Middle East


Cash-Strapped Palestinians See Livelihoods Decimated by Security Crisis

Shopkeeper Khaled Saadi says he has lost 75 percent of his business in Nahr al-Bared's marketplace. (Photo: Hugh Macleod / IRIN)

In 12 years of selling household goods to Lebanese and Palestinian customers, Khaled Saadi says he has never seen the market place in Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon, as quiet as it is today. (See photo slideshow.)

"This used to be a key shopping market for all of north Lebanon. I used to sell around $4,000-worth of goods every day," said the Palestinian refugee who is a father of six.

"Today, the most I sell is $1,000. I have six children, a wife and an elderly father to look after. Things can't go on like this for long."

Through the winding alleys of this one-kilometer-square camp, home to up to 40,000 people and one of 12 official camps where Lebanon's Palestinian refugee population live in varying degrees of squalor and struggle, lies the source of Saadi's current woes: the office of Fatah Islam, a Islamist militant group formed as an offshoot of the Damascus-based Palestinian Fatah Uprising.

Last month, four Syrian members of Fatah Islam were arrested by Lebanese authorities over the February bombing of a commuter bus that killed 3 people and injured 20.

Though the group denies involvement, a deadly shoot-out between Fatah Islam and Fatah Uprising in Nahr al-Bared on March 19 led the Lebanese army to surround the camp in an effort to contain what they said was a growing security threat.

Access to the camp has been severely restricted and the thousands of Lebanese who used to buy in bulk from shops like Saadi's and others are now prevented from entering.

The result has compounded an already fragile economy and further pressured a society suffering from mass unemployment, poor basic health services, and an increasing sense of isolation from their Lebanese hosts.

"Hundreds of young Palestinians have no work and many more are afraid of working outside the camp as they feel increasingly maligned by Lebanese society," said Abu Marwan, head of the Naher al-Bared Popular Committee, run by the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.), of which Fatah is the dominant organization.

"Since the assassination of [former Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri and the accusations against Palestinians, we have become more cautious. You can go to court as a witness and end up a suspect," he said.

From Brain Surgeon to Bomb Maker

According to the United Nations Palestine Refugee Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, as of March 31 last year, there were just over 400,000 Palestinian refugees in the 12 official camps in Lebanon.

Since Hamas came to power in the Palestinian territories in January 2006, the refugee camps in Lebanon have suffered their worst financial crisis for many years.

About 2,000 students, two-thirds of all Palestinians in higher education, failed to register for Lebanese universities this year, according to a study released in February by the Palestinian Institute for Human Rights.

Most were simply unable to pay their university fees after failing to receive money from Fatah, whose income has been crippled because of a Western boycott of the Hamas-led government.

For young students such as Hassan Hammad, a resident of Bourj Barajneh camp, south of Beirut, who had finished his third year in mathematics at the Arab University with top marks, the financial crisis has led him toward a very different future than he had hoped for.

"I was studying so that one day I might become a brain surgeon," he said. "Now, Fatah are using my brains to train me to make bombs. I wanted to help save lives, not take them away."

Radical Islam as an Escape From Poverty

In Nahr al-Bared, near the northern port city of Tripoli, the increasing sense of desperation among young people is luring some to join radical groups such as Fatah Islam, whose leader Shakir al-Abssi is wanted by the United States on terror charges.

"When I meet young people they are keen to get back to religion as a way to escape the reality of how they must live in this camp," Abu Saleem Taher, Fatah Islam spokesman, told IRIN in a rare interview inside the camp.

On March 20, Richard Cook, director of UNRWA in Lebanon, said the agency had received pledges of $22 million from donor countries to rehabilitate the camps and rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah. About $7 million has arrived.

Khalil Makkawi, head of the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee, said the reconstruction of 350 war-damaged Palestinian homes outside the camps would be completed by the end of May, and a further 231 homes inside the camps in central and southern Lebanon will be rehabilitated.

Makkawi added that $4.7 million from the United States and Italy would be used to rehabilitate infrastructure in Sabra and Chatila, Nahr al-Bared and Dbayyeh camps.

The European Commission has given $5 million for Bourj Barajneh and Mar Elias camps and Saudi Arabia has offered $7.5 million, which would be used for projects in Ain al-Helway, where 700,000 Palestinians live in a state of chronic insecurity with regular and lethal gun battles between rival factions.

However, UNRWA's budget remains significantly under-funded. In Lebanon, UNRWA's regular budget for 2007 is just under $69 million, a $2m increase on the previous year, or the equivalent of around $170 per year per Palestinian refugee.

"We only do what we can with the donors' budget. We need more money if we are to provide more services," Khaled Haj, the newly appointed UNRWA service officer for Nahr al-Bared, said.

But with only one UNRWA-run clinic in the camp, no high school and the nearest hospital over 30 kilometers away, some residents have lost faith in the U.N. agency's ability to improve services.

"Whoever wants to help the Palestinians should pay us directly, and not go through UNRWA. They have money but we don't think it is fairly distributed and they are full of empty promises," said Abu Issam, also a member of the Popular Committee. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.