Overview of Palestinian Forced Displacement in and from Lebanon 1948-1990 Children at school in the Mar Elias refugee camp, early years. (UNRWA archives)


The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon – who numbered around 104,000 in 1948 – can be considered the largest stateless group of Palestinians received by a host state. Several factors have affected the demographic distribution of these refugees in Lebanon since the 1948 Nakba. In this article I will try to briefly highlight the main factors that determined the distribution of the refugees to different places within and beyond the borders of Lebanon.



According to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, such displacement takes place when people are obliged to leave their homes as a “result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border." Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have faced almost all of these triggers, resulting in their displacement to other parts of Lebanon. In addition, there are many factors which have pushed the Palestinian refugees either to emigrate from Lebanon, or to seek asylum beyond its borders.

The secondary displacement of Palestinian refugees was mainly a result of the vision that the Lebanese political class had of itself, and of its country, in the context of the various religious sects that compose Lebanese society, combined with this class's view of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon and the Palestinian liberation struggle. The collective displacement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in the years under examination can be divided into two historical periods. The first period begins with the arrival of the Palestinians expelled by Zionist forces during the 1948 Nakba, and ends with the signing of the Cairo Accords between the PLO and the Lebanese state in 1969, in which the Lebanese government legalized the activities of the Palestinian resistance within its sovereign borders. The second period begins with the 1969 Cairo Accords and continues until the late 1980’s; it is a period marked by the primacy of the Palestinian military presence as a factor in Lebanese and regional politics.

It must be noted that in neither of these periods were refugees given a say in choosing to where they would be displaced. Yet, each stage was shaped by the influence of the Palestinian presence on Lebanese soil, on the one hand, and/or on the Lebanese religious sectarian structure on the other. Moreover, the models of interaction of the refugees within the host community, and the political status and affiliation of the refugees with political actors, played a vital role in the displacement of Palestinians in Lebanon. I make this distinction between the two eras based on the evolution of the Palestinian community, and its transformation from a passive actor into an active agent in Lebanese politics, a transformation that was brought about mainly by the emergence of the armed Palestinian resistance and the legalization of its presence in 1969.

Concentration and Segregation: The 1948-1969 Years

The collected data, regarding the distribution of the Palestinian refugees who received relief from UNRWA between 1948 and 1951, shows that they were spread over 126 locations in different parts of Lebanon.[1] During this period, the distribution of the Palestinian refugees as to housing was assessed by UNRWA in the 1948-1951 period as follows: 76.91% in rented houses or with relatives and friends; 20.16% in ordinary tents; and 11.93% in monasteries, churches, mosques, barracks, and cottages.[2] By the mid-1950s, the refugees were gradually concentrated in fifteen refugee camps, and in other UN administered areas that were not considered or recognized as official camps. Both official and unofficial camps were located near the main cities. A minority of the refugees had the financial means to live outside the camps, and have thus had better opportunities to earn their living through finding adequate jobs. The majority of the refugees did not have such an option as they were mainly lower class peasants and workers in Palestine, and had lost what little they did have through the course of their uprooting and Israel's denial of their return. In what follows I discuss some of the main triggers of Palestinian displacement during this period.

Natural Hazards, Drastic and Harsh Living Conditions.

The majority of Baddawi camp inhabitants had settled in the city of Tripoli in the early years of the exodus. They had mostly inhabited the old castle which was used for horses, and it was given the title of the military khan (inn). When the Abu Ali river which runs through Tripoli flooded in 1955, the khan was severely affected and UNRWA was obliged to find an alternative place for this group of refugees. In addition, there were other refugees scattered in some areas of the south-eastern Bekaa, where the unbearably harsh winter conditions led UNRWA to transfer this group of refugees to the same newly-established camp.

The refugees who lived in Goro camp were similarly treated. The site was that of an old French army barracks in Baalbek. When the building began to fall apart, the state allowed UNRWA to build a new section in Rashidieh camp in 1963, and the refugees who lived in Goro were transferred to the new part of Rashidieh.[3]

Interests of the Property Owners that Hosted the Refugees

Jisr Al Basha camp was established in 1952 to accommodate Palestinian Catholics who fled from Haifa, Acre, and Jaffa. To begin with, the population found shelter in Azarieh, in Furn Al Shouback. When the property's owner sold the dwelling, the Lebanese government and UNRWA reached an agreement to rent a land plot in Jisr Al-Basha to accommodate the Christian Refugees.

Another Palestinian Christian group, most of whom were from Haifa, Acre and Jaffa, and who fled to Beirut on board a ship before 15 May 1948, were transferred to the Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias near UNESCO's headquarters. When the monastery administration discovered that the refugees were not allowed to return to Palestine, they agreed, in 1952, to lease the property to UNRWA who established a camp for the 90 families (500 people) who were hosted there. The camp was thus established on a nearby site as an endowment gifted by the Orthodox monastery. In the same context, the Palestinian Catholics who initially sought refuge at the Saint Josef Catholic monastery of Dbayyeh were transferred to Dbayyeh camp when it was established by UNRWA in 1956.

The Interest of the State.

The main reason for transferring refugees from the villages near the Lebanon-Palestine border was the state's fear of Israeli reprisal for Palestinians attempting to return to Palestine, or to carry out attacks on the Zionist settlers on the other side. Since the issue of the refugees was not settled within the frame of negotiations, which were carried out between the Arabs and Israel following the expulsion of the Palestinians, the Lebanese state worked on moving the Palestinian refugees residing in the villages of southern Lebanon, bordering the part of Palestine occupied in 1948. The inhabitants of Salha village were hosted in a village established by the prominent Shi'ite leader Ahmed Al-Asaad in 1956. Ahmed Al-Asaad was accused by the then Lebanese president Camille Chamoun of arming the population in order to stir up troubles with his political rivals. As a result, the inhabitants were transferred to Nabatiyeh camp. Another group of refugees living in different villages surrounding Marjayoun district, near the border, were transferred by the government to live in Nabatiyah camp. Yet another group of refugees in southern Lebanon were moved to Burj El-Shamali camp which was established by UNRWA in 1955 on state land. Meanwhile, the refugees who were living in the Armenian village of Anjar in the Beqaa faced the same transfer, following a dispute between some of the refugees' families and the Armenian families who were living in the area. Again, in 1963, the government moved refugees living near an excavation site near El-Buss – near Tyre – to Rashidiyeh camp.[4] These included refugees living under the railway bridge on the same site, and a few families who were living on privately owned properties.

Economic Factors and the International Community

The factors affecting the external displacement outside Lebanon were mainly economic motivated by the growing opportunities for working abroad in the Arab countries, and similarly, albeit to a lesser extent, opportunities in European countries.

Palestinian refugees faced severe obstacles when it came to applying for a travel document, and once the document was issued, the refugees' UNRWA rations were suspended. Furthermore, both Arab and other countries placed their own set of difficult restrictions on Palestinian workers. A very small number of highly-qualified Palestinian refugees were granted work permits in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Libya during this period. In the course of looking for better work opportunities, a small number of graduates from UNRWA's Siblin technical training center were given the option to pursue their studies abroad. These students who had this chance left for Germany and Sweden, and some of them have chosen, and managed, to stay abroad.

It is also important to note that UNRWA encouraged the refugees to emigrate during the 1950s, and played a role in assisting a considerable number of families to emigrate to Africa, North America, and Australia, on the condition they give up their relief assistance. Although the refugees, as a collective, opposed this approach - seeing in it a conspiracy to resettle Palestinian refugees - a considerable number of families applied for immigration though UNRWA, and many did emigrate. UNRWA, assisted by the General Directorate of Palestinian Affairs, conducted a comprehensive census on the registered Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon in 1962. In the process, they crossed off 1,187 people and 2938 families from their records, because they did not find them at their given addresses in Lebanon. It is likely that many of those crossed off had moved abroad.[5]

The Palestinian “Revolution”: 1969-1990

The emergence of the Palestinian military resistance had a positive impact on the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. When the PLO started to formalize its presence, it established different institutions which helped in providing a social safety net for large numbers of Palestinians, as well as the Lebanese who were affiliated with Palestinian organizations. Before the withdrawal of the resistance from Lebanon in 1982, the PLO had provided 10,000 jobs directly, and over 30,000 jobs indirectly[6]. This did not, however, hinder job seekers from traveling abroad to secure better economic conditions. Meanwhile, the freedom of movement for Palestinians enabled thousands of them to travel abroad with less complication than before. Tens of thousands of Palestinians left to work abroad, particularly in the oil-rich Gulf States and Libya. Moreover, during the same period, many younger refugees sought work and education in Western Europe.

However, the 1969 Cairo Accords did not put an end to the rising tension between the Palestinian resistance on one hand and the Lebanese army, militias and government on the other, as each party sought to assert its control over parts of the country. On 2 May 1973, the Lebanese Army, supported by Lebanese right wing militias, attacked the largely Palestinian neighborhood of Sabra in Beirut as well as the Shatila, Burj el-Barjneh, Tal el-Zaatar, and Dbayyeh camps.During these incidents the Hawker Hunter jets bombed the Palestinian artillery positions in Burj el Barjneh camp.

Nevertheless, the continuous growth of the Palestinian political and military presence in Lebanon, and the support provided by Islamic religious sects and the Lebanese national movement, ignited the Lebanese civil war, which started in 1975, following the collapse of the Lebanese state's administrative apparatus and the split in the army. The split resulted in the control by Palestinian resistance, supported by the Lebanese national movement, over some areas of Lebanon, whereas the right-wing organizations, supported by the Syrians at first, and the Israelis later on, controlled other parts of the country.

While there is no space to delve into the complex realities of the Palestinian situation in Lebanon in the 1980s, it is evident that this era started to produce different factors that triggered the displacement of Palestinians. The major factors affecting this displacement were the political, and military situation created by Israel's continuous aggression against Lebanon in general, and the Palestinian military and civilian population in particular. These attacks reached a climax in 1982 when Israel invaded and occupied the southern part of Lebanon, including the capital Beirut. In addition, the Lebanese civil war and the U.S.-brokered removal of the Palestinian resistance in 1982, and the reinstitution of the state's authority thereafter all led to the sharp increase in Palestinian displacement, specifically to Europe. The emigration to Europe reached its peak after the war of the camps, in Tripoli and the Beqaa (1983-1985) and then in Beirut (1985-1987).

Israeli Aggression

Israeli aggression against Lebanon in this period can be classified in two main forms: the first was defined by Israel's attacks on Lebanon and the Palestinian civilian and military positions during the period from 1969 until 1978 by the use of artillery and air raids. The most violent air raid targeted Nabatieh camp in 1974. The residents of Nabatieh camp were the first group of Palestinians in Lebanon forced to flee collectively after their camp's destruction. In 1974, Israeli airplanes raided the camp and destroyed it completely causing the loss of 50 of the camp's inhabitants. Around 5,000 residents were obliged to flee to other areas including Beirut, Nabatieh town, Beqaa valley, Shiehm village, while others headed to Baddawi camp in North Lebanon.

The second form began with the 1978 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This invasion resulted in the military occupation of most of southern Lebanon, and the establishment of the so-called security zone. The invasion also resulted in the forced displacement of around 285,000 people from southern Lebanon, among them 65,000 Palestinians.

This continued with the Israeli invasion in 1982 and the raiding of the camps in the south, combined with the massacres committed through air raids in Burj El-Shamli camp, and the bombardment of Rashidieh and Ein El-Hilweh camps; these military campaigns led to the displacement of about a quarter of Rashidieh camp's population. The invasion reached its pinnacle in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which Lebanese fascist militias murdered 3,000 civilians with logistical support and under the supervision of the Israeli army. The invasion provoked great waves of refugee flight to other places in Lebanon.

Following the invasion, many of the refugees felt safer moving to Syria. These families and individuals found/took advantage of an opportunity created by Israel's aggression on the Lebanese-Syrian border during 9-10 June 1982, as the border was largely unpatrolled, thus making it easier for thousands of Palestinian civilians to enter Syria without obstacles. Most of the 8,000 displaced refugees who crossed the border in this period gathered near the Sayida Zainab shrine. Other refugees fled to the Gulf states and Europe, especially those who had family members abroad who were able to secure visas for their displaced relatives.

The Lebanese Civil War

The Palestinian population in Lebanon was severely affected by the civil war, which occurred in two stages. The first stage (1975-1976) took place when the right-wing militias attacked three Palestinian camps in the eastern part of Beirut. The second (1983-1987) took place over two stages: the first took the form of internal conflict between the Palestinian factions over the issue of the policies towards peace, which mainly affected camps in Beirut and the north. The other was related to the Amal movement's war on the camps in Beirut and Southern Lebanon following the withdrawal of the Israeli forces south of the Litani river.

During the civil war which divided Lebanon along religious lines, right-wing militias committed massacres against the inhabitants of three camps in 1976: Dbayyeh, Tal al-Zaatar, and Jisr al-Basha. Thus refugees were forced to flee to other places in the country. Some of the residents of Dbayeh found shelter in Mar Elias camp. Around 12,000 survivors of the 17,000 residents of Tal el-Zaatar were displaced to other areas in Lebanon, including Nahr el-Bared camp, and particularly to the Lebanese village of Damour which was raided by Palestinian forces in response to the fall of Tal el-Zaatar, whereupon the Christian inhabitants fled by boat to East Beirut. Additionally, refugees who fled Tal al-Zaatar headed towards Beqaa. Tal el-Zaatar and Jisr El-Basha were totally destroyed and Dbayyeh camp was partially destroyed. In this context the refugees from Jisr el-Basha fled towards East Beirut. In addition there were around 10,000 Palestinians living in slaughterhouses in Nabaa and Karantina who were forced to escape towards the western part of Beirut when the phalanges (Kata'ib) raided the area and destroyed the majority of the shelters. Many refugees tried to leave Lebanon altogether during this period, and a considerable number managed to migrate towards Europe, mainly Germany.

The “War of the Camps”

In 1982, the U.S. brokered an agreement by which, among other things, Israel was to withdraw South of the Litani river. In return, the Syrians were to maintain order north of the river and ensure that the PLO's military presence was eliminated. It was a time of intense confusion for the Palestinian liberation movement, and the disputes over the Palestinian liberation strategy, and accountability for the 1982 defeat, resulted in military clashes between Palestinian factions – many of them backed by other regional powers – that characterized the 1983-1985 period. The internal “war of the camps” erupted in northern Lebanon and the Beqaa' areas. New waves of forcibly displaced Palestinians were the direct consequence.

After Israel's withdrawal to southern Lebanon, Syria's main agent in fulfilling its commitment to eradicate the Palestinian political and military presence in Lebanon was the Amal movement. Amal, which controlled East Beirut with Kamal Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), applied strict measures on the movement of Palestinian refugees, placing military checkpoints at camp entrances, and humiliating Palestinians as they passed in and out. The abduction, torture, and disappearance of Palestinian refugees during this period still constitutes an important part of the collective trauma of this community today. Moreover, under the banner of ridding the Palestinian community of “Arafatists,” Amal and other Syrian-backed groups – including some Palestinian factions – besieged and indiscriminately attacked several refugee camps. The resulting “war of the camps” (more accurately, war on the camps) claimed the lives of 9,094 Palestinians, and wounded 1,722. Almost fifty-thousand Palestinians were displaced in the violence that also destroyed 96% of Shatila camp, 65% of Burj el-Barajneh camp and 25% of Rashidiyeh camp.

Mass waves of displacement were the direct consequence of the war of the camps as people, particularly youth, fled fearing murder, harassment, and detention. The displacement reached its peak between 1987 and 1989 when the violence expanded to the rest of the camps in Beirut and southern Lebanon.

Discriminatory Laws Following the PLO Withdrawal.

Within a few months of the withdrawal by the Palestinian resistance from Lebanon, the Lebanese Labor and Social Affairs Minister issued Decree number 1/289 (18 December 1982), in which foreigners were prohibited from working in approximately 72 professions. The main group of “foreigners” in the country were, of course, Palestinian refugees. This step came in tandem with the arbitrary arrests that targeted thousands of Palestinian men and youth in Beirut. In addition, the Security General that was headed by Zahi Elbustani, a pro-Phalangist member, applied new regulations for the issuance of travel documents to Palestinians. As a result of these measures, and according to unofficial information, around 17,000-20,000 Palestinians were de-registered by 1992, becoming non-ID residents of the country.[7] The implementation of the decrees started in the era of President Amin Gemayel, head of the right-wing Phalangist Party. Such discriminatory policies were also a major factor in the displacement of Palestinians from Lebanon.


The above-mentioned factors contributed extensively in re-shaping the demographic distribution of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. A 1989 UNRWA survey revealed that 4,122 families (23,080 people) had experienced forced displacement, accounting for 11.36% of the total number of UN registered refugees at that time in Lebanon.[8] A follow-up survey, conducted by UNRWA in 1992, showed that the displacement affected 5,963 Palestinian families in the 1971-1991 period. This survey was limited to those families that were still not settled in houses of their own, and thus excluded the families who fled from the demolished camps within or beyond the borders of Lebanon.

In this regard, Mohamed Kamel Doraï in a paper entitled “Palestinian Emigration from Lebanon to Northern Europe: Refugees, Networks and Transnational Practices” states that since the 1980s, about 100,000 Palestinians have emigrated from Lebanon to the Gulf countries and northern Europe, mainly Germany, Sweden, and Denmark.

Although it is difficult to know the exact number of refugees from Lebanon who were granted asylum status in Europe, some researchers such as Ralph Gadban have estimated that 80% of the 80,000 Palestinian refugees in Germany arrived from Lebanon.[9] Maged Elzeir noted in his thesis, The Palestinian Community in Britain: Features of Exile and Attitudes toward the Right of Return, that the number of Palestinians in the UK became apparent from the late 1970s onwards. According to Elzeir, this influx was a direct consequence of the civil war in Lebanon, as well as the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 respectively. Other information reveals that a majority of the approximately 19,000 Palestinians living in Denmark today came to Denmark during the civil war in Lebanon, most of them coming from Wavel camp.

It is also of interest to note some of the other changes in the distribution of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. For instance, Mar Elias camp has transformed from a majority Christian camp into a majority Muslim camp. Most of the the Palestinian Christians who used to live in the camp moved to Dbayeh camp or to other areas of West and East Beirut, while others have fled abroad. Now, more than 95% of the camp's inhabitants are those who were displaced from the destroyed camps such as Tal el-Zaatar. Half of the residents of today's Dbayyeh camp, the only camp in East Beirut that was not completely destroyed, is composed of Lebanese families. Shatila camp is now considered a “cosmopolitan,” rather than a Palestinian, camp, as the low housing prices have attracted poor and working- class migrant workers. This same phenomenon can be seen in Ein el-Hilweh and Baddawi camps. Another form of demographic change is the expansion of the Palestinian presence in the Beqaa Valley, in Saadnayel, Bar Elias, Taalabaya, and Chtoura. It is worth noting that Palestinians established their own communities after some built homes and settled in Beqaa. In addition, there has been the foundation of new gatherings along the camp's boundaries, such as Al-Baraksat, Hamshari hospital, the railway, the Jewish orchard near Ein el-Hilweh, the immigrant's quarters on the outskirts of Baddawi and Nahr El-Bared camps, the Gaza hospital in Beirut's Sabra neighborhood, and others.

[1] UNRWAPR, Statistical Bulletin Lebanon , May 1950- June 1951, p: 14A, 14A-B
[2] Idem.Ibid , p: 13

[3] زراقط مهى ، المخيمات الفلسطينية في لبنان ، في المخيمات الفلسطينية في لبنان ، واقع بائس يبحث عن حلول ، بطاقة تعريف ، مركز عصام فارس للشؤون اللبنانية ، ايلول 2009 .ص:28 .

[4] أحمد محمود، معين، الفلسطينيون في لبنان:الواقع الاجتماعي، دار إبن خلدون، بيروت، 1973 ص:32.
[5] العلي محمود ، الواقع الاجتماعي للاجئين الفلسطينيين في لبنان ، التدامج والتمايز، 1948 -2005."بيروت ، مركز باحث للدراسات، 2009 ، ص:38.

[6] Hudson, Michael, Palestinian & Lebanon the Common Story, Journal of Refugee Studies, No: 3. May 1988. p: 245

[7] عبدالله، رضوان، اللاجئون الفلسطينيون، أوضاعهم، معاناتهم، حقوقهم، مطبعة خيزران، لبنان، ط1/2002، ص:20.

[8] الأنروا- بيروت ، وضاع المهجرين الفلسطينيين في لبنان _ورشة عمل /صيدا في 22 آذار 1990 ،ص:27 .

[9] Ralp Gadban , in Palestinian Refugees in Europe and Challenges of adaptation and identity : summary report of workshop on Palestinian refugees', communities in Europe .St Antony college university of Oxford.