When I visited Shatila last week two topics dominated conversation: the carnage in Gaza and the deleterious effects of the construction boom underway in the camp. I’ll take them in turn, though Shatilans usually don’t; for them, each topic seems the underbelly of the other.
Building in Shatila has long been described by residents as a kind of cancer, its growth both irregular and hazardous. The waves of Syrians and Palestinians fleeing Syria since 2011 have caused it to metastasize. Two years ago its population was estimated at 21,000, around 9000 of them Palestinian. Friends tell me the influx of refugees, alongside the steady flow of Lebanese and labor migrants seeking cheap housing in Beirut, has brought the number closer to 35,000. Shatila’s density rivals that of Gaza City.
The camp has spatially transformed since my last visit in 2012. For the first time I found myself unable to recognize certain streets. The building I lived in has grown by three floors; others have grown by four. The memory of natural light cools near windows now giving out onto cinderblocks. There is a pervasive sense of foreboding; miming the blind, hands outstretched, my former neighbor told me she now prayed for divine guidance when the electricity cut. Services already overextended are collapsing under the strain. Electricity cuts are now constant, the water has turned salty as the camp’s wells run dry (“even the earth is crying!” said one resident) and the overflow of sewage and garbage is now overwhelming. “Our blood is boiling over Gaza, but also over conditions here—we can barely move or breathe,” explained Abu Hasan, who has lived in Shatila for forty years. “We’re dying everywhere.”
For Shatilans, the skyward expansion signifies both moral and material disorder, its precariousness a visible reminder of the failures and corruption of camp governance and state neglect. The perceived dangers include not only lack of regulation (anyone can build anything within UNRWA’s official boundaries), but also the growing numbers of “strangers.” As one friend put it, “We have become a camp for other refugees—first from Naher el Bared camp [following its destruction by the Lebanese army in 2007], then from Syria. The security committee [lujne amneeya] does nothing to control who comes in and out.” New fault lines are appearing in camp politics, with the alleged presence of ISIS cells, and ever-heightening tensions between loyalists and opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Recent fighting that killed two residents and brought rocket fire from bordering Shiite neighborhoods is viewed as a harbinger of what is to come.
Residents now distinguish sharply between Lebanese-Palestinians, Syrian-Palestinians and Syrians, with the first group often lumping the other two together. One woman noted with irony that in Syria she was Palestinian, and had only become Syrian upon moving to Shatila: “To [Lebanese-Palestinians] we are no longer brothers, but a burden.” The array of cultural, social and political stereotypes in play is dizzying, ranging from gender relations, nationalist sentiment, child rearing, and dress, to personal hygiene, domestic cleanliness, appropriate behavior during Ramadan and general conceptions of “freedom.” Suspicion and recrimination are pervasive. “They are not like us and we cannot live with them,” I heard repeatedly, from all sides. In the eyes of original residents, newly arrived refugees consume resources and aid intended for their own impoverished families, while wrecking the labor market through increased competition.
Historical wounds are reopening. One friend described a mother from Yarmouk cursing an employee of an NGO distributing relief, saying he was not even Palestinian. “They were killing us in Syria and now you’re killing us here!” she had shouted at him, eliciting a sharp response: “When Syria was helping the Amal movement slaughter us during the War of the Camps [1985-1987], what did you do to help us? Now you’re here, we’re trying to help you and we’re both dying.”
The Syrian-Palestinians I spoke with are acutely aware that their presence exacerbates hardships faced by longtime residents, but see no alternative. For the unregistered, their legal status binds them to the camp. “While all Syrians in Lebanon are now refugees—even those who have been here for years!—we are treated as tourists,” explained Abu Khalid, who fled from Yarmouk with his wife and nine children in April last year:
Though we’re refugees, we’re required to buy a visa every three months, which we cannot afford—our family lives on less than $350 a month. So we’re here illegally. Our house in Yarmouk was destroyed; we cannot go back. The camp is the only place where the Lebanese police don’t go. Seven months ago they caught my son in Sabra. They put him in prison for a week and told him he had twenty-four hours to leave the country. He escaped back to the camp. For us, Shatila has become another prison. We don’t leave, for fear of being caught.
Abu Khalid’s predicament is shared by many unregistered Syrian-Palestinian families. The perception that the forces separating Palestinians are greater than those holding them together has made the trauma of displacement more acute.
Against this backdrop of distress and disunity, residents and political factions are brought together through daily demonstrations over the current war on Gaza. They are reminiscent of similar rallies I attended during the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2002, which swept residents into the streets in spontaneous shows of solidarity. News of the July 19 destruction of Shujai’iya and subsequent spikes in civilian deaths galvanized youth activists, who used social media to organize rallies after bothiftar and the dawn prayer. Then, as now, these demonstrations go unreported in local and international media, underscoring the shrinking role of Palestinian refugees within the Palestinian national imaginary.
After the July 20 rally I visited my friend Waseem. His anger at the cravenness of Arab governments in the face of wanton destruction and attacks on civilians was explosive. “You know I am with Fatah, but I support what Hamas is doing. Anyone who resists Israel deserves respect,” Waseem began.
This is where Egypt has taken the wrong path. They are fighting Hamas beforeIsrael because of internal politics. It’s good Hamas rejected their ceasefire proposal…Truth be told, even those who are with us are opportunists. The people speaking in support of the people of Gaza are the same ones besieging Palestinians in Yarmouk camp. Everyone has an agenda. Meanwhile Palestine is lost.
Waseem’s anguish is as much about the destruction of the Palestinian polity as the destruction of Gaza. And what I’ve seen in Shatila in recent weeks is indeed a dialectic of unity and disunity. Israel’s war on Gaza is, among other things, a war on the recent unity government in the occupied territories; outrage over this—and over Egypt’s perfidy—mirrors outrage over divisiveness and perfidy internal to Shatila; the emotional and rhetorical unity summoned in street demonstrations is a momentary stay against both. Shatila’s windows are increasingly bricked in, but this, as far as I can tell, is the view to be had from them of Gaza, and of Palestine.
[This piece originally appeared in a special weeklong series on the Stanford University Press blog, and is reposted here in partnership with SUP blog. The entire 10-part series can be found on the SUP blog.]