Palestinian Refugee Camps On Verge of a 'Facebook Revolution'

As the Syrian crisis continues, thousands of Palestinian refugees have fled into Lebanon from camps in Syria, something that could have serious implications for Lebanon’s already tenuous balance, writes Nasser Chararah. 

al-monitor Palestinian women, who had been living at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, wait as Syrian and Palestinian men queue to get their papers stamped at the Lebanese immigrations authority at the Lebanese-Syrian border, in al-Masnaa Dec. 18, 2012. More than 1,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria have crossed into Lebanon in the past 24 hours, a source at the Lebanese border said on Tuesday, after Syrian rebels took control of a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. Photo by REUTERS/Jamal.

Dec 21, 2012

The current widespread concern in Beirut is over a new surge of Syrian-Palestinians who were displaced by the clashes in the Damascus-based Yarmouk Camp and have come to Lebanon. A simple review of the data on this topic will show that there are grounds for such worries.

According to statistics, Syria houses 660,000 Palestinian refugees, 430,000 of whom live in the Yarmouk camp.

In that regard, the most recent report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows that 90% of the Palestinian refugees in Syria who are leaving the country head to Lebanon. Consequently, doing the aforementioned math leads to the conclusion that 90% of refugees from the Yarmouk camp will pour into Lebanon.

In the past 48 hours, hundreds of Palestinian families from the Yarmouk camp have crossed into the Bekaa valley and taken shelter in the al-Jalil camp, near the city of Baalbek.

It is expected that more Palestinians will infiltrate during the upcoming weeks into the Ain al-Hilweh Camp, a definite likelihood based on precedent facts. When military clashes between rebels and regime forces first moved into Yarmouk in the holy month of Ramadan, its residents fled to the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon.

The displacement of Palestinian-Syrians to Lebanon poses additional challenges to the already tenuous stability of the country. The Ain al-Helweh camp -- already packed and overpopulated -- will host the largest number of Yarmouk refugees. The camp, which is only two square kilometers in size, is refuge to about 70,000 Palestinians; hence, the flood of thousands more from Syria will exacerbate the overpopulation issue and create politically explosive conditions.

According to government sources, the Lebanese state considers such a possibility the gravest threat among those Lebanon might face in the near future. These sources recall the social uprising of Palestinian refugees that occurred in most Lebanese camps last summer. During this uprising, refugees objected to the Lebanese Army implementing heightened security measures on camp entrances, and demanded an end to social and economic injustice.

Lebanese authorities held a belief following these events that the social condition of Palestinians, if left unsolved, would lead to an announcement of a “Palestinian Facebook [Revolution]” in the face of the state. Back then, and according to an exclusive interview with Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, the subject was addressed during the National Dialogue at Baabda Presidential Palace. Berri informed the participating parties that this critical issue must be discussed since it threatened national security. Measures, though scarce given the inconsiderable capabilities of Lebanon, were adopted to absorb the social outrage of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon.

With the flux of thousands of Palestinian families to Lebanon, the efficiency of said measures amounts to naught and consequently a “Social Facebook Revolution” in the camps is only a matter of time.

Lebanese security authorities are cautiously observing that the more deeply the Palestinian population is drawn into Syria’s conflict, the greater the possibility of a third wave of Palestinian displacement to Lebanon.

The first wave took place during the 1948 exodus, after the establishment of the State of Israel. The second occurred after the war in Jordan between the state and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This latter wave impacted Lebanon’s security more harshly than the first wave, given that displaced Palestinians were not registered in UNRWA records and had no identification papers.

All these problems are still unresolved and have precipitated, at large, the rocky relationship between Palestinian refugees and Lebanese Authorities.

As it was later revealed, many refugees from the second wave of displacement were involved in the Lebanese civil war of 1975. It is feared that this current wave will exact the same social and security cost from Lebanon.

Information has leaked within the Lebanese political backstage about the possibility that the conflict in Syria involves an implicit plan to displace Syrian Palestinians into Lebanon as the beginning stages of a plan to settle them in Lebanon. What causes this concern is that the displacement of Palestinians from Syria has correlated to the ongoing displacement of other religious groups over the years (especially Christians) from Iraq, Egypt and lately Syria. All of this poses a serious question: is the current exodus of Palestinians to Lebanon particularly, and maybe exclusively, a continuation of the enforced demographic changes in the Middle East?

Nasser Chararah is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse, head of the Lebanese Institute for Studies and Publications, a writer for multiple Arab newspapers and magazines, author of several books on the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict and has worked for the Palestinian Research Center.

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