In response to the recent death of Ariel Sharon, Maria Holt explores what life has meant to thousands of Palestinian women living in Lebanese refugee camps.
On 11 January 2014, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who had been in a coma for eight years, died. While many in his own country mourned him as a national hero, Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and beyond referred to him as ‘the butcher’. A name coined for his role in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and, in September of that year, the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut. It is perhaps no surprise then that when news of Sharon’s death was announced it prompted scenes of celebration within a number of Lebanese refugee camps. Such a reaction deserves some contextualization.
The Sabra and Shatila massacre is an extreme example of the violence suffered by Palestinians in Lebanon during their 65 years of exile; their lives have been blighted by the cruelties of dispossession and homelessness. Women are especially vulnerable to various forms of violence, but I would argue that, beyond the inevitable harm of violent treatment, many women have experienced significant empowerment under highly adverse circumstances.
What, first of all, do I mean by ‘violence’? During fieldwork conducted with Palestinian refugee women in Lebanon between 1998 and 2011, I formulated a definition of ‘violence’ based on women’s accounts of their lives and their reactions to some of the events that have befallen them. Their responses indicated that a relatively broad definition is required. From the violence of daily life, both personally and communally, to the negation of their existence as a nation, women experience a multiplicity of violences. Many spoke of their despair at being abandoned by the international community, their plight reduced to a purely humanitarian concern. Others referred to the insecure state of their lives in Lebanon, a country plunged into a harsh civil war between 1975 and 1990 and again today threatened with escalating insecurity. Women are fearful of further attacks by Israel which, they say, is keen to obliterate once and for all Palestinian hopes of a return to their homeland.
There are 12 ‘official’ Palestinian camps in Lebanon, located throughout the country, and several more ‘unofficial’ gatherings. These places have a squalid temporary air as Palestinians are not permitted to enhance their living conditions; as non-citizens, they are also not allowed to work in most professions in Lebanon and, therefore, the level of unemployment, especially among men, is high. Sometimes women are able to obtain casual paid employment and become the sole wage-earners for their families; this may cause a degree of resentment and tends to unbalance the traditional dynamics of social life. As a result of conflict, many of the refugees have had to re-locate more than once. In 2007, during battles between the Islamist Fateh al-Islam group and the Lebanese army, the Nahr al-Balad camp in Tripoli was almost entirely destroyed and its residents forced to flee. This violent episode confirmed for many Palestinians the extreme temporiness of their existence in Lebanon.
During my fieldwork, I discussed with refugee women the various stages of their lives and their national history, from al-nakbah (‘the catastrophe’) of 1948 when the establishment of the state of Israel caused the majority of Palestinians to leave their homeland, through the early wilderness years of yearning to return and, in the 1960s, the construction of a national liberation movement to fight the Israeli usurpation of their land, to the long period of the Lebanese civil war and Israeli incursions and occupation, to their present situation, unwelcome in Lebanon but still unable to go home. They also spoke of personal cruelties, such as the loss of family members, illness, disability, lack of access to adequate health care or higher education for their children. Above all, they emphasized the injustice of their lives.
At the same time, the story is by no means entirely bleak. Many women talked of finding strength through the hardships of exile. Several described their experiences during the Israeli invasion of 1982, during which some of the refugee camps were deliberate targets of attack. Women living in the Ain el-Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon recall how many of the young men of the camp were imprisoned by the Israelis, leaving women to protect and rebuild the camp; this was seen as being an important part of the revolutionary struggle, a form of resistance which remains a matter of pride for the whole community. Some women were imprisoned by Israel and subjected to forms of torture, including threats of rape; this, although shameful in the context of traditional Palestinian society, disrupted normal patterns and brought heroism rather than shame to the women involved.
Day-to-day life in the camps during periods of violent conflict, such as the 1982 Israeli invasion and also the siege of some of the refugee camps by the Lebanese Amal militia in the latter part of the 1980s, often became the terrain of women; during the sieges, for example, only women were permitted to move in and out of the camps to find food, although this was often a precarious venture; women were forced to become resilient. Many women spoke to me with pride about the activities they had undertaken on behalf of their community, such as political work, medical support and public demonstrations.
How then does the resilience and agency of women translate into an improvement in living conditions or the lifting of morale and hopes for the future? The ‘Arab spring’ uprisings in several states in 2011 suggested a possible upturning of the stale dynamics of the region, but even this slim hope is now receding as Arab politics remain unsettled. In addition, the continuing violence in neighbouring Syria has created new insecurity in Lebanon. In early January, a bomb blast in the Haret Hraik area of southern Beirut, close to the Bourj el-Barajne refugee camp, caused intense anxiety among the camp population.
Ahlam is 56 years old and has lived in Shatila camp almost all her life. In 1982, she lost her home and her husband during the massacre; her husband was holding one of their daughters when he was killed, she told me; he had returned to the camp for the child while his wife had managed to run away. Ahlam’s sister’s husband was also killed in the massacre. According to Ahlam, Ariel Sharon, then Israeli defense minister, was responsible for the massacre, although the Lebanese Forces carried it out. No one knows why they did it, she said, ‘they wanted to kill Palestinians, even children’ (interview with ‘Ahlam’, Shatila camp, Beirut, 25 January 2007). ■