation and the broader context it occurs in continue to unfold. The interview was conducted in Arabic and translated into English by Ziad Abu-Rish.
Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): We are joined today by Mr. Ghassan Makarem for an interview on developments surrounding the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon. Ghassan, hello and welcome.
Ghassan Makarem (GM): Hello.
ZA: Can you tell us about the series of events that transpired at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp last week and where things stand today?
GM: Before speaking about the series of events, I would like to talk about the general situation in the camp so we can understand what exactly it is we are talking about. We have [in Nahr al-Bared] a refugee camp that was completely destroyed in 2007. The camp`s population, which is approximately forty thousand people, was evicted from the camp. Some of them were dispersed throughout Lebanon, but the majority of them resettled in the nearby al-Biddawi refugee camp. After several years of waiting, a portion of the [Nahr al-Bared] camp was [re]opened, and a small part of it was rebuilt. So the camp is now divided into two parts, the [closed] old part and the [open] new part. Most of the people that have returned are living in so-called barracks, temporary housing, which by all measures are unfit for extended periods of residence. So this is one aspect of the situation, which is a humanitarian situation with dire conditions. Another aspect is that of a security grip on the entire area. The area is closed, and anyone wanting to leave his or her home and exit the neighborhood or camp needs a permit from the army. This is in addition to the army`s security presence within the camp itself, even between the buildings. So this is the environment of the camp.
Another aspect is that the term "camp" is incorrect in this situation if we want to understand what exactly a “camp” is. Most of the Palestinian [refugee] camps in Lebanon are not closed-off camps with tents, people living in those tents, and the United Nations as well as other organizations running the operations. These are neighborhoods within particular urban geographies. Like all neighborhoods, they have always played a role even if their inhabitants are from another the country. So the word "camp" usually gives the wrong impression about what it is that we are talking about. They are neighborhoods and this fact is very important if we want to understand what has been happening. This is especially the case when we take into account the security presence that exists therein.
For different reasons—which we can go into at a later point—a closed camp features military patrols. However, these patrols are not satisfied with merely fulfilling their role of "maintaining safety." There is a constant and inordinate level of provocation, especially in the camps. Certainly, the army is spread throughout the country and can be found in almost every city and village. However, there is a particular type of provocation that has been ongoing in the Nahr al-Bared camp for several years now, particularly against young men between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Most of these young men are unemployed, and those that are employed are earning no more than two hundred dollars a month at the most. The army`s provocation of the camp residents is a constant.
Of course, the army has various duties including protecting the borders, fighting enemies, and so on. However, there is a question mark surrounding the presence of the army in residential areas, irrespective of who is living in those areas. We are not talking about a civilian police force, gendarmerie, or military police. We are talking about security forces that are responsible for the defense of borders and other such activities. Clearly, its rules of engagement and the instruments available to it are not those that are designed for dealing with civilian populations as is the case in a refugee camp.
What happened last week was that there was a young man who was on his motorcycle. As is typically the case, anyone going down the street is not going to carry all of his identification papers and certifications with him while he runs to the grocery store or runs a short errand on his motorcycle. This young man did not have the registration of his motorcycle with him [when he was stopped by the army]. When asked about his registration, he told them that he did not have it on him. They did not allow him to go to his home [so as to retrieve the registration], which was perhaps a minute away from where they stopped him. They insisted on arresting him and taking him and his motorcycle to the nearby military post. This is the situation that instigated somewhat of a confrontation with the people that were in the area, especially since—according to eyewitnesses—the mother of this young man was at the scene and she herself was subjected to harassment on the part of security personnel. This of course added to the anger. So there was a provocation, the army fired shots into the air, and then they arrested two young men.
After the arrest of the two young men, a group of young men organized a sit-in to demand their release. During the sit-in, the army fired shots and killed one of the participating young men whose name was Ahmad Qasim, who was sixteen years of age. The majority of the young men in the streets at the time were between the ages of fourteen and twenty-six. So the first day ended with what was understandably a lot of anger on the part of the families, but there also were attempts at calming the situation.
The next day a strike was declared and the funeral for the martyr was held. This strike was held in almost all the [refugee] camps, and thus there were mobilizations in all of the camps in relation to this issue. The funeral was harassed, as the army did not allow it to be held where the people wanted it to be held and forced them to move the location. During or after the funeral, some young men noticed that the funeral was being filmed from an occupied home that was being used as a military post. This highlighted the disproportionate military presence and provoked the funeral participants, who reacted by throwing stones at the home that was being used as a military post, what in the media has been called the military center. The army once again fired shots, wherein two martyrs were killed, seven people were wounded (the majority of injuries were in the legs), and eleven people were detained by the military police. Just recently, the army issued a statement assuring the people these detainees` cases would be looked into and promising their release. This produced a certain level of calm in the camps over the past few hours. However, the strike is still ongoing from about a week ago. Still though, there is clam right now and there might be an initiative from the army to resolve the problem.
This background is very important so as to understand how the events unfolded. Lebanese media have been reporting that there were clashes between the army and a group of people in the camps. "Clashes" gives the impression that there was an armed group. This is the role that the media is playing despite the fact there is now an ample number of videos on YouTube showing who the people involved were and what they were doing. These people were sitting waiting for the release of the detained men and there has been an open sit-in in the square in Nahr al-Bared ever since.
ZA: Before I ask you about your understanding of the logic and conduct of the army in these events, I want to go back to your reference to 2007. How can we compare the events that you have described to those that transpired in 2007?
GM: In comparing events, what happened in 2007 certainly occurred on a much more massive scale. One study shows that twenty-percent of the camp`s population consider it a new nakba. Then, the camp was completely destroyed and families were displaced for long periods of time. These dynamics clearly have several consequences that we do not need to go into now, but we are all familiar with their scope. In addition, there was approximately four hundred dead and forty thousand displaced as a result of the 2007 battle. So there is clearly a difference in terms of the magnitude of the events.
We are of course still living the events of this recent episode. However, the second difference is that the army is behaving differently this time around than it did in 2007. Then, the entire camp was destroyed for what was described as the capture of the Fath al-Islam group, which is allegedly tied to al-Qaeda. This is also a big difference.
I would hope that what is going on now does not continue. But I think even more important is the broader context that allows for these types of events to reoccur. This context is very important to understanding what is happening in the camp. First of all, the army has laid siege to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon—or rather the Palestinian residential neighborhoods in Lebanon. By “siege” I mean that the area is surrounded as if it contained an enemy within it or as if an enemy was in control of the area. This security siege subjects the camp`s population to daily harassment. This includes anyone that wants to enter or leave the camp, anyone that is working in a field that is not directly related to his profession, and any young man that is under the age of forty. All of the residents are being harassed as a result of this siege. There is also the fact that the siege prevents the entry of construction materials into the camp and so rebuilding cannot take place. Finally, there is an overall economic siege by virtue of depriving Palestinians of work. This is all in addition to a horrifying and shameful racist climate in Lebanon. One can see this in particular when following the popular press, wherein there is a lot of incitement. I do not think any other country has this level of horrifying incitement. This is the overall context that has allowed for these events to take place.
During the destruction, displacement, and killing of 2007, there were attacks on Palestinians outside of the camp. Palestinians were randomly detained. We are not only talking about Palestinians that live in the camps. For approximately a year, Palestinians were living in fear as a result of the actions that were taken. The state clearly plays an important role in allowing for these acts to occur. But there is also a racist climate that is being drawn upon, which in turn allows for these events to pass without any opposition on the Lebanese level. This is a major problem. In all honesty, with the exception of a few political groups on the far left, and some intellectuals and artists, there is no support. This past week, nobody has supported the Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared and neither is anyone speaking about the crisis that they are living in. In 2007, the majority of political parties in Lebanon, including those that have been traditionally understood to be part of the resistance camp, were actively playing a role in inciting racism against the Palestinians. It is concerning that we may return to this level of incitement given what is already occurring in the media.
ZA: Speaking of the reactions of political forces and media outlets in Lebanon, could you talk to us about what you are observing in terms of reactions and how you make sense of them?
GM: There is a process of demonizing the Palestinians that has been ongoing for decades. There has been no effort, neither at the educational level nor the media level, to counter this fact. There are some human rights groups and Palestinian groups with popular bases that are trying to address these issues. However, with the exception of these efforts, Palestinians are consistently vulnerable to racist campaigns. One can [easily] highlight use of terms like "stranger" and "other." The situation has reached a point where in some ways there is no explanation other than a personal hatred of Palestinians, which itself is being fed by the media.
During the past ten years, there has been a lot of work on the issue of the civil rights of Palestinians. So there are certain developments that have been ongoing. But these developments have not been accompanied by any shift in the mentality of the state or the media in terms of their treatment of Palestinians living in Lebanon. When we talk about Palestinians living in Lebanon, we are talking about a group the majority of which was born in Lebanon and in any normal situation would be able to exercise its rights. I support all rights, including political rights. I do not think this voids their right of return. No one can say that if someone votes in Lebanon they cannot return to Palestine, because a Lebanese person that votes in France has the right to return to Lebanon if he chooses to.
The bottom line is that there has been no work on this bundle of rights, and the media has fueled this. Unfortunately, this is the case with all the media. In Lebanon, one can speak of media outlets that are supportive of the Palestinian cause. But even these media outlets have been doing nothing more than reporting events to the effect of "this happened and then this happened." There is no analysis of the context in which these events are unfolding. Furthermore, the right-wing media is the dominant media. It has been quite extremist on all fronts. This includes all the television stations, without exception. There are times when media outlets associated with the March 14 Movement have addressed the events and tried to take advantage of the situation as a result of sectarian considerations vis-à-vis Syria and so on. Nevertheless, racism [also] exists in such coverage. Nobody is pointing out that this situation cannot continue. Every time there is an incident in a Palestinian camp, the issue is transformed into a racist campaign on the part of the media. Put differently, there is a recurring pattern of racism in Lebanon. This was even the case in 2005 with Syrians in the aftermath of the assassination of [Rafiq] al-Harriri. In my opinion, we have reached a stage in Lebanon where the level of racism has reached heights that require immediate intervention in one way or another. This is very difficult to make happen, especially at the level of the media.
ZA: You spoke about a broader context regarding Palestinians in Lebanon, within which the Nahr al-Bared events are occurring. Over the past several weeks we have also been hearing about Lebanese developments, like those in Tripoli, Tariq al-Jadida, and other different places. Do you see a relationship between events in Nahr al-Bared and these other development on the broader Lebanese scene? Or do you see them as separate?
GM: There is a relationship. The question that should be posed has to do with the nature of the relationship. This is what is important. If we follow the statements by the Palestinian factions and popular committees, there is no relationship and no involvement. There really is an attempt to avoid any involvement in what is happening in Syria or the general sectarian agitation. There is a big fear of involving the Palestinians in the sectarian struggle, which in many ways they already are involved in through the deprivation of their rights. One of the reasons for this deprivation is the maintenance of a particular sectarian balance. So there is a fear of involving Palestinians in sectarian agitation, in particular in the north given the events of the Syrian revolution.
The relationship, however, is manifesting at a different level. In a practical sense, the army is connecting two [different] issues. The army is on high alert against all forces that – If we listen to the statements of the military leadership, we might laugh even though the situation is quite horrifying. For example, their understanding of and engagement with the issue of al-Qaeda is not that different—for those viewers/readers that are following this interview from the United States—to that of Fox News. We have [in Lebanon] a government that is known to be a Hizballah-led government. The position of Hizballlah vis-à-vis what is often called Salfist groups (e.g., al-Qaeda) is very much compatible to that of Fox News. The analysis that is now emerging is similar that of “Islamic terrorism” that we see in Europe and the United States. This analysis affects the ways in which the state interacts with the current situation. This is an analysis that is generalized across all political forces, including those that claim to be supporters of the Palestinians. [Hassan] Nasrallah came out in 2007 and declared the camp a red line, even though he did not say or do anything else. This time, however, there is nothing. There is no attempt to stop what is transpiring in the camp.
ZA: Can you tell us more about your understanding of the logic behind the army`s actions?
GM: An army shooting of a car that had a Salafist shaykh and his assistant preceded the state of high alert occurring in Tripoli. There were indeed weapons in the car, which has been pointed to in order to justify the claim that the army was shot at. However, immediately after this incident there was another one in which a citizen was shot at for not stopping at a military checkpoint. This incident had nothing to with the Salafists or al-Qaeda. This is the situation of high alert that is currently occurring. The army shoots in such situations with a lot of ease. It is not only in Tripoli that they fired shots. In 2004 the army shot at striking workers in Hay al-Sillam, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Dahiyyeh. In several incidents throughout the past few years, the army has fired shots during gatherings of young men, irrespective of what the reason for their gathering was. Just like the Syrian army, the Lebanese army shoots at any protesters with a lot of ease just. The poorer they are, the easier it is for them to shoot at them. This is an ongoing situation.
With respect to the current events, there is a circumstance of high alert combined with a failure on the part of the state to know how to deal with people other than the notion that this is a battle against Salafists or al-Qaeda. This discourse is easily tied to the racism against Palestinians, which makes it even easier for the army to shoot a sixteen-year-old Palestinian boy.
ZA: As a political activists in Lebanon, what in your opinion are the important elements that people should pay attention to as they follow developments both in Nahr al-Bared and the broader context of Palestinians in Lebanon as it relates to the issues of citizenship, the right of return, political rights, and the security situation?
GM: Irrespective of what is happening in terms of developments on the security front, we need to be paying attention to the rights of Palestinians. These are internationally recognized rights that even the Lebanese constitution needs to recognize. We as political activists recognize these rights. Palestinians have been deprived of this set of rights. We cannot think about any solution, even the right of return or the rebuilding of the Palestinian resistance movement, while Palestinians continue to be treated in this manner. They have been deprived of any social role, Palestinian or Lebanese. This situation is always going to create crisis. There is work that needs to be done towards realizing these [deprived] rights. The right of return is certainly one of these rights. However, I believe that the right of return is tied to the fact that Palestinians need to be living as equals in whatever country they live, especially Lebanon. This is the issue we need to be talking about if we want to think of a long-term solution to the problems that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon deal with.
On the other hand, developments in Syria have a big impact on the Lebanese situation. Irrespective of what the [Lebanese] political forces might say, there is a clear sectarian effect. There has been a longstanding view that the Palestinians represent a Sunni bloc that can be instrumentalized within sectarian struggles in Lebanon. The situation is obviously much more complex than this, and the Palestinians have rejected this view. However, there is a clear mixing of the issues, especially after [recent] developments in Syria. In addition, there is clearly a lot of popular sympathy on the part of Palestinians towards what is happening to the Syrian people. There is also the issue of the Hizballah-led government`s position on what is happening in Syria.
These are the issues we need to look out for. There are of course many other elements that have to do with Palestine itself, but I am here talking about elements that directly effect the situation of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. For example, the camps in the north are enmeshed in the social fabric of northern Lebanon, which itself was connect to Syria. Even at the level of everyday trade, many people in the north would legally or illegally purchase goods from Syria because they were cheaper. The Nahr al-Bared camp was an important commercial center prior to its destruction. Thirty-percent of Tripoli`s economy was destroyed when the camp was destroyed. This is not just a function of security measures [being expanded to Tripoli]. The camp featured, for example, the cutting of wood used for furniture construction, jewelry workshops, even smuggling. All of this was part of the economy of the north, and related to Syria. It was all destroyed. This explains a lot of what is happening at the borders between Syria and Lebanon. One does not have to be ideological to claim that these borders are for the most part artificial in nature. So these [dynamics], in addition to developments in Syria, are also important factors to look out for. The more the situation in Syria is sectarianized the more developments there will effect Lebanon. Finally, it would also affect things if for some reason Syria intervenes in Lebanon. However, I am not so sure about the likelihood of such a scenario.
There needs to be major efforts made towards the issue of [Palestinian] rights. This is very important, especially given that the political parties that are supposed to be primary supporters of the Palestinian cause, whether Islamist or leftist, are nowhere to be found when it comes to this issue. The only groups that are advancing any initiatives, especially after the recent Nahr al-Bared events, are very small and already involved in the boycott [of Israel]. There is a very limited [engaged] network, and those that know Lebanon know that this network could fit into a single a neighborhood. It is very difficult to reach out to other groups, especially within the proliferating notion that the army is a sacred institution.
ZA: As a final point, can you define for us exactly what you mean by the issue of Palestine rights, especially for those who are watching this interview and not necessarily clear on what you mean by the idea that the issue of rights is central to the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon?
GM: We can speak in the language of human rights. Though we can also speak about it in different idioms. Palestinians are unable to move around in Lebanon. They can be stopped at a checkpoint and detained for any reason. This is in addition to the racism that a Palestinian faces upon leaving his neighborhood. It is a fundamental right of people to be able to move around in the country they are residing in, and not be subjected to this kind of harassment. There is also the discrimination in the health care and educational spheres. There are some exceptions of course. So, for example, the Lebanese University allows Palestinians to register at a very low cost. Then, there are the problems faced by UNRWA.
I am thus talking about social, civil, and human rights, which all people should be able to exercise. An important part of this is the right to form unions or join existing unions. There are unions [in Lebanon] that are historically connected to Palestinian factions or the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, Lebanese unions do not admit Palestinian members. This is a [violation of a] fundamental human right. I do not think there is a country in the world that prevents non-citizens from joining unions when they are legally in that country. There are also other issues, like that of "reciprocal treatment." The Lebanese state claims to be treating Palestinians according to the principle of reciprocity. But what are they reciprocating? Palestinians in Lebanon are not citizens of another state that the Lebanese state can look to and evaluate how that country treats Lebanese citizens and thus treat Palestinians accordingly. So the entire principle of reciprocal treatment is problematic.
There is also the issue of political rights, like the right to protest one`s circumstances without being shot at by the army. This is perhaps the simplest right: to protest and not get shot at by the Lebanese army, who claim the right to do so because the former are not Lebanese. It might not be spelled out in some international convention in these words, but this is a right that we need to be defending. Dignity cannot be measured in a few sentences. But there are acts that are undermining people`s dignity on a daily basis.
I believe that it has become a responsibility of every Lebanese person to intervene into this situation in a fundamental and speedy manner. There are no political forces in Lebanon addressing this issue. I am personally not convinced of the efficacy of the parliamentary system and the reform project. But if someone is, where is the concern for Palestinians? This is a civilian population approximating three hundred thousand, or six-to-seven percent of the entire population, and whose rights have been denied. We can even go so far as to talk about the right to nationality, and the right of women to pass on their nationality to children. This issue affects Palestinian women married to Lebanese men. This [new] law is being held up because of the Palestinians, because of the rejection by some political forces of this law on the basis that it would grant Lebanese citizenship to some number of Palestinians.
All of this, I believe, is part of the issue of rights that we need to examine. This is in addition to the issue of occupation and the right of return. But these two [latter] issues are constantly spoken about, while people are silent about the [former] issue of the rights of Palestinians in Lebanon. There is no excuse for this. The excuse of "naturalization," which is used by the right as a boogieman, has lost all its meaning. There is symmetry between the right and left in Lebanon. The right do not want the Palestinians to exercise their rights because they are concerned about them becoming naturalized. The left do not want the Palestinians to exercise their rights because they are concerned about the Palestinians choosing to not return to Palestine, as if people are desperate to live in Lebanon. Consequently, this is something that everyone is implicated in. I am not speaking about right and left, because all the main political currents in the country—the traditional right, the traditional left, and the Islamists—are all opposed to Palestinian rights and are together responsible for the current situation.
The army must be held responsible for its own actions. There needs to be an investigation of the army. This time, the commander of the army should not be awarded with the presidency as the current president was after destroying the camp the first time [in 2007]. This needs to be talked about. I am talking about holding the army politically accountable. I am not talking about ordering the army to not confront the enemy or dictating how to confront the enemy. I am talking about the army being held accountable for its policy. Is this not the army`s policy? If not, then why is this happening every time? Each and every time, this is the manner in which the army deals with Palestinian protesters, or protesters in poor neighborhoods—if we want to address the class dynamics. There is something called the military creed, which we are told is to confront the Zionist enemy and liberate Palestine. But how are we going to confront the Zionist enemy when we treat Palestinians in Lebanon like Zionists treat Palestinians. The Zionist media would be too embarrassed to say some of things that are broadcast on [the Lebanese channel] MTV. These are things that need to be focused on.
ZA: I would like to thank you Ghassan … [interruption].
GM: I would just like to say one more thing in closing. This interview is being conducted on 22 June, which is the anniversary of the massacre of Tal al-Za`tar. A majority of Tal al-Za`tar`s residents moved to the al-Biddawi and Nahr al-Bared camps when their camp was attacked, and its inhabitants were evicted and/or killed. So we are talking about a camp whose population is [now] being displaced for the third time. The issue is quite symbolic as well as fundamental. One wonders about a political force that has built itself on the basis of resistance at the same time it has turned a blind eye to what is happening. This fact is completely unacceptable.
ZA: Thank you for this interview Ghassan. We look forward to interviewing you again in the future to continue exploring these issues. Thank you.
GM: Thank you.