Since 1949, the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut has been home to thousands of Palestinians. Visiting the camp last week, Jacobin found its population in dire conditions, with the cutting of Western aid to UNRWA further aggravating its bleak poverty.

Palestinian flags hang above pedestrians walking along an alley at the Shatila camp in the southern suburb of Beirut on November 7, 2023. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP via Getty Images)

Last Monday evening, thousands of Palestinian refugees of all ages gathered in protest across Lebanon. They were joining the global condemnation of the massacre in Rafah the previous night, when Israeli airstrikes burned alive dozens of civilians who had sought a meager refuge in tents.

On this mournful occasion, protesters also huddled in the alleys of Shatila. This Palestinian refugee camp is tragically famous as the center of the brutal massacre in 1982, when the Lebanese Phalangist militia, supported by the Israeli army, killed thousands of Palestinian camp residents in cold blood. Just like the victims in Gaza about whom we today read all too often, these were unarmed children and elderly people, women and men.

Kazem Hassan, deputy leader of Fatah in the Shatila camp, addressed the crowds at the protest, demanding justice for their brothers and sisters in Gaza. As he eloquently put it: “Palestinian blood is one, and we are all bleeding together” (الدّم الفاسطيني واحد، واحنا بننزف مع بعض ).

At another protest, where students and youth called for their university to cut all ties with companies on the “boycott list,” Jacobin spoke to Qamar, a twenty-year-old Palestinian refugee whose family is originally from Akka. She explained that “if prior to October 7, Palestinians in Lebanon had lost any hope of return, after it, a spark reignited the generational anger and desire to establish themselves in their land ever more vigorously.” Fayyad, twenty, another student and also a Palestinian refugee, added that even individuals who were previously completely unaligned with or uninterested in armed resistance now find themselves unwaveringly supporting it. “This is the only way we can make our cause heard: after decades of diplomatic and political efforts going unheard, our exasperation has piled up, and now, with the genocide in Gaza, it is imperative we support the resistance no matter what.”

While the whole world is watching the massacre in Gaza, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are particularly affected. They are forced to witness their own families being decimated from afar, while also not having the power to do anything about it. It adds to the weight of living with no rights in a country where they don’t belong. Palestinian refugees here have collected decades of generational trauma passed down from the 1948 Nakba, from the 1967 Naksa, and then from the 1982 Massacre, and finally the 2006 Lebanon War. Thousands are watching the live-streamed genocide of their own people while living in the abysmal squalor of a refugee existence in Lebanon.

This context creates a growing risk of radicalization among disillusioned youth whose hopelessness finds an outlet in extreme choices. This is what Dorothee Klaus, director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) Lebanon, tells me:

Given that there have been no major breakthroughs in the rights status of Palestine refugees in Lebanon since 1948, the community has galvanized around the events of October 7, as the impression of obtaining their own state with basic civil and political rights became more tangible. The leverage on the disillusioned youth often sadly translates into the ability of extremist or militant actors to recruit and convince them that radical ways are preferable solutions to their unresolved political situation.

Jacobin spent several days reporting on the material and psychological reality of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by exploring the living conditions in the Shatila camp, considered one of the most desolate UNRWA sites. Mahmoud al-Hanafi, a Palestinian professor in Human Rights and International Law, tells me that UNRWA is “a vital organ, a ‘lung’ for the survival of Palestine refugees.”

With US funding cut off, UNRWA has been forced to implement extreme austerity to prevent total collapse.

With the United States — usually UNRWA’s biggest donor — halting its donations until at least March 2025, this agency is unable to predict what its operations will look like even by the end of June. Indeed, it has been forced to implement extreme austerity to prevent total collapse. Sixteen donor countries halted their funding in February after the Israeli government alleged that twelve UNRWA staff (out of its more than thirty-three thousand personnel) had ties to Hamas. The agency severed all these employees’ contracts and began immediate investigations with the United Nations’ Office of Internal Oversight Services. This investigation — along with the European Union’s efforts to provide evidence to back up these allegations — is still devoid of proof. What little funding remains is directed to the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But this also means that the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the overwhelming majority of whom live below the poverty line, are bound to face drastic if not lethal changes in their lives in the near future.

Shatila

South of Beirut, Shatila counts approximately thirty-five thousand residents in under half a square mile. Established in 1949, the camp was one of many meant to temporarily host forcibly displaced Palestinians who fled after the Nakba. Seventy-five years later, the Palestinian residents are still descendants of those who had been promised a right to return.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the overwhelming majority of whom live below the poverty line, are bound to face drastic if not lethal changes in their lives in a none-too-distant future.

The living conditions in Shatila are dire in the extreme. While the camp is not allowed to expand beyond its 1949 perimeter, its population has since increased by nearly a thousand percent, forcing residents to build vertically instead of horizontally. The result is a concrete jungle where poorly built structures are crammed one next to the other, standing so close that most streets in the camp are only wide enough for one person to walk through.

The apartments have no ventilation and almost no sunlight. Fatah official Hassan describes the running water as “sea water without fish” given its saltiness and impurity. Irrigation, electricity, and telecommunication cables are tied together in messy bundles, causing dozens of deaths by electrocution every year.

Because the Lebanese government has no authority over the camps, it does not monitor the infrastructure there, and there is no garbage disposal system. Only a handful of short-term contracted UNRWA employees collect the mountains of waste that overcrowds its claustrophobic alleyways. Children — who make up most of the camp’s population — attend the local UNRWA school, which is underfunded and has classrooms with an average forty students.

Jacobin spoke with Jamal Husseini, a doctor in Shatila working constantly to provide basic medical services to the camp’s residents. Husseini, who studied to become a doctor in Cuba during the 1980s as part of a bilateral agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fidel Castro’s government, can only practice medicine in Palestinian camps, due to obstacles set up by Lebanese law. He tells me that children here live in extremely precarious conditions.

One decisive problem is severe malnutrition: there simply aren’t the funds to provide them with “real food, not packaged snacks.” But they also suffer a lack of sunlight because of the camp’s claustrophobic “architecture,” and also the ill-effects of the heaps of rotten garbage that feed the spread of bacteria, causing all sorts of sometimes fatal diseases.

Children represent well over 50 percent of the population of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon — and most of them live in abysmal poverty. This photo depicts a makeshift seesaw made of a rusted metal rod on the side of an alley in Shatila. (Courtesy of Carolina S. Pedrazzi)

But, as UNRWA chief Klaus emphasizes, perhaps the worst aspect is the harrowing and constantly declining psycho-social health among the population. “We are not able to quantitatively measure things like depression and mental health in the camps” says Klaus, “however by tracking episodes of violence, both between armed militias and family feuds, or by observing the high rates of school dropouts, it is clear that hopelessness is the most contagious illness and there is little we can do to fight against it.”

The situation’s dreadfulness is exacerbated by the near-impossibility for the Palestinian residents to establish any kind of future outside the camps. Lebanon hosts about 250,000 Palestinian refugees, none of whom are entitled to basic civil or political rights. Professor al-Hanafi explains that strict barriers hamper Palestinians’ economic freedoms and prospects of improving their position; they are banned from around forty professions outside the camps, including medicine, law, and engineering. Many students are thus dropping out of schools at a young age, realizing that their only option to pursue their interests professionally is through migration. Yet even this may well be unaffordable, or else deadly, as shown by the tragic shipwreck of a boat carrying migrants from Lebanon in September 2022.

The result is that most adult residents work from one day to the next in low-wage jobs, which provide little to no security for families. Some, in particularly dire cases, depend for survival on quarterly $50 donations from UNRWA. Since the United States stopped funding the agency, UNRWA has had to cut these payments to $30 — just $10 per month. Such is the case for Ahmed Zammar, a Palestinian refugee from Yafa and father of four, who works as a carpenter on daily contracts. He lives with his family and parents in a twenty-square-meter apartment with no windows or ventilation: “Every day is a new challenge. I wake up hoping to find a way to bring bread home.”

In the Shatila camp, irrigation, electricity, and telecommunication cables are tied together in messy bundles, causing dozens of deaths by electrocution every year. Its alleys get little sunlight, and garbage fills its already crowded streets. (Courtesy of Carolina S. Pedrazzi)

The UNRWA camps have a peculiar political and administrative status: neither the Lebanese government nor its security forces have jurisdiction over them, and UNRWA cannot exercise any political authority of its own. Klaus explains that this lack of official administrative solutions places a heavier burden on UNRWA, as its donors expect it to act in complete neutrality. This is hardly possible: first, as 98 percent of its staff are Palestine refugees themselves, and also because of the volatile political landscape within the camps, with various Palestinian factions fighting for control, demands that UNRWA does provide a quasi-political counsel.

Sixty percent of Shatila’s residents are migrants who fled the Syrian civil war.

Additionally, given the lawlessness of the camps, Shatila — and it alone among the Palestinian camps in Lebanon — has seen a particular demographic change: 60 percent of its residents are migrants who fled the Syrian civil war. They have no legal status in Lebanon, cannot be aided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and are thus in Shatila hiding from the authorities. Another effect of the lack of political-administrative authority is that criminality is rife in Shatila: drug dealers and abusers come here specifically to operate in the shadows. This means less consequences for themselves — but increased anarchy and even more distress for the camp’s residents.

Effects of the Massacre

Hassan was born in Jerusalem in the 1950s and had to flee Palestine in 1979 after facing persecution due to his political engagement with Fatah. Before he became a refugee in Lebanon, Hassan was a math and physics teacher; he had planned to leave his homeland for only a short while until things improved. Forty-five years later, he still holds onto that dream as he constantly monitors the news from Gaza and the West Bank, finding glimpses of hope in the fight for liberation by his fellow Palestinians back home.

When the October 7 attacks happened, everyone in Shatila was stunned and shocked. Hassan disagrees with the killing of children “because childhood and motherhood know no politics and are sacred.” But he thinks that what has happened since then has brought the Palestinian question to the center of attention like never before. Inside Shatila and in all the Lebanese camps, there are different Palestinian factions (PLO/Fatah, Hamas, the Islamic Resistance, etc.). While before October 7 they often clashed, Hassan argues that this renewed collective consciousness has reminded Palestinians that unity is better than division. As a result, there have been little to no tensions since that point.

On May 27, Palestinian refugees in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut protest against the massacre in Rafah, standing in solidarity with their brothers and sisters from afar. (Courtesy of Carolina S. Pedrazzi)

Zeinab al-Hajj is the coordinator of psycho-social support activities for the women and children of the Shatila camp. She spends her days working three jobs, as she tirelessly tries to find social assistance for people in need. Over her lifetime, she has helped over a thousand Palestinian students in Lebanon obtain higher education degrees thanks to her efforts in finding scholarships covering costs of study. Everywhere she walks in the camp, people recognize her and thank her for her kindness and her work.

Zeinab told Jacobin that as she works with children, she hears them describe the horrific and graphic videos they see on social media of children in Gaza being killed. This prompts them to say things like they want to “kill back.” She talks them out of it, understanding that this reaction is a product of the perpetual violence they are immersed in. Despite her efforts, she acknowledges the inevitability of such sentiments, once these young people are exposed to the brutality of the war. Zeinab is not aligned with Hamas, including from a religious standpoint. Yet as a Palestinian, she feels compelled to support resistance in any form during these dire times. She recognizes how Israel’s actions plant seeds of hatred, making the urge to resist almost inevitable.

Indeed, the last eight months of genocidal war have planted the seeds of even more resentment and hatred against Israel. The rhetoric of violence becomes ever more popular and widely endorsed as Palestinians see militia groups take up their right to statehood, which is otherwise ignored.

There remains a glimpse of hope among the youngest, in those who still have the privilege of being protected from the disillusionment of reality. Children in Shatila, when asked what they want to become when they are older, answer, like they would anywhere else, “A doctor! A veterinarian! I want to be a mom!” But most of them also say “I want to free Palestine” — and they may each have their own interpretation of how that must be achieved.

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