Inside a different city

Blame Palestine
“The people who live there, they are cows. The only way you can get them to walk is to hit them.” -A Lebanese cab driver, after being directed to the camp.

“They [the refugees] shouldn't have been there in the first place.” -A Canadian-Lebanese university student on the massacres of Sabra and Chatila

It's fun being a tourist in Beirut. The weak economy gives me the ability to stretch my dollar to ridiculous distances. For instance, the other day I bought a huge sandwich, a large glass of fresh orange juice, a pint of European beer, and dessert for nine American dollars — and I was told that I was being ripped off.

Although, when I was in the tourist area of town, the prices seemed to fall more in line with what I had expected. Near the university, one cannot get a meal for less than five dollars. The guidebook alerted me to this.

While sitting on a bus to central Beirut, I tried to find a something about the Palestinian camps in the guidebook I had. Alas, only a brief paragraph in the “history of Lebanon” spoke of them. It seems that the touring companies either don't want you to know, or don't think you need to know about the tens of thousands of individuals who take up residence in the city.

Indeed, the author of the guidebook, an American woman, seems to have fallen victim to the psychological malaise that a lot of Lebanon has fallen victim to: blame Palestine syndrome. “One cannot understand the Lebanese civil war without understanding what happened to the Palestinians. Palestinians upset the delicate balance of Chrisitans, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims that Lebanon had maintained,” I was told by a learned Lebanese professor about the cause of the civil war.

This is him, of course, forgetting the fact that sectarian divisions had been building for decades before the civil war. This is him forgetting the fact that while the Christians of the north were becoming immaculately rich, the Shia of the south were growing poorer and poorer. This is him forgetting the fact that a census had not been done since the 1930s, and Lebanon's “balance” of political power was unfavourably weighed towards the Christians–who, by the way, were always preferred by the French colonial administrators during their reign here. This is him forgetting the fact that Lebanon's sectarian divisions had been a source of violence since the 1800s.

This blame has manifested itself in the form of the structured discrimination. Palestinian refugees do have the ability to work in 79 different professions in Lebanon and do not have the ability to vote. The camps are not allowed to expand or even have telephone lines (although with the wireless revolution, technology has allowed Palestinians to circumvent the racism in this case). They are not allowed to have passports, and are only granted “travel documents” through a long and expensive process. This can be to no avail because foreign governments often don't grant Palestinians visas out of fear that they might claim, of all things, refugee status.

This does not stop many Lebanese people from blaming a lot of things on the Palestinians. Not only do they blame the civil war as a whole on the Palestinians, but also many different aspects of the civil war. One of the commonly held views in Lebanon: it was the PLO's fault (Palestine Liberation Organization, the organization that was the main representative body of the Palestinian people) that Israel invaded in 1982.

This bit of careful reasoning stems from the fact that the PLO was running (albeit unsuccessful) raids into the Israel from the south of Lebanon. This overlooks the fact that one of the main Christian factions, the Phalange, was allied with Israel during most of the civil war and paved the way for the Israelis because both the military and political leaders of Israel shared the view that a right-wing Christian-run Lebanon would be favourable to any Muslim-run country.

The leaders of the Jewish State wanted this so much so that they were willing to overlook the ideological leanings of the Phalange, that is, those of the Nazi Party of Germany. The founder of the Phalange party, Pierre Gemayel, admired the Nazi Party; speaking of a visit to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 he said that he “saw then this discipline and order. And I said to myself: 'Why can't we do the same thing in Lebanon?'”*

And Gemayel and the Phalange enacted this order in brutal ways; principally the massacres of Sabra and Chatila camp (which was directly aided by the Israeli army), the latter camp being only a mere stone throw away at the moment.

It was the massacres of Sabra and Chatila that ripped down the facades that cloaked the middle east with a certain “truth” that was as far away as events of the ground as they could be. The Phalange, which until that point were the secret bedfellows of the West vis a vis Israel, were exposed for the racist thugs that they were. Israel went from being the country that “made the desert bloom” (a disgustingly racist phrase that is thrown around that compares the native Palestinians and Arabs as a whole to garden weeds) to the
country that allowed Ariel Sharon (“A man of peace,” according to George W. Bush) and his military into signing the death warrants of not only the 2000 people who died during those terrible 72 hours in Sabra and Chatila, but to the over 20,000 who died as a direct result of his invasion. Israelis themselves began waking up to realities that their leaders had tried so hard so hide from them.

Hundreds of thousands (huge numbers for a country whose population is only about five million) of Israelis marched on the streets of Tel Aviv calling for an end to the invasion, which succeeded, along with the resignation of General Sharon–which was supposed to be the end of his career.

Although many would argue that is was the image of Israel that was affected the most after the massacres, it was the image of Palestinians that really changed. Palestinians went from being the bloodthirsty Arabs who wanted to destroy all the Jews, to something a bit closer to what they actually were: humans. For it was the dehumanization of the Palestinians that had been accumulating since the destruction of their homeland that was the real perpetrator of the massacres.

This dehumanization allowed the Phalange to literally to exterminate the elderly, the women, the children, the infants. This dehumanization allowed the Israeli army to indiscriminately shell the refugee camps of Lebanon to dispose of “terrorirsts.” This dehumanization had and still has allowed the world to close its eyes to the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who go about their lives in miserable camps without phone lines, electricity, proper schools, and any agency to climb over the visible and invisible walls that surround these camps.

But didn't you know, it was their own fault?

* Quoted in Fisk, Robert, “Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War,” 1989.

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