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“You Stink Too”: Palestinian Camp Dwellers in Lebanon Challenge the Popular Committees

Since July 2015, Lebanese citizens have under the parole “You stink” been demanding the departure of the sitting government, due its inability to deal with a mounting garbage crisis. Meanwhile, Palestinians in Lebanon are targeting the Popular Committees in their refugee camps with similar campaigns.

Stench in the Lebanese Capital

On July 28. 2015 a social media campaign managed to mobilize mass demonstrations in downtown Beirut. The campaign called “You stink” (In colloquial Arabic: Ṭilʿit rīhetkun. Literally: Your stench came out) was triggered by the parliament’s inability to deal with a mounting garbage crisis. For the protestors, gathering in the hundreds in Martyr’s Square in Beirut, the “stench” was merely a symptom of lasting political paralysis. For nearly year and a half the country had gone without a president, with a resigned caretaker government, and a parliament that had extended its own term twice. While the protests where spreading to other cities, voices of dissent were also heard among the country’s Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians, however, were directing their anger against their own political elite in the refugee camps.

Electroshocks in Burj Al-Barajne

On August 5 2015, scores of protesters filled the main streets of Burj Al-Barajne; the largest of three Palestinian refugee camps in the Lebanese capital. The demonstration was a reaction to the death of a young Palestinian named Ahmad Kassab who had been electrocuted by a defunct power line.

While deteriorating infrastructure and unhealthy living conditions are recurring problems in all camps, Burj Al-Barajne is in particular known for its bewildering jungle of powerlines dwindling down from its rooftops. Lack of maintenance of the electric system in the camp has reportedly lead to tens of deaths over the past few years. The cables become particularly deadly during the winter season, when the streets of the camp fill up with rainwater.

Since 1949 UN’s Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has been in charge of administering camp infrastructure. Yet the agency claims that the public utility service Elerctricité Du Liban (EDL) mainly is responsible for maintaining the electricity in the country’s refugee camps. Demonstrations directed at both UN agencies and the Lebanese state are commonplace among the country’s Palestinians, but this time the protests targeted neither parties. Camp dwellers instead gathered around the offices of the Palestinian factions in Burj Al-Barajne, asking their leaders to come down to the street. “We, the people of this camp, are no longer able to go on like this”, one of the protestors told the TV-Channel Palestine Today:

“Come down to the people and hear them out, because this movement and this people’s revolution will continue. If these political authorities are not able to bring the people their rights through their dialogue with the state, go on; resign, leave this camp, because the people will not leave the streets.”

In fact, the protestors demanded the resignation of the Popular Committees – the camp’s internal political administrations. “This is our way of saying you stink too”, a young Palestinian activist noted.

Unpopular Committees

The Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon differ from refugee camps elsewhere in the diaspora in that they are semi-autonomous from their host state. Through the so-called Cairo accords of 1969 the Lebanese state did not only agree to let the PLO continue its “Palestinian revolution” against Israel from Lebanese soil, but the organization was also given the sole responsibility of the camp dwellers. The Popular Committees thus assumed the role as local municipalities that dealt with political matters, and interacted with the state and local NGOs. The refugee camps could arguably be described as “states within the state”, but since the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon in 1982, determining who are the legit leaders of these states, has been a delicate matter.

Much owing to a 1983-coup inside the Fatah movement, the Popular Committees eventually fell in the hands of a band of smaller Palestinian rejectionist factions aligned with the Syrian Baath party. The Arafat loyalists have since reestablished their presence in Lebanon, but now find themselves competing with their pro-Syrian rivals in terms of camp governance. In the vast majority of these societies we now find two Popular Committees working in parallel; one run by the PLO and another belonging to the Damascus-based Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF), where Hamas is the largest group. Needless to say, the situation creates a great deal of confusion for camp dwellers. Some, in fact, are not aware that their camps have two Popular Committees, while others suspect that the committees are corrupt, only being willing to assist their own political affiliates.

This phenomenon of “dual governments” proves particularly problematic in times of internal conflict. In the fall of 2013, the PLO’s Popular Committee in the Shatila camp in Beirut launched an investigation into a crime allegedly committed by a person associated with the PFLP (the second largest PLO-faction). While the accused’s name in the end was cleared, supporters of Hamas complained and suggested that the other popular committee should have carried out the investigation instead – they didn’t consider the PLO to be neutral in the matter.  Due to the lack of a neutral party, tension continued to rise instead of being resolved by the camp’s political leadership. The Palestinian factions’ inability to resolve ongoing conflicts has recently also been source of concern in the Ain Al-Hilwe camp.

Vendors Go on Strike in Ain Al-Hilwe

In September 2015 vendors in the Ain Al-Hilwe closed the camp’s renowned vegetable market. The shop owners complained that the deteriorating security situation in the camp made it impossible for them to turn a profit.

Due to intense factional rivalry and a vast array of internal armed forces competing for influence, Ain Al-Hilwe has over the years gained the reputation as one of the more turbulent places in Lebanon. This particularly owing to an unsolved power struggle between the Fatah factions and a number of smaller militant Islamist groups found in certain neighborhoods the camp. Following heavy pressure from the Lebanese state, seventeen Palestinian factions, ranging from secularist to Islamists, agreed to form a joint security force in July 2014 – a first since the PLO’s expulsion in 1982. Led by Fatah official Munir Al-Maqdah, the project undoubtedly marks a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, the security situation doesn’t look to have improved much since its launch. In late August 2015 thousands of civilians reportedly fled the camp due to violent clashes that erupted between members of Fatah and smaller jihadi factions based in the Taitaba neighborhood.

During this observer’s recent visit to the camp, the renowned Imam of the Nur Mosque, Jamal Khattab, claimed the joint security forces were largely unable to stop clashes erupting between rival factions. “Let’s say a problem takes places between people connected to Fatah on one hand, and Hamas on the other”, the Shaykh, whose own militia group also participates in the project, said: “The security forces contain members of both these factions, and will in most instances be unwilling to deploy and resolve the conflict […] There is a continuing paralysis.”

In the aftermath of the recent clashes, a committee of the camp’s vegetable vendors announced that they were going on strike. The renowned vegetable market has for years been the camp’s most stable source of income, but now shop owners claimed the recurring bouts of violence were also killing the camp’s commercial life. The committee thus directed the following statement to the leaders of the security force:

“Today’s strike is a letter to all leaders in order to [remind] them to carry their responsibility in improving the security in the camp. We are no longer able to handle the recession and the losses. We are now facing bankruptcy.”

Online Activists Call for Camp Elections

Recent protest and strikes have been accompanied by campaigns on social media resembling the Lebanese You Stink campaign. While deteriorating camp infrastructure and factional infighting frequently is debated on various Facebook sites connected to the camps, the campaign Ṭabbiq nizāmak (Apply your system) stands out in that it specifically targets the Popular Committees. Here users are asked to share photos and stories from the camps they live in under the hashtag “Mīn Al-mas’ūl? (Who is responsible?).” Moreover, the admins of the site regularly track down the social media profiles of camp leaders in order to outright confront them with their alleged negligence. Despite primarily being an online phenomenon, the group behind the campaign also has a certain presence in the camps. Here, efforts seem to center around confrontational acts such as spreading pamphlets and posters mocking the political leadership, but there has also been attempts at approaching the Popular Committees through dialogue and meetings. Nonetheless, there is an evident distrust between the activists and the political factions. “We are sympathetic towards their cause, but they deal with us as if we are against them!”, a spokesperson for the DFLP claimed.

The name of the campaign itself refers to a list of by-laws for the Popular Committees issued by the PLO’s Department of Refugee Affairs the West Bank in early 2010. The activists particularly highlight article 16 of said document, which stipulates that the Popular Committees should be democratically elected by the camp populations – something that for all practical purposes never has been the case in Lebanon. “The PLO’s bylaws are very good,” a former Fatah official based in Beirut shared: “The problem is that they aren’t implemented.”

Cracking Down on Dissent

As has been noted by the Norwegian anthropologist Dag Tuastad, the two groups most likely to gain popular support in camp elections in Lebanon, Fatah and Hamas, are principally not against camp democracy, but make no practical steps to realize it. Moreover, the Beirut camps as well as those in the northern part of the country, are dominated by smaller Damascus-based movements which outright reject the notions of elected popular committees. Having a strong military presence but little public support, these groups would seemingly have the least to gain from democratic processes. “The people don’t want elections”, a leader of the pro-Syrian group PFLP-General Command, contended during a conversation in the Shatila camp: “It would create chaos. The people trust the factions to deal with politics.”

Although the Popular committees remain un-elected, there have been examples where civilians have attempted to organize elections in defiance of the camp authorities. Following the death of the chairperson of the APF’s Popular Committee in the Shatila in 2005, a number of camp dwellers took matters into their own hands and mobilized support for the election of a civilian camp committee. The project, however, collapsed when candidates started to withdraw, particularly due to pressure from the factions in the camp.  Organizers of the Ṭabbiq nizāmak campaign also claim they frequently are subject to threats. “The factions will tolerate demonstration onto a certain point,” an official from a Saida-based Palestinian NGO speaking on the condition of anonymity said: “But if they should feel threatened in one way or another, they will not hesitate to crack down on any form of dissent. I have strong doubts that the type of demonstrations we have seen will have any significant impact.”

Endless Revolution

Deprived of civil and political rights, the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are continuously subject to repressive policies that prevent them from building a future in their host country. Without the right to naturalize, own property, inherit, and with limited options of finding lawful work, it is not strange that half of the Palestinian population in Lebanon of roughly 300,000 individuals live within impoverished refugee camps where they receive support from the UN relief agencies. The Palestinians’ place, or lack thereof, in the Lebanese state is an essential discussion, yet the recent protests show that camp dwellers also are eager to embark on another debate: What should be the role of the Palestinian political movements governing these societies?

Today the Palestinian factions in Lebanon are organized like militia groups, which seek legitimacy based on their revolutionary struggle against Israel – a struggle which by and large has not been fought from Lebanese soil since the early 1990s. At the same time, neither the PLO nor the APF have made efforts to democratize the refugee camps they govern. The lack of a strong and inclusive internal political body in the camps contributes to a situation where rivalry, factionalism and endless competition between various political forces abounds.

When protesters in Burj Al-Barajne asked their own political leaders to step out in the streets following the death of Ahmad Kassab, this was more than anything a demand for accountability. A demand which by the looks of it will continue to go unheeded in the foreseeable future.

By Erling Lorentzen Sogge, PhD candidate, Department of Culture and Oriental Languages, UiO.