How Palestinians Became Refugees: A Brief History of Land Disputes
The land between the eastern bank of the Mediterranean and the Jordan River has, for millennia, been at the strategic crossroads of commerce, culture and combat. Borders repeatedly shifted as successive powers conquered, ruled and suffered defeat. Both Jews and Palestinians have continuous ties to the land that reach back to ancient times.
From the 1500s to the end of World War I (1918), the land was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. By the time World War I broke out, the empire was on the wane. When its alliance lost the war, much of its territory was divided among the victors, and the land became a British protectorate under a document called the British Mandate for Palestine.
British rule caused unrest among both Jewish and Arab populations. In 1936, the Palestinians revolted against British authority and the increasing Jewish presence in Palestine. When fighting ceased in 1939, the British drafted a policy document, commonly called the “White Paper,” that restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine and promised to give Palestinians independence within 10 years.In response, an underground network developed to bring Jews into Palestine illegally during the 1930s and continuing into World War II.By the end of the war, more than 100,000 Jews had entered Palestine illegally.Foreign powers began to turn in favor of a Jewish homeland, in part due to the revelations of genocide in concentration camps throughout Europe during the war, and the British rescinded the White Paper.
In 1947, the United Nations resolved that the land should be partitioned, with part becoming a Jewish homeland and the other part an independent Arab state. In accordance with the U.N. Partition Plan, David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel and became Israel’s first prime minister. However, the Arab League (consisting at the time of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan (known as Transjordan at the time), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen) rejected the U.N. Partition Plan and the establishment of the state of Israel, insisting that Palestine should be under Arab sovereignty. Civil war broke out and in May 1948 the British withdrew from the conflict and ended the British Mandate for Palestine.As the British left, forces from Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq invaded, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War ensued.
After a year of fighting, Israel won the war and signed armistice agreements with neighboring states. As a result of the war, there was an exodus of about 700,000 Palestinians. The reasons for this displacement are disputed, with suggestions ranging from force on the part of the Israeli military, to some Arab leaders encouraging Palestinians to leave, to the desire of Palestinians to avoid violence. Many Palestinians moved to refugee camps like Ain el-Helweh. Some, like the filmmaker’s grandfather, stayed in the camps, insisting on their right to return to their former homes. Most Palestinian refugees have not been granted full civil rights by the countries in which their camps are situated.
Israel introduced a series of laws and policies during the war to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning, and enacted absentee property laws following the end of the war to further prevent Palestinians from reclaiming the homes they left behind.Because Israel was founded as a democracy, policies were established to ensure that returning Palestinians would not outnumber Jews, which would have rendered the creation of a Jewish state meaningless.
The Palestinian right to return remains one of the most contested issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
» Kamrava, Mehran. The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since the First World War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
» Masters, Jonathan. “The Arab League.” Council on Foreign Relations. Jan. 26, 2012. http://www.cfr.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/arab-league/p25967
» Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
» United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Aliyah Bet.” http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005776
Ain el-Helweh (literally “sweet spring”) is a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon that was established in 1948 by the International Committee of the Red Cross to house those fleeing northern Palestine and the Arab-Israeli War. The largest of 14 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Ain el-Helweh covers one square kilometer and is separated from the city of Sidon by checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army. While some older residents were born outside the camp, most residents were born and raised in Ain el-Helweh. The camp was originally built to accommodate 20,000 refugees, but today it houses upwards of 70,000 people. Lebanese soldiers control all entry into and exit from Ain el-Helweh, and while Palestinians are allowed to come and go, they are not allowed to live outside the camp. Lebanon now has “the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide,” according to the U.N. refugee agency.
» Kauri, Vidya. “Syrian Refugees Lament Conditions in Lebanon.” Al Jazeera, May 20, 2014. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/04/syrian-refugees-lament-conditions-lebanon-20144148119771360.html
» Miller, Elhanan. “Lebanese Palestinians Entering Syria to Fight Assad.” The Times of Israel, March 7, 2013. http://www.timesofisrael.com/lebanese-palestinians-entering-syria-to-fight-assad/
» UNHCR. “The Number of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Passes the 1 Million Mark.” http://www.unhcr.org/533c1d5b9.html
Rights and Labor in the Camp
The Lebanese government is not permitted to enter Ain el-Helweh, but it still regulates the work and visa status of the camp’s residents. Palestinian labor is tightly controlled, and residents have limited job opportunities available through official channels. Refugees are not permitted to work in the public sector, nor in medicine, law or engineering, nor are they allowed to buy property. Refugees do not have access to Lebanese state medical and education services, and instead receive these services from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
Palestinians are unable to emigrate from their refugee camps, unless they are fleeing violence and seeking asylum. However, even asylum is conditional upon making it to the physical territory of the country where asylum is sought, which can be dangerous to do without proper documentation. In the film, Mahdi Fleifel’s friend Abu Iyad plans to leave the camp and go to Greece. While Fleifel is allowed to come and go freely due to his Danish citizenship, Abu Iyad’s plan to work in Greece is illegal because of his status as a refugee.
Until 2010, Palestinians in Lebanon were subject to the same requirements for work permits as other foreigners—including the principle of reciprocity (the notion that foreigners’ governments will offer the same rights and opportunities to Lebanese citizens as the Lebanese government offers to that country’s citizens in Lebanon). Without a state, Palestinian workers were unable to apply for work permits in Lebanon and Lebanon did not recognize any special circumstances for the refugees. Additionally, Lebanese employers who hired foreigners without work permits faced heavy fines. This situation forced many Palestinians into unskilled, low-wage jobs.
In 2010, the Lebanese parliament amended the country’s labor laws to give Palestinians the same right to work as other foreigners. However, fewer than 2 percent of Palestinians have acquired work permits since 2010. Most Palestinian refugees in Ain El-Helweh are engaged in low-wage occupations that do not require work permits or are unaware of the opportunity to obtain the permits.
» Bakri, Nada. “Lebanon Gives Palestinians New Work Rights.” The New York Times. August 17, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/18/world/middleeast/18lebanon.html?_r=0
» International Labour Organization. “Palestinian Employment In Lebanon: Facts and Challenges.” http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_236501.pdf
» Muir, Jim. “Lebanon Grants Palestinian Refugees Right to Work.” BBCNews, August 17,2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11004945
Control of the Camp
Ain el-Helweh and other refugee camps are home to various Palestinian nationalist groups, as well as Islamist factions that are considered a threat to state security by the Lebanese government. Within the camp, factions are often in competition for control. The Cairo Agreement of 1969, an accord negotiated between Yasir Arafat and Lebanese army commander Emile Bustani, put the camps under control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.), effectively creating a “state within a state.” That accord was later annulled, and political relations between Lebanon and the P.L.O. continue to fluctuate. Two Islamist paramilitary groups—Hamas, a Sunni Muslim group, and Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group—back some factions in the camp. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are officially designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State. Inside the camp, the group Fatah, a faction of the P.L.O., controls security and provides residents with small stipends. Fatah is one of the most reliable sources of income for the men in Ain el-Helweh.
» Hundley, Tom. “Deepening Financial Troubles Haunt PLO.” Chicago Tribune, June 10, 1993. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1993-06-10/news/9306100020_1_hamas-activists-hamas-people-palestinian-delegation
» U.S. Department of State. “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm