Studies about refugees and host societies often presume a relationship between strangers, who have little in common but their spatial proximity. The primary concern here is how time-honoured ideals of liberal government are mobilized for exclusivist projects to secure (white) privileges, using the social contract between citizens and their governments to restrict the rights and entitlements of refugees. Far less has been said about situations in which refugees themselves are cast in the role of hosts, taking in people with similar life trajectories and origins or even a shared common cause. Such is the case for about 450,000 Palestinians who have been living in Lebanon ever since their forced displacement (1948). With the outbreak of war in Syria, Palestinian camps have become a primary destination for refugees trying to escape the intense fighting in Damascus, Aleppo and other highly contested areas. Their presence has opened deep seated divisions within the exile population, and upset long-standing commitments to the ethics of struggle – commitments that once defined Palestinians.
Palestinians make up only a tiny fraction of the 4.8 million people who have fled Syria since 2011. Of the 120,000 who made it across the border, about 30,000 ended up in neighbouring Lebanon (UNRWA, 2017). Not all of them live in camps, where rent is much cheaper. About 50% ended up in cities and villages across Lebanon. Palestinians from Syria are not the first generation of refugees to arrive in camps such as Nahr el Bared in the north, or Shatila, on the outskirts of Lebanon’s capital Beirut. Both camps have taken in several generations of refugees over the decades, starting with the 15 year Lebanese civil war. The camps actively participated in the war, which erased two settlements completely. Nahr el Bared, close to the Syrian border, came under attack once again in 2007 after small groups of Islamist militants started a fierce battle with the Lebanese army in which the homes of about 30,000 people were destroyed.
With each new crisis, Palestinians depended by and large upon themselves to accommodate the sudden influx of hundreds in need of food, shelter and clothing. International aid was made available, yet it was barely enough to cover the most basic needs. Together with natural population growth, that has turned the Palestinian camps into some of the most densely populated spaces in the world with less than 3.5 square metres per person. This is less than the minimum living space required for healthy living according to the Humanitarian Charter of International Relief (the Sphere Project, 2011). The need to rebuild Nahr el Bared provided a long overdue opportunity to ease the pressures on the overstretched housing conditions and to develop a sustainable living environment in line with contemporary standards of urban development. Yet the hope of improvement was short lived once, half way into the reconstruction, the main agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, ran out of funding leaving 12,000 people displaced until today.  Amid the ongoing crisis another 750 Palestinian families arrived from Syria, further increasing the competition for habitable space. The situation is equally bleak in Shatila, whose population grew from 10,000 to an estimated 30,000 people, including Lebanese and Syrian Palestinians, regular Syria citizens but also migrant workers from elsewhere.
The deeply impoverished living conditions in the camps made it inevitable tension and conflict would emerge between the original residents and the new arrivals. The past years have seen severe cut backs in social and medical support from UNRWA, due to the agency’s chronic budget deficit of 100 Million US $ per year. Short-term emergency relief was available in the wake of the Syrian crisis, yet this aid was mostly spent on Syrian Palestinians, leaving their Lebanese counterparts watching with envy how some received basic goods and financial donations, while they were struggling to cope without support.
The uneven distribution of funds has sharpened social and cultural differences and narrowed lines of solidarity down to local entitlement, belonging and need. “We cannot live with them. They are not like us,” is a common sentiment heard among Lebanese Palestinians. Their resentments are met with similar frustrations among the Syrian camp population, locking both sides in a vicious circle in which lines of mistrust harden, occasionally sliding into open aggression towards the “brothers” in need. As one Syrian mother of four explains: “They are simply jealous because we are smarter and better able to find jobs, in spite of our desperate circumstances.” Members of the educated middle class, who no longer live in the camps, watch in horror how the relationship between camp residents and the new refugees is taking on racial outlines that bring the worst stereotypes into play. “We of all people should know what it means to be in the role of the outsider,” one cultural activist complains. He has spent decades maintaining a sense of individual pride and collective identity, especially among young Palestinians, using methods of oral history and “Theatre of the Oppressed”. “How can we treat our own as undesirable, backward or un-cultured. Refusing them the right to make themselves feel at home?”
The current tensions have called into question long standing assumptions about what it means to be Palestinian. It has destabilized time honored ethics of struggle that once provided a core tenet of identity and belonging for Palestinians. Palestinian identity, as Karma Nabulsi (the representative of the PLO at the UN 1977-90) writes, is not based on nationalist individuality or sentimental attachment to the lost homeland. It is grounded in the general will of the people for independence that provides them with a sense of coherence and unity (Nabulsi, n.d.). What creates the idea of homeland, in this view, is neither land nor territory but the links between the Palestinian people as the core foundation of their sovereignty.
Nabulsi’s remarks build upon Rousseau’s (1913) reading of sovereignty as the living embodiment of the social contract. It rejects the Hobbesian idea that mutual commitments and obligations between people can be vested in some governmental body, viewing them as an expression of their general will instead. As George Douglas Howard Cole in his translation of Rousseau explains: “The general will is realized not whenever that is done which is best for the community, but when … the community as a whole has willed the doing of it.” (Cole, 1913). Rousseau’s idea of the social contract, however, implies the ability to collectively invest in the material and affective infrastructures needed for translating a sense of togetherness and common good into a lived and felt social reality.
The war in Syria has clearly taken its toll on the social contract that once defined Palestinians as members in communities of struggle. Yet it is only the most recent episode in a long chain of events that have alienated the refugees from the wider national project, isolating them not only geographically but also emotionally and strategically from the centre of decision making about their future, and from a Palestinian state.
The frustration is particularly pronounced among those who have lived through the siege of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus. They have endured months of continuous bombardment with little or no access to food and medicines and not a single gesture of political support. No one came to their rescue, they complain: not the Palestinian Authority, not the PLO nor the rest of the refugee community, or made any attempt to help their escape. The fall of Yarmouk, in their view, marked the end of a chapter of Palestinian history in exile. “It’s the end of the idea of Return as a common political project, as one Youth Activist from Yarmouk summarised. “They abandoned us.”
Up until recently such contempt would rarely be expressed in the open, in front of “strangers” with no historical links to the camp. Yet this young generation of Palestinians, born in exile, no longer feels bound to the unspoken contract of keeping disagreement concealed. “We were living a lie. We are not one group of people. We no longer share a common cause.” Their sense of betrayal calls for a critical review of the ethics of struggle under enduring forced exile. Not only for those who have lived and endured its horrors but also for those who have witnessed and documented its suffering and plight. What binds us together is the painful question: what kind of obligations exist for political projects that have so far failed to yield any effective rewards ?
Bitari, N. (2013/2014). Yarmuk Refugee Camp and the Syrian Uprising: A View from Within. Journal for Palestine Studies, 43(1), 61-78.
Cole, G. D. (1913). Introduction. In J.-J. Rousseau, The Social Contract and the Discourses (p. xxxvi). London: Everyman Dent.
Nabulsi, K. (n.d.). Being Palestinian. Retrieved from Ted Honderich Website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/Being_Palestinian.html
Rousseau, J.-J. (1913). The Social Contract and the Discourses. London: Everyman Dent.
Steele, J. (2015, March 5). How Yarmouk refugee camp became the worst place in Syria. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/mar/05/how-yarmouk-refugee-camp-became-worst-place-syria
The Sphere Project. (2011). Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. Retrieved from The Sphere Project: http://www.spherehandbook.org/en/shelter-and-settlement-standard-3-covered-living-space/
UNRWA. (2017). PRS in Lebanon. Retrieved from United Nations Relief and Works Agency: https://www.unrwa.org/prs-lebanon
 Additional funds have recently been made available yet it will take another two years until all housing facilities will have been rebuilt.