For Palestinians in Lebanon, Gaza war is a reminder — and a warning
Washington Post January 27, 2024
BOURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon - At 84 years old, Amsha Haj Sleiman is blind in one eye and struggles to walk. But she still remembers fleeing as a young girl from her village in historic Palestine.
“We walked so much, through the lands,” as Israeli forces advanced some 75 years ago, she recalled this month. “I remember how we left on foot, how we slept out in the open, on the ground, with just the clothes on our backs.”
Sleiman is one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were driven from their homes during the 1948 founding of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war, an exodus Palestinians remember as the Nakba - Arabic for “catastrophe.” For Sleiman, her family’s flight began a lifetime of displacement.
“It’s been 75 years and we’re still refugees,” she said from the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp on the southern edge of Beirut. “I wish we had died under the olive trees, instead of leaving like that and seeing what I’ve seen.”
Scenes of nearly 1.9 million Palestinians displaced by Israel’s offensive in Gaza - many of them, again, fleeing their homes on foot - are deepening a communal wound for Palestinians that spans generations.
In Lebanon, the risk of the conflict spreading into the country is adding to the alarm. Israeli warnings of war, and cross-border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, have put people across Lebanon’s many divides on edge.
That includes Nadia Hamid, who cooks for Soufra, a Palestinian women-run catering company, tucked away in the crowded camp.
The strikes “keep getting closer, and their rhetoric is escalating,” she said. “I live in fear, because if the war comes, there would be no escaping it.”
Hamid’s job helps provide for her family, but it also helps her keep Palestinian traditions alive for her four children. “I tell them the stories of my parents too, so that they don’t forget.” She worries for their future. The camp is a maze of crumbling walls and tangled cables. “There really isn’t anything for them here.”
Some Palestinians in Lebanon see their lives in exile as a warning of what could lie ahead for Gazans if calls by some Israeli officials for the mass displacement of people from the besieged enclave become reality. Some worry Israel’s war with Hamas further dims hopes of a resolution to the never-ending conflict.
Many described this war, live-streamed on their phones and blaring through their televisions, as a searing reminder of why they hold on to a communal memory and why they pass it down through their families.
The Nakba is never far from Shatat Gedeon. The Arabic word “shatat,” often translated as diaspora, evokes a sense of dispersal - something that has been separated into pieces and scattered.
Some 5.9 million Palestinians in the Middle East, survivors of the 1948 exodus and their descendants, are registered as refugees, according to the United Nations. Many more live elsewhere in the world.
Shatat’s parents gave him the name soon after his pregnant mother fled their Palestinian village. He was born across the border in Lebanon in 1948.
Near the ruins of their village sits an Israeli town today. His parents left almost everything behind, he said. “Maybe they didn’t have time.” Or maybe many thought it would be temporary.
This life in limbo is perhaps most evident in the 12 refugee camps around Lebanon where many of the country’s estimated 200,000 Palestinian refugees are still stateless.
Their history in Lebanon remains fraught. Palestinian militants were embroiled in Lebanon’s civil war, fought from 1975 to 1990 along sectarian lines.
The fragile sectarian balance in Lebanon makes talk of granting refugees citizenship sensitive. The rights of Palestinian refugees, from working to owning property, are heavily restricted.
This has fueled the feeling of permanent uncertainty, said Saada Ghattas, a 54-year-old grandmother of two.
“It’s like you’re always carrying your bag and waiting,” she said. “I swear I keep a bag in the house for emergencies. We never know when something might happen and we have to grab it and go.”
In her hilltop community in Dbayeh, northeast of Beirut, Ghattas and others want to prepare shelters in case the conflict expands into Lebanon.
Relatives in Gaza, members of a small community of Christian Palestinians there, are sheltering in a church that has come under Israeli fire.
“People who are uprooted can’t return. That’s what happened to our grandparents,” Ghattas said. “That’s why, even as they are dying every day, they tell us the same thing will happen to them if they leave.”
As the death toll in Gaza mounts, Ghattas and other Palestinians describe waiting desperately for word from relatives and friends in the enclave.
The current conflict began with a surprise attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians, and around 253 more were taken hostage, Israeli authorities say. Israel has responded with a military campaign to eradicate Hamas that has killed more than 26,000 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, the health ministry there says.
In the months since, Ghattas has rarely turned off her TV. She has watched as the Israeli barrage has leveled neighborhoods and forced displaced people into one corner of Gaza.
Her 86-year-old neighbor, Boulous al-Dik, recounted watching rescuers pull children from under the rubble and erupted into tears.
“My heart is bursting. God protect us from what’s coming,” he said. “What right of return is there to talk about?”
Elias Habib, director of the Joint Christian Committee charity in the small Dbayeh camp, says it’s important to safeguard the memories of the few remaining survivors there of the 1948 dispossession.
Habib displayed an identification document he found in his father’s belongings. A stamp across the photograph reads, in English, “Government of Palestine.”
Others described their families’ heirlooms: documents showing land ownership, house keys, small copper pots.
“It’s different when you have a person who lived through it, both the stories of the good days and the pain of the Nakba,” Habib said. “But nothing can make a person forget their roots, their rights.”
“It’s still an open wound,” he said, “because the displacement is ongoing.”
Salah Daher’s family formed a committee to trace their genealogy and collect old documents from the Palestinian village his parents fled in 1948. He ended up in Bourj al-Barajneh after fleeing fighting in southern Lebanon ahead of the 1978 Israeli invasion.
“We still have the key to my grandpa’s house,” said Daher, 62. “My father kept it. He still had hope, until the day he died, that he would return to his land. And we will carry it forward.”