Palestinians in Lebanon: Fortress-camps and multiple identities

The years since the Palestinians’ great displacement in 1948 have created a complex relationship between those forced to leave their land and those who took them in

In this picture taken on April 19, 2023 a young Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, walks beneath flags of Fatah and posters along an alley at the Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
In this picture taken on April 19, 2023 a young Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, walks beneath flags of Fatah and posters along an alley at the Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Palestinians in Lebanon: Fortress-camps and multiple identities

Before the Nakba in 1948, Palestinians and Lebanese enjoyed strong economic, social, and cultural ties. They traded with one another, took holidays in each other’s lands, worked and studied in each other’s cities.

Trade relations between the south of Lebanon and the north of Palestine were particularly abundant, especially in the weekly markets held in both countries.

Palestinian merchants would visit the souks of Khamis in Bint Jbeil and Khan near the Wazzani spring in Wadi Al Taym, while Lebanese merchants would cross into Palestine to buy and sell products at the Tuesday market in Khalsa and the weekly souk of Safed.

Friends over the border

In the summer, wealthy Palestinians would holiday in the villages of Mount Lebanon, often comprising the bulk of the Arab vacationers there, while Lebanese southerners worked and lived in Palestine’s coastal cities during the days of the British Mandate, since the Palestinian lira was equal to about 10 Lebanese liras at the time.

Some Lebanese families, including the Sursock and Salam clans, owned vast tracts of Palestine, while others visited Palestine for tourism, religious or otherwise.

Since the 1920s, wealthy and intellectual Palestinian families went to study at the American University of Beirut (AUB), where they played a significant cultural and political role in the university’s clubs and associations.

Alumni included poet Ibrahim Tuqan, whose ‘Mawtini’ [‘My Homeland’] served as the national anthem of Palestine, then Iraq; rebel Fuad Hejazi, who was executed by the British; legendary fighter and military commander Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini; socialist politician Hisham Sharabi; and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine co-founders Georges Habash and Wadih Haddad.

Cultural connections

The cultural proximity between some Lebanese and Palestinian communities was in evidence. Lebanese poets who practised zajal, a traditional form of oral poetry, often attended events in Palestine.

Many Lebanese authors and poets at the time, including Bechara El Khoury and Khalil Taqieddine, appeared on the Near East Broadcasting Station, an Arabic-speaking British-Palestinian radio station that played a crucial role in bridging the two cultures.

The station helped launched several Palestinian artists, musicians, and radio figures who cooperated with their Lebanese peers before migrating to Lebanon.

Kinship between wealthy families in both countries was also common, such as between the Sarhan family in Galilee and the Khalil family in Tyr.

In virtually every sphere, bridges between Lebanon and Palestine were in-place to foster close ties between the two peoples, so it was no surprise in 1948, when the Nakba occured and the state of Israel was created, that most Palestinians who took refuge in Lebanon came from Galilee.

Large bundles of personal possessions are carried on the head of Palestinian women and children flee the Israeli offensive that established the state of Israeli in 1948.

Sympathy and worries

The Lebanese were quick to show sympathy to the Palestinians for the tragedy that struck them, but social tensions soon grew as fears emerged among the Lebanese of the Palestinian diaspora’s impact on Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance.

Before that, the Jewish Agency had capitalised on Lebanese fears and tensions to sign a secret agreement with Lebanon’s then-President Emile Edde and religious leaders.

Similar efforts were made in Syria but to no avail, despite the Agency’s meetings with Syrian leaders and its attempts to stir up “the minority scare” and propose “an alliance of minorities”, according to author Kais Firro.

The cultural proximity between Lebanese and Palestinians was evident. In virtually every sphere, there were close ties between the two peoples.

When they first took refuge in Lebanon, the Palestinians were adept at managing Lebanese emotions of sympathy and worry, their dissociation from the intricacies of Lebanon's domestic politics perhaps appeasing the hosts, especially since their presence in the country was regarded as temporary.

The Palestinians initially settled near the border, to make their return home easier, and preferred the label of 'displaced' over 'refugees' since the latter suggested permanency. 'Displaced' also suggested that they remained within the 'Arab nation'.

Read more: How Palestinian refugee camps became a gathering place for dreamers

Even the poet Haroun Hashem Rasheed used the word in his 1956 poem 'We Shall Return', with the line: "Say it loud, my displaced people / We shall return."

Further reassuring the Palestinians, then-Lebanese President Bechara al-Khoury told his countrymen: "Do not spare any money to ensure their [Palestinians'] comfort. Brothers stand by each other's side in the face of adversity."

His Foreign Minister Hamid Frangieh added: "We will receive Palestinian refugees in Lebanon regardless of their number or length of stay. We will not withhold anything from them or tolerate the slightest humiliation inflicted on them. We will share our last piece of bread with them."

Temporary visitors

Yet despite the speeches, Lebanese worries persisted.

Soon, they were being voiced. In the Lebanese parliament in 1951, MP Joseph Shader criticised the employment of Palestinian refugees when there were about 50,000 unemployed Lebanese.

A decision was issued to send some Palestinians to Syria on a train. Most did not know where they were going - only when they reached Nahr El Bared in the north did they realise that they were being deported.

They refused to continue and set up camp there. Today, the Nahr El Bared camp, just north of Tripoli, is home to 30,000.

Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian camp near the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon in 1950.

Lost and tired, many Palestinians decided to return to their villages and cities, despite Israel's strict border measures. They paid dearly for that decision.

According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, Israeli forces killed between 3,000 and 5,000 Palestinians who tried to return to their villages between 1948 and 1956.

Lost and tired, many Palestinians tried to return to their villages, despite Israel's strict border measures. They paid dearly for that decision.

To mitigate Lebanese worries, alleviate Palestinians' misery, and respect the long-standing ties and friendship between the two, the Lebanese authorities decided to establish a Higher Relief Committee to provide assistance to Palestinians.

Lebanon also issued the Palestine Tax law, with Beirut city council exempting Palestinians from paying municipal fees in 1952 and 1953.

In addition, Lebanese empathy with their displaced neighbours led to subsidised rents, or even free accommodation.

The land on which Beirut's three big camps (Burj El Barajneh, Shatila, and Mar Elias) were built were all donated, such was the common belief that the Palestinians' stay was temporary.

A graveyard in the Burj Al-Barajneh camp on the outskirts of Beirut.

Affiliation and nostalgia

Relations between the Lebanese and Palestinians began to resemble a minefield, with internal Palestinian dynamics also adding to the incendiary nature. Frustration and instability – recognisable to most refugees - were growing.

Lebanese fears and administrative chaos led to an endless cycle of establishing and removing camps, with refugees shifted and shunted for security, sectarian, or health reasons. In 1955, the Lebanese military prohibited the residence and movement of Palestinians within 10km of the southern border.

This compounded concerns.

For the Lebanese, temporary refugees were now becoming residents who would compete for wages and threaten Lebanon's domestic balance. For the Palestinians, it engendered a sense of vulnerability and humiliation.

Before the diaspora, the Palestinians had family affiliations ingrained in their communities. In Jerusalem, for instance, the Husseinis and Nashashibis had a long-standing conflict. The same was true for most Palestinian towns and villages – only the names would be different.

Residents of the village of Abu Ghosh, west of Jerusalem, take an oath of allegiance to the Arab Higher Committee in April 1936.

The diaspora shattered those familial affiliations.

Instead, they were replaced in the refugee camps with regional affiliations, to give the Palestinians a sense of protection that they had lost.

People from the same village gathered in the same camp, or in a specific area within a camp. Some Palestinians who had been displaced to Syria joined their relatives and fellow villagers in Lebanon's camps.

In camps across Lebanon, from Nahr al-Bared in the far north to Rashidieh in the south, the closest camp to Palestine, camp quarters took on the names of the native village.

These quarters – or internal camp divides – housed Palestinians divided by their regional affiliations and traditions, but united by their nostalgia for a lost land. It reinforced the need for cooperation to achieve common interests, like helping those Palestinians who were poor or unemployed.

Read more: How Palestinian refugee camps became a gathering place for dreamers

Palestinian UNRWA staff even adapted their organisation around these internal polarisations, recruiting their relatives and village people.

The 1960s: A Golden Age

The Lebanese security services kept a close eye on refugees' political and partisan activities which, until the early 1960s, had remained marginal.

Under the umbrella of the Palestinian Arab Scout Association, camp communities conducted semi-military training (without weapons), but after the Naksa ('Setback') of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Palestinian political activity ramped up.

By the 1960s, Palestinians were living in relative social stability, having moved from tents to bricks-and-mortar shelters, and from communal to private bathrooms, even opening shops and small enterprises (visiting the Burj El Barajneh camp in Beirut's southern suburb in the early 60s, I counted 21 Palestinian-owned shops or entities).

By the 1960s, Palestinians had moved from tents to bricks-and-mortar, communal to private bathrooms, and even opened shops.

This stability gave Palestinians room to finally look beyond the basic necessities and young men began joining political movements or parties like the Arab Nationalist Movement, Baath Party, or the SSNP.

During the fleeting 1958 Lebanese civil war, Palestinians' involvement was limited. A few were killed in the fighting, but generally the camps remained quiet and disengaged.

In short, the 1960s were a 'golden age' for Palestinians in Lebanon. Friendships formed and flourished, leaving a remarkable impact on the composition and development of the Palestinian identity as well as on familial and regional affiliations.

Tightening security

After the 1958 war, new Lebanese leaders Fouad Chehab and his Military Second Bureau prioritised security and tightened restrictions on Palestinians in the camps.

Newspapers and radio news bulletins were banned, as were gatherings of three of more. A 10pm curfew was imposed, trips from one region to another now needed approval, and a Second Bureau office was established at the entrance of each camp.

Within each camp, frameworks for cooperation began to emerge, amidst feelings of frustration and injustice. The residents worked up common demands.

Each camp formed civil committees that liaised with UNRWA and Lebanese authorities, as described by chronicler Ahmad Hussein Al-Yamani in his memoir.

This gave rise to camp affiliations, which added to the Palestinians' other affiliations, namely based on familial, regional, political, and ideological associations.

Some Palestinians were influential in Lebanon's economic, social, and educational fields, including Intra Bank founder Yousef Beidas, Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) founders Hassib Sabbagh and Said Khoury, and Beirut Commerce Bank founder Rifaat Nimer, together with dozens of university professors and hundreds of athletes.

Meanwhile, activities were intensifying in the Arab Nationalist Movement and the Baath Party in Lebanon and Palestinian camps, just as the influence of the (Islamic) Liberation Party and the SSNP dwindled following their opposition to the Nasserist tsunami.

The camps were placed under 24-hour surveillance, as were most of the middle-class Palestinians living outside camps, since they were the driving force of political action.

Arab nationalist clubs were where camp residents gathered, including the Arab cultural clubs of Beirut and Tripoli, the Tadamun Club in Tyr, the Jihad Club in Saida, the Sports Cooperation Club in Haret Saida, and the Maqassed Alumni Club in Beirut.

Armed struggle

The situation was upended by the storm of the 1967 Naksa and the ensuing Palestinian guerrilla war. Young Lebanese men and students began weapons training in the camps, motivated to contribute to the armed struggle against Israel.

The 1968 'Battle of Dignity' in the West Bank prompted thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon and many Lebanese to join Palestinian groups, especially after Lebanese commando Khalil Ezzedine Al-Jamal became the first Lebanese martyr in the widening Palestinian revolution.

The Palestinians and their armed revolution quickly became an influential part of the Lebanese civil and political scene, prompting the Cairo Agreement in 1969, which established the principles and conditions under which armed Palestinian guerrillas in south-east Lebanon would be tolerated.

Lebanese security services closed their stations outside the camps, which expanded for the first time since the Nakba, and Palestinian guerrilla action in Lebanon was legitimised, which irked some segments of Lebanese society, who saw it as Palestinian interference in Lebanese affairs.

Palestinian guerrilla action in Lebanon was legitimised, which some Lebanese saw as Palestinian interference in Lebanese affairs.

Matters came to a head in 1969 when gunmen from the Christian town of Kahale opened fire on a funeral procession of Palestinian fedayeen, killing 14.

In response, Palestinian gunmen from the Burj al-Barajneh camp attacked the nearby town of Haret Hreik. Such incidents were a prelude to the 1975 Lebanese civil war.

Lebanese-Palestinian ties in education, commerce, sports, and social institutions declined, replaced by political and security relations with the Palestinian military groups controlling the camps, which were increasingly seen as security bases.

A village school.

The Fakhani area near Shatila camp became the capital and headquarters of the Palestinian revolution. After the expulsion of the fedayeen from Jordan in 1970, Lebanon and its camps were the Palestinians' last remaining option.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) representative in Lebanon, Shafiq al-Hout, later said: "The revolution landed in Lebanon because it was a garden without a fence."

A range of identities

In addition to the Palestinian national identity, Palestinians now had three sub-identities: regional, camp, and factional. In the early 1970s, many educated Palestinians who were not involved in the armed struggle began to leave the camps.

Some stayed in the country, others left Lebanon altogether, either for work (especially in the Gulf states) or to avoid armed action. This exodus helped consolidate refugees' regional affiliations therein, weakening the unarmed communication between Palestinians and Lebanese.

With the outbreak of civil war in 1975, some armed camp groups attracted thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese who felt left behind by the Lebanese economy and/or diminished in Lebanese society.

In early 1966, Fatah had 80 members in Lebanon. In 1980, it had 15,000 registered fighters on its payroll, administration staff, and 25,000 militia members. Many others were employed by different Palestinian groups and the Samed Foundation.


From 1970, the Palestinians fortified their camps, formed popular committees, and organised neighbourhood relations. In southern camps, they had to protect themselves against Israeli airstrikes.

These began in 1974, when the Nabatieh camp in the south was removed after bombing raids. In 1976, the Jisr al-Basha and Tel al-Zaatar camps in Christian East Beirut were hit in one of the bloodiest incidents of Lebanon's civil war.

The "fortress-camp" idea grew among Palestinians. It was further enshrined after the 1982 Israeli invasion and the 1985 'War of the Camps', during which fighters from the Syria-backed Shiite Amal movement laid siege to Sabra, Shatila, and Burj al-Barajneh.

Israel's invasion in 1982 and the War of the Camps in 1985 further enshrined the idea of the 'fortress camp' in Palestinians' minds.

The Palestinians recoiled and retreated into their camps.

Lebanon's labour law prohibited them from practising dozens of professions so Palestinians' networks were largely limited to their camps, prompting another wave of immigration from Lebanon.

After the civil war ended in 1990, camps sought to rebuild outside relations, but to no avail. The Syrian regime's control of Lebanon had increased, and from 1997, the Lebanese military intensified its presence around the camps, with construction materials no longer allowed in.

Palestinians retreated further into their cocoons. From a position of influence, they were now on the outer edges of the Lebanese scene.

For those Palestinians that remained, the camp became their world, so much so that Palestinian couples expressed their love to each other with the phrase: "I love you as much as the camp."

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