The Ongoing Nakba in Lebanon: The Case of Nahr el-Bared Refugee Camp This photograph was taken by someone from Nahr el Bared while fleeing?, May 2008.

Picture a drawing simply depicting a man flying through the air with a caption by a young Palestinian child that reads, "I wish to become Superman so I can help all people, and fly over the checkpoint without having to give him a passing permit or identity card."[1] Imagine another drawing, a collage made up of Arabic words and black paint to form a road with the caption, "One year after the battle, we are still waiting to return home."[2] These are not words and images from Palestinians in Gaza. Nor are they from Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp. They were created by Palestinians in Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon in a book that chronicles the war on their camp in the summer of 2007, their displacement, and their fight for their right to return to their camp.

The stories and representations of the children's experiences give some insight into the latest chapter of the ongoing Nakba for Palestinians in Lebanon. One girl's stick figure self-portrait narrates her story: "My problem is that when I see a house in Nahr El-Bared destroyed, and everything in it ruined, I feel sad and alone and sometimes I cry because we spent all our lives in it, and because we left it and ran away to Beddawi [refugee camp]."[3] A photograph of two Palestinian women and children sitting on a classroom floor with mattresses stacked behind them has a caption that reads, "Living in a school is not like living at home."[4] One girl shares a photograph of her parents and tells us, "My father says, 'Either back to Nahr El-Bared or back to Palestine. We don't want a third option.'"[5] And yet another such image depicts a black-and-white drawing of a building, with Palestinians standing in front carrying a colored-in Palestinian flag, with the caption, "We want to return to Nahr El-Bared."[6] Images of checkpoints surrounding Nahr el-Bared and temporary refugees in Beddawi refugee camp fill this book of testimonies. Photographs of destruction in the camps and of objects found, of the new UNRWA barracks in the camp, and of weddings and new beginnings. Children tell stories of flight and of fear in confrontations with Fatah el-Islam and of their desire to return to the camp; "I wish to go back and see the house in which I spent the best days of my childhood."[7] Many of these narratives mark a shift in language from a right of return to Palestine to a right of return to Nahr el-Bared.
Nahr el-Bared refugee camp was not supposed to exist. It was not one of the sites where Palestinian refugees went to await their return to their homes and villages in northern Palestine and in its coastal cities. After their expulsion from Palestine, some refugees traveled north towards Syria: "'people who settled there were on their way to Syria. When the Syrian government decided not to accept any more refugees, the border was closed and they were obliged to stay there. Later, UNRWA transformed the site into a camp.'"[8] Originally, the residents of Nahr el-Bared came from one particular village in Palestine: "'In the 1950s, 90 percent of the people in the camp were from Saffuriya.'"[9] Today, people from Saffuriyya make up only about half the camp's residents.The change of the camp's demographics is related to the ongoing Nakba for Palestinians in Lebanon which includes forced displacement, expulsion, and massacres over the last sixty-two years.[10] 
But the story of Nahr el-Bared is not only one of destruction or in-fighting. When the Palestinian Revolution came to Lebanon in 1969 their battle was not only with the Zionist enemy south of the border. They were also fighting to liberate the camps from the repressive maktab al-thani (Deuxième Bureau) which, beginning in the 1950s, functioned as the Lebanese government's agency for suppressing everything from political activity to housing regulations in the camps.[11] Many Lebanese supported the fedayeen by fighting alongside them against Zionist aggression, as well as demonstrating against the Lebanese authorities trying to repress dissent. It was also a time when Palestinian resistance achieved some important victories. One of those victories came when Nahr el-Bared was surrounded by the Lebanese army, like the other camps, but here the people were the first camp to liberate themselves as Rosemary Sayigh reveals in an interview with one of the fighters:
They brought tanks and the army tried to enter the camps. That day, we can remember with pride, we brought out the few guns that we had – there were eleven. We did well at first, but then we ran out of ammunition. A rumor ran around the camp that the ammunition was finished and we tried to calm the people by telling them that rescue would come from the Resistance. But we didn't really know whether it would come. But what was amazing was that people returned to what they had been in 1948, preferring to die rather than to live in humiliation. Women were hollering because it was the first time a gun had been seen defending the camp. It was the first battle that we didn't lose. The children were between the fighters, collecting the empty cartridges although the bullets were like rain. It was the first time that people held knives and sticks and stood in front of their homes, ready to fight.[12]
A few years later, in 1976, when Christian militias massacred Palestinians and Lebanese in the Tell el-Za'atar and Jisr el-Basha refugee camps during a fifty-three day siege, many Palestinians who survived fled to Nahr el-Bared among other refugee camps.[13]
The second victory came when the Lebanese Army and the PLO signed the Cairo Accords in 1969, which "allowed Palestinians resident in Lebanon 'to participate in the Palestinian revolution' and formally sanctioned Palestinian guerrilla activity to originate from certain border areas in Lebanon."[14] Technically the agreement was repealed by the Lebanese parliament in 1987, but has some important bearing on the more recent situation. Equally significant was a policy that made Palestinian lives more difficult, something that resonates with the more recent context. In 1982 Sayigh explains that "The government also unofficially requested UNRWA not to reissue ID cards that had been lost or destroyed; without ID cards, Palestinians were liable to be arrested."[15] Indeed, many were. During the war on Nahr el-Bared, non-ID Palestinian refugees became a high-risk group for those same reasons (there are between 3,000 and 5,000 Palestinians without IDs out of a total population of 409,714 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon). Some Palestinians without IDs came from other countries; others had their papers lost or destroyed, often when their homes and camps were demolished; still others were born to non-ID parents.
Nahr el-Bared had 31,000 inhabitants when the fighting broke out between the Lebanese army and Fatah el-Islam on 20 May 2007. Fatah el-Islam was a militia that, according to Seymour Hersh, was created indirectly by then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Saudi Prince Bandar, and current Prime Minister of Lebanon Sa'ad Hariri. The plan was for the U.S. to team up with what the U.S. views as "moderate" Sunni governments like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and link them with Israel to fight Shi'a in the region. In 2005 Hariri “...paid forty-eight thousand dollars in bail for four members of an Islamic militant group from Dinniyeh. The men had been arrested while trying to establish an Islamic mini-state in northern Lebanon. The International Crisis Group noted that many of the militants 'had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.'”[16]
These men made up the initial core of Fatah el-Islam and were equipped with cash and weapons to fight Hezbollah. Some of them wound up in Ein el-Helweh refugee camp in the south before moving north to Beddawi refugee camp; in both of these camps the residents kicked them out. When Hariri's Mustaqbal (Future) Movement stopped paying their monthly stipend of $700, some of these men turned to bank robbery and fighting broke out first in Tripoli then, a few kilometers north, in Nahr el-Bared, where the militants fled. Both the U.S. and Lebanon maintained that Syria was behind Fatah el-Islam, a claim that is illogical given Syria's alliance with Hezbollah. Aside from its leader Shakr al-Abbasi, Fatah el-Islam was not comprised of Palestinians; it was made up of mostly Yemeni, Tunisian, Saudi, Lebanese, and Bangladeshi militants whose primary concern was their antagonism towards Shi'a Muslims, not the liberation of Palestine. Many of the people in this militia did not even speak Arabic. Prior to the army's attack, both Nahr el-Bared and Ein el-Helweh were the two refugee camps with entrances controlled by the Lebanese army, a not-so-subtle indicator of their collaboration.
When fighting broke out, Palestinians were trapped and only allowed to flee after the first four days of fighting when the army called for a brief "truce." As they fled, many people from the camp described being attacked by yet another militia, a group whom they described as being affiliated with Hariri's Mustaqbal Movement. Much of this was surprising for Palestinians in this camp, many of whom are married to Lebanese spouses and had vibrant and intertwined social, economic, and familial ties with the surrounding Lebanese villages. In fact, as a result of these interrelations, Nahr el-Bared was a camp unlike any other: it had large villas, access to the sea, a dairy factory, shops where northern Lebanese shopped, and even agricultural areas. When they fled, most went to Beddawi refugee camp ten kilometers south which saw its population almost double over night from 15,000 to 27,000; a quarter of the people stayed in UNRWA schools and the rest in private homes.[17]
The refugees who fled called it a second Nakba: "The first one in 1948 was a black and white Nakba, it was easy to know who our enemies were. This one was more colourful."[18] But many Palestinians did not flee right away. For those who experienced their first Nakba in 1948 and then again in Tell el-Za'atar refugee camp in 1976, the past experience of forced displacement made them remain so as not to lose their homes and communities yet again. One woman noted "if they came here I wouldn't leave the camp. Even if they destroyed it. If I left I'd lose everything, if I stayed at least I'd die in my house."[19] Men, in particular, stayed behind to defend the camp and care for the wounded. When people did leave the camp they were routinely subjected to interrogation by the army and taken directly to prison, especially Palestinian men. Knowledge of these incidents also made many Palestinians refuse to leave. Melad Salameh was one who stayed behind. As a nurse at Shefa Clinic he wanted to tend to the wounded. When he left wearing a vest and cargo pants filled with medical equipment he was accused of treating Fatah el-Islam fighters and of being a member of the militia. He was one of those taken directly to prison. As soon as he was released, he began to treat people in Beddawi's Shefa Clinic where he witnessed up close the torture Palestinians from Nahr el-Bared experienced at the hands of their jailers in Yarzeh prison:
"Many of the injuries we received...were sustained under detention, inside the army detention centers. Many people came with signs of torture, abuse and beatings. We saw signs of electrical shocks as well, and some even reported sexual abuses, such as rape by bottle."[20]
Most Palestinians left hastily with only the clothes on their backs, sometimes with small plastic bags of medications, and some without any paper documentation, adding them to the list of non-ID Palestinians who could no longer move freely among the ever-increasing number of checkpoints scattered throughout the country. Even for those with IDs, many Palestinian men who worked outside the camps were afraid to go to work because, increasingly, Palestinian men were rounded up, detained, and harassed. Even Palestinians in places like Beirut who were not from the camps, particularly if their skin was dark, found themselves subjected to racial profiling as the Internal Security Forces (ISF) would approach them on the streets asking which side they were on. There were two possible choices: the Lebanese army or Fatah el-Islam.[21] Clearly not only political support from the U.S. seeped into Lebanon, but also its discourse.[22] Not surprisingly, then, during the summer's fighting the U.S., U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and Jordan all supplied the Lebanese army with equipment.
Over the course of the summer Palestinians fled to other camps around the country. The homes in which they found refuge were often overcrowded, at times with thirty people to two-room flats with several people sharing each foam mattress on the floor.[23] Eventually Lebanon opened a couple of school buildings as housing for Palestinian families, but most Lebanese did not open up their homes to people from Nahr el-Bared. This is in sharp contrast to the Israeli war on Lebanon the previous summer during which Lebanese villagers in the south fled to Palestinian refugee camps where they were welcomed with open arms.
The tension caused by the Lebanese army's battle against the camp led to the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee issuing a letter to all Palestinians, through Ambassador Khalil Makkawi and then Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, telling them that the attack on Nahr el-Bared was an act of "self-defense" and not an attack on Palestinians. Ironically, given the jingoistic billboards and attitudes that made all Palestinians suspect, the recipients should have been Lebanese.[24] What the letter and the army's behavior revealed was that Lebanese security depended upon Palestinian insecurity. This insecurity is not only about personal safety, but also about the right to return to their camp and to rebuild it the way they see fit. Early on Siniora made it clear that he had plans for rebuilding the camp, plans that signalled to many Palestinians that this was a premeditated, planned attack on the camp. For Palestinians Siniora's ideas about a "model camp", as he put it, was code for a return to the days of the Deuxième Bureau, of the government's control, suppression, and surveillance of the camps.
Unlike previous attacks on Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, the number of martyrs was relatively small. Between its outbreak and its end on 4 September 2007, there were twenty-three Palestinians murdered by the army, many of whom died because they bled to death as a result of a lack of plasma or blood supply or medical teams to handle the wounds (169 Lebanese soldiers, 287 Fatah el-Islam militants, and twenty-four Lebanese civilians were also killed). As with other massacres there were severe restrictions on ambulances and medical teams entering the camp during the fighting. Most of the Lebanese media, with the exception of Al-Akhbar and As-Safir, reported the attack on Nahr el-Bared from the Lebanese army's point of view; indeed the government threatened any news agency with lawsuits if its reporting did not support the troops. Palestinian victims were nameless and faceless and the line between them and Fatah el-Islam was purposefully blurred. International media found their work severely hindered and, until now, it is difficult for journalists to enter the camp as all non-residents must apply for entry permits from the army.
Likewise the return of Palestinians to their camp moved at a snail's pace. The excuse given by the government and army was that there were too many unexploded weapons. However, when compared to the previous summer's war with Israel that argument fails to hold water. In spite of the fact that there were millions of American-made cluster bombs throughout southern Lebanon, people returned home as soon as the Israeli forces retreated. What is more revealing is the fact that the interior of many homes inside the camp resembled Lebanese homes in south Lebanon, where one found homes looted, where soldiers had defecated on furniture, painted racist graffiti in the interior of homes, perched flags (Israeli flags in the case of southern Lebanon, Lebanese flags in the case of Nahr el-Bared) on top their destroyed homes, and shot bullets through refrigerators and Qur'ans alike.[25] This time, however, it was not the Zionist enemy but the Lebanese army perpetrating those violations. Indeed this is largely the reason for keeping both Palestinians, journalists and human rights workers out of the camp. It took an entire month before Palestinians were allowed into their homes again, on 9 October, but even then only 8,000 Palestinians (1,200 families) were allowed to return to their camp, 85% of which had been destroyed.[26]
There were two sections of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, and return was dependent upon which side people were from. Those who were allowed to return were only those from the "new camp." The rubble of the homes in the "old camp" has been cleared, but it is encircled with barbed wire, and people from the camp are forbidden from entering. Today most of the people have returned to the camp. Out of the original 5,550 families of Nahr el-Bared, only about 280 continue to live outside in camps in south Lebanon or Beirut. People from Nahr el-Bared who are in other camps such as Ein el-Helweh are fearful of growing tensions and are trying to return, but there is no housing for them in Nahr el-Bared as it is already overcrowded. Still there are others from the camp who have chosen not to go back because they would rather not deal with the continuing military blockade of the camp. All of them suffer from living in an open-air prison which in some ways resembles the Gaza Strip. The entire camp is now surrounded by army checkpoints for which one needs a special resident ID card or army permission to enter (now Lebanese citizens are allowed to enter without permission); one needs to provide justification for entering, including residents from the camp who have not yet returned. The Lebanese intelligence set up offices inside the camp as well. This is not only humiliating, but also affects the economic viability of rebuilding the shops and businesses. UNRWA has invested around three million dollars to reactivate Palestinian businesses, but there is a sixty-percent unemployment rate, and almost the entire population is dependent on UNRWA aid. There is no cash flow so people cannot afford to purchase items from each other and must rely on a barter and trade system.[27]
For those who returned to the camp, many live in one of the five housing units constructed by UNRWA which residents think of as "modern-day tents." They are poorly constructed pre-fabricated steel structures, or concrete rooms with steel roofs, that are intensely hot in the summer and cold in the winter and average about five people per one-room shelter. There is no privacy. Many of these already have huge cracks in the walls. Those who could fix their homes have done so on their own, without any outside help, but those who could afford to do so have been the minority.  The army has also issued, in some cases, violent threats to many people rebuilding their homes “without a permit.” In 2009, the municipal authorities stopped granting building permits to people from Nahr el-Bared, and the government has stopped any reconstruction initiatives under the pretext that title to the properties is disputed. In Nahr el-Bared, all property in the "new camp" is informally owned by Palestinians who bought it from the original Lebanese owners, but never officially registered it because of the Lebanese law that discriminates against Palestinians by forbidding them to own property. Rebuilding, then, has placed Palestinians under the mercy of the Lebanese government.[28] Indeed this seems to have been premeditated; recently it was revealed that Siniora signed a contract with the U.S. for ISF equipment in exchange for interference with internal issues. This U.S.-funded project includes, for the first time since the Cairo Agreement, the installation of police stations in the camp with the aim of implementing Lebanese laws that by their nature discriminate against Palestinians.[29]
UNRWA has started to build 150 houses and are trying to find sources of funding for the rest. The Lebanese contractor, Al-Jihad, has been building at a very slow pace. The camp has now been de-mined and the rubble removed. But the rebuilding continues to be restricted to the area designated as the "new camp." Reconstruction in the "old camp" is also moving at a snail's pace.[30] There are eight packages for the camp, only five of which have been designed, but only a few buildings in the first package have started reconstruction and only two stories were built for each.[31] The stagnant pace of building, the imprisoned feeling of the people in the camp, resonant with the past experience of the Deuxième Bureau, has left people with a feeling of demoralization. Melad Salemeh, a refugee from Jaffa, who now works with youth in the camp says, "we need to be rebuilding spirits and souls, not just houses."[32] The youth are especially fed up, and many go to great lengths to find ways of emigrating to Europe or elsewhere.
While the focus for Palestinians inside Nahr el-Bared may be on rebuilding or emigration, in nearby Beddawi camp the residents fear that their camp may be targeted and destroyed, repeating the experience of Nahr el-Bared.[33] Recently the army began building trenches around the camp and tightening security around it; people fear that soon they will also need special ID cards to enter their camp. To add to the stress, army helicopters occasionally fly over these two northern- most Palestinian refugee camps.[34] While this may appear to be a solely Lebanese enterprise, one must recall the initial role of the U.S. in creating Fatah el-Islam, the pretext for the Lebanese army's destruction of Nahr el-Bared. As with the agreement with former Prime Minister Siniora which will likely spread to a policing of all the camps in Lebanon, the American donation of twenty million dollars to rebuild Nahr el-Bared is not a gesture of philanthropy.[35] For Palestinians it seems like an attempt to wrest control over Palestinian lives as a proxy for the Israeli regime. The addition of Margot Ellis as UNRWA's new Deputy Commissioner General is another specter that Palestinian lives in the camps in Lebanon will experience a Zionist agenda at their expense.[36] Ellis' experience with USAID, America's imperial arm, is a harbinger that the Americans want greater control over the lives of Palestinians with the intended goal to encourage outward migration and eliminate the right of return.[37]

Marcy Newman is a scholar, a teacher, and an activist invested in human rights who has taught literature courses, as well as courses in American and Middle East Studies at Boise State University, Al-Najah University, the American University of Beirut, Al Quds University, the University of Jordan, and the University of Ghana. You can visit her blog at:

[1] Al-Jana Center for the Popular Arts, Away from Home Again: A creative Learning Odyssey by Palestinian Refugee Children at a Time of War & Displacement. (Beirut: ARPCA/Al-Jana, 2010), 62.
[2] Ibid., 117.
[3] Ibid., 103.
[4] Ibid., 70.
[5] Ibid., 95.
[6] Ibid., 35.
[7] Ibid., 137.
[8] Julie Peteet, Landscape of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 108.
[9] Ibid., 113.
[10] Burj el-Barajneh camp was first attacked by the Lebanese air force in 1973 followed by over 3,000 Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) attacks between 1968-1974, which culminated with the IOF destruction of Nabatiyeh camp in the south. During the Lebanese Civil War right-wing Lebanese militias attacked Tell el-Za'atar, Jisr el-Basha, and Dbayeh refugee camps in 1976. During its 1982 invasion of Lebanon the IOF destroyed large sections of Rashidiyeh and Ein el-Helweh camps. Later with its Phalangist partners the IOF enacted a savage massacre of Shatila refugee camp and its surrounding neighborhood of Sabra. Between 1985-1987 the war of the camps between the Shi'a Amal militia and Palestinians destroyed large sections of Shatila and Burj el-Barajneh. See Muhammad Ali Khalidi, Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon 2001. (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2001). Also see Mahmoud El-Ali's article in this issue.
[11] See Rosemary Sayigh, Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon. (London: Zed Books, 1994).
[12] Rosemary Sayigh, The Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. (London: Zed Books, 2007; rpt. 1979), 169.
[13] The forces allied against the camps were Pierre Gemayel's Kataeb (Phalangist) militia, Camille Chamoun's National Liberal Party, Father Sharbel Kassis' Order of the Maronite Monks, Suleiman Franjieh's Barakat Army, and Abu Arz's Guards of the Cedars. Some of the weapons were supplied by the U.S. as a proxy for the Zionist state. See Tal Al-Zaatar: The Fight Against Fascism. (Beirut: Palestine Liberation Organization, n.d.). Also see Liana Badr's novel, which depicts the massacre with the details of an eyewitness account. Eye of the Mirror. Trans. Samira Kawar. (Reading: Garnet Publishing, 2008).
[14] Mohammad Ali Khalidi, Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon 2001, 16. The agreement also gave Palestinians more autonomy stating that "'Palestinians currently residing in Lebanon' had the 'right to work, residence, and movement.' It also called for the 'formation of local committees composed of Palestinians in the camps to care for the interests of Palestinians residing in these camps in cooperation with the local Lebanese authorities within the framework of Lebanese sovereignty.'" Ibid.
[15] Rosemary Sayigh, Too Many Enemies, 207.
[16] Semour M. Hersh, "The Redirection." The New Yorker. (March 5, 2007).
[17] See Rania Masri and Jackson Allers, "'They May Accept Us for a Day or two But for How Long?'" Electronic Intifada. (May 25, 2007).
[18] Marcy Newman, "Aid for Nahr al-Bared." Electronic Intifada. (May 25, 2007).
[19]             Marcy Newman, "Letter from a Palestinian Camp." Electronic Intifada. (June 18, 2007).
[20] Anand Gopal and Saseen Kawzally, "'Army Torturing Palestinian Refugees.'" Inter Press Service. (August 13, 2007).
[21] See Rania Masri, "Where Do I Stand?" Counter Currents. (June 7, 2007).
[22] For historical context on this see Muhammad Ali Khalidi and Diane Riskedahl, "The Road to Nahr al-Barid: Lebanese Political Discourse and Palestinian Civil Rights." Middle East Report 244 (Fall 2007).
[23] The break down was as follows: Bourj el-Barjneh 336 families, Shatila 408 families, Mar Elias 8 families, Ein el-Helweh 56 families, Bourj el-Shmali 35 families, El-Buss 20 families, and Rashidiyeh 59 families.
[24] See Marcy Newman, "Letter from a Palestinian Camp." Electronic Intifada. (June 18, 2007).
[25] See Tamara Keblaoui, "Open Letter to PM Siniora." Electronic Intifada. (October 30, 2007).
[26] See Adam Ramadan, "Destroying Nahr el-Bared: Sovereignty and Urbicide in the Space of Exception." Political Geography 28 (2009): 153-163.
[27] The material regarding the current situation in the camp is from an interview with Yasmine Moor, Monitoring & Evaluation Department, UNRWA, (May 9, 2010). An independent team of journalists have been creating documentary films that highlight all of these new violations and problems facing the people of Nahr el-Bared since their return to the camp. See
[28] Recently this played out over the discovery of ancient ruins beneath the camp which led to yet another stalling of reconstruction. See Ray Smith, "Nahr el-Bared Reconstruction Delays Protested." Electronic Intifada. (October 1, 2009).
[29] Material regarding reconstruction is from an interview with Lyne Jabri and Ismael Sheikh Hassan, Nahr el Bared Reconstruction Committee, (May 10, 2010).
[30] On reconstruction and other issues facing residents of the camp see
[31] Ibid. Also see
[32] Interview with Melad Salameh, (September 26, 2009).
[33] See Ahmed Moor and Dean Sharp, "Lebanese Army Encircling Baddawi Refugee Camp." Electronic Intifada. (March 26, 2010).
[34] The material regarding the current situation in Beddawi is from an interview with Yasmine Moor, Monitoring & Evaluation Department, UNRWA, (May 9, 2010).
[35] See "US Gives $20 Million to Rebuild Lebanon Refugee Camp." AFP. (May 14, 2010).
[36] See
[37] For one example of USAID as an imperial project see Nadia Hijab and Jesse Rosenfeld, "Palestinian Roads: Cementing Statehood, or Israeli Annexation?" The Nation. (April 30, 2010).