Identity is complex for Lebanon’s Christian Palestinian camp

DBAYEH, Lebanon (AP) — Tucked away in the hills north of Beirut below a Maronite monastery, Lebanon’s only remaining Christian-majority Palestinian camp gives few outward clues to its identity. Unlike the country’s other Palestinian refugee camps, there are no flags or political slogans on display in Dbayeh camp.

Behind closed doors, it’s a different story. At a recent community Christmas dinner for elderly residents, attendees wearing Santa hats danced the dabke to popular Palestinian songs like “Raise the Keffiyeh,” twirling the traditional Palestinian scarves, or using napkins to simulate them. A speaker who toasted his hope of celebrating next year’s Christmas in Jerusalem in a “free Palestine” prompted ululations.

The residents of the camp, founded in 1956 on land belonging to the monastery that overlooks it, have good reason to keep a low profile.

During Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, the area was a stronghold of Lebanese Christian militias that battled the Palestine Liberation Organization. The other two Palestinian camps in Christian areas — Jisr al-Basha and Tel al-Zaatar — were razed during the war by the militias, their inhabitants killed or scattered.

Dbayeh was invaded in 1973 by the Lebanese army and in 1976 by the Lebanese Phalangist militia. Many residents fled. Those who stayed found themselves on the opposite side of battle lines from fellow Palestinians, most of them Muslims.

In the decades after the war ended in 1990, Dbayeh was largely forgotten by the rest of Lebanon’s Palestinians.

“Because of the separation of territories…between Muslim quarters and the Christian quarters (in Lebanon), the minority that stayed in the (Dbayeh) camp was isolated completely from the other communities,” said Anis Mohsen, managing editor of the Institute for Palestine Studies’ quarterly Arabic journal.

Dbayeh’s story is an extreme example of the wider fragmentation of Palestinian communities.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation. Today, several million Palestinian refugees and their descendants are scattered across Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, lands Israel captured in 1967.

Palestinians are separated by geographical and political barriers, but religious differences between Christians and Muslims are not generally a source of division.

“We are one people,” said Antoine Helou, a member of the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches’ Affairs in Palestine and a former resident of Jisr al-Basha. “The misfortunes we have as Palestinians are bigger than thinking about this one is Muslim, this one is Christian.”

But the sectarian divisions in Lebanese society made their mark on the Palestinian community.

Eighty-four-year-old retired teacher Youssef Nahme of Dbayeh, originally from the now-destroyed village of al-Bassa in today’s Israel, recalled that as a young man in Lebanon, he had friends from Muslim-majority camps.

But, he said, “after the Civil War, these connections were disturbed. Not because they don’t like to visit us or we don’t like to visit them, but because (of) Lebanese society.”

Eid Haddad, 58, fled Dbayeh with his family after his brother was killed by Phalangist fighters and after the 1976 invasion of the camp. He said it was difficult to fit in anywhere.

“In the Christian area we were rejected because we are Palestinians, and in…the Muslim area, we were rejected because we are Christians,” he said.

Some of the Dbayeh residents who fled, like Nahme and his wife, returned after the fighting ended. Others, like Haddad, never came back. Today he lives in Denmark.

“I wish I could go back, but every time I think about it, all (the memories) come back,” he said.

Today, the camp is home to a population of about 2,000, a mix of Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrian refugees. Wissam Kassis, head of a civil committee that serves as a governing body of sorts, said of about 530 families living in the camp, some 230 are Palestinian.

Palestinian residents said they maintain good relations with their Lebanese neighbors. Many have intermarried and some have been granted Lebanese citizenship. But some Lebanese continue to blame the Palestinians for the country’s civil war. Palestinians in Lebanon are barred from owning property and from working in many professions.

“People say, ‘Go back to Palestine.’ I say, ‘Send us back,’” said Therese Semaan, who lives in the two-room house her family built, and then rebuilt in 1990, after it was bombed during fighting between rival Christian Lebanese factions.

Still, Semaan said, “We’re living better than the other camps.”

The camp receives limited services from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which was set up decades ago to assist Palestinian refugees. The agency runs a clinic and cleans the streets but does not operate a school in the camp. An UNRWA school in the nearby Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud was closed in 2013 due to low enrollment — a sore point among locals.

Until recently, the relationship with Palestinian officials was even more limited. It was only in 2016 that Dbayeh formed its own committee to serve as a go-between with the U.N. agency and the Palestinian embassy and political factions.

The factions themselves do not have an active presence in Dbayeh, Kassis said, and camp residents keep their political activities low-key.

“For example, if there is bombing (by Israeli forces) in Gaza, maximum we do a prayer vigil,” he said. “We don’t go out and protest in an aggressive way.”

Many Muslim Palestinians in Lebanon are either unaware of the camp or view its residents with suspicion, believing them to be aligned with the right-wing Christian Lebanese parties that took control of the area during the war. Kassis acknowledged that in some cases that is true, but said it is a small minority.

“There are people who love Palestine very much and there are people who don’t, but it’s a small percentage” of people who have aligned themselves with the other side, he said. “We are fighting to create more of a feeling of belonging.”

In one new initiative, youth athletes from Dbayeh play basketball and soccer alongside those from other Palestinian camps. The games have led to renewed ties, Kassis said.

Community groups from other camps have begun to come to Dbayeh, fixing streets and distributing aid and Christmas gifts.

Kholoud Hussein of the Najda Association NGO, from the Bourj al-Barajneh camp south of Beirut, coordinated a series of projects in Dbayeh this year. “A lot of people in other camps didn’t know about Dbayeh” she said, but now they are starting to.

The recognition goes both ways. Eighteen-year-old Rita al-Moussa of Dbayeh speaks with a Lebanese accent, studied in Lebanese schools and has Lebanese friends. Growing up, she felt little connection to her Palestinian roots, but now she plays soccer with a group of young women from Beirut’s Shatila and Mar Elias camps.

As a result, she said, “we have become closer to the other Palestinian camps.”

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