BEIRUT: An ambulance races away from the Palestinian refugee camp in south Beirut. A rumor circulates that the man in the ambulance may have suffered an electric shock, a casualty of the dangerous mesh of naked wires that snake their way through the narrow lanes and small homes. “He will die on the road,” said a man by the camp’s entrance, lamenting the lack of a medical center in this one square kilometer of land that today houses around 40,000 Palestinians.
The mud puddles running through the camp stand in stark contrast to the airbrushed photos of Palestinian leaders – President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and the late Yasser Arafat.
“The official’s son lives abroad and the poor man’s son lives here,” said Ismail Yahia, a local resident.
Yahia, who asked that his name be changed to avoid reprimands from the local Palestinian leadership, took part in a demonstration last week at Burj al-Barajneh demanding the right to mass immigration for Palestinian refugees.
That demand has stirred to life a fundamental debate within the community here that touches upon the essence of Palestinian nationalism.
Those who oppose the mass migration of Palestinians from Lebanon see in such a movement a betrayal of the “right of return,” an existential goal for many in the Palestinian resistance movement and its supporters who demand that refugees that fled their homes during the 1948 war with Israel be allowed to return home.
Israel rejects this proposition, saying it would threaten the state’s Jewish character.
Palestinians who oppose the right of mass immigration see it as a ploy to induce refugees to leave their homes in Arab states for the West or take up new nationalities, where the right of return will be buried as the diaspora disperses abroad.
But those who want to leave bristle at the suggestion, saying they would never forget Palestine, but they are fed up with the lack of civil rights, jobs and good living conditions in Lebanon.
“I would not abandon Palestine but they should not abandon us,” Yahia said, in reference to Palestinian officials.
Yahia is 50 – he was born and raised in Lebanon, working in carpentry since he was 10, and has six children that he can no longer afford to raise because he was laid off. His eldest son, a 24-year-old graduate in management, is unemployed.
He said he did not want to go to Europe, because they abandoned the Palestinian cause.
“I would not sell Palestine.”
Palestinians in Lebanon face great hurdles in finding professional work because of restrictions on joining syndicates and they are not allowed to own land outside the camps.
But these are long-standing grievances. The impetus for the latest protest appeared to be a growing insecurity over what many say is “incitement” against the camps.
The largest refugee camp near Sidon, Ain al-Hilweh, has often been labeled a haven for extremists, though no camp residents have been implicated in recent bombings targeting the southern suburbs or the northern town of Hermel.
Residents of Burj al-Barajneh now speak ominously of the possibility of a repeat of the so-called “War of the Camps,” when Palestinian refugees were besieged by fighters from the Amal Movement near the end of the Lebanese Civil War.
“What is important is that we leave,” said Salim, another resident who refused to give his last name. “They don’t like us. It is more dignified to just leave.”
Salim lives on a salary from Fatah, the Palestinian movement, of $200 a month to feed his eight children. He used to be a tile layer, but building contractors now refuse to hire him because of his nationality, he said.
“I never go home with a salary for my wife,” he said.
Dib al-Atout, a local official in charge of political affairs in the camp, said most of the participants in the recent demonstration were young men. Though from a political viewpoint he recognized the reasoning behind restricting immigration to preserve the right of return, he said he also saw that many of these young men had no choice but to look after their livelihood.
“We have graduates with no jobs, top students, engineers,” he said, adding that many were still not allowed to work because of their nationality.
While mass migration is a “very dangerous thing,” Atout said, youth who have job opportunities will not think of migrating.
But he also acknowledged there was a campaign to put pressure on the camps, despite what he said was an absence of terrorists and extremists in their midst. The camps, he said, are more moderate than the rest of Lebanon.
In a sign of the mistrust that the demand for open migration elicits, Ali Barakeh, the Hamas politburo official in Lebanon, said the demonstrations were instigated by Palestinians who wished to make concessions on the right of return.
“Regardless of the pressures on us in Lebanon, we cannot abandon the right of return,” he told The Daily Star. “We must hold on to the right of return and reject nationalization and emigration.”
Barakeh said such pressures were part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposals, which he says seek to circumvent the right of return by encouraging Palestinians to take up new nationalities or migrate abroad.
Kamel al-Saleh, an engineering graduate from Arab University who has been unemployed for the last two years, embodies the debate that pits national causes against livelihoods.
“I work as a painter every now and then. We have to feed ourselves.”
Saleh said that unemployment was a challenge due to the enormous pressures on Lebanon created by the Syrian refugee crisis.
“We cannot blame discrimination as the main cause and hide behind it,” he said.
He is against opening the door for mass migration, but rather wants it to be easier for individual Palestinians to travel and seek out job opportunities in places like the Gulf.
He said the right of return must be preserved, but acknowledged that successful Palestinians who find jobs abroad could become more eloquent spokespeople for the Palestinian cause.
“Palestinian refugees, and particularly youth, have a lot of challenges,” he said. “You look up, but there’s a ceiling that you cannot get through.”