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Identity is complex for the Palestinian Christian camp in Lebanon

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DBAYEH, Lebanon — Nestled in the hills north of Beirut beneath a Maronite monastery, the only remaining Christian-majority Palestinian camp in Lebanon gives few outward clues about its identity. Unlike other Palestinian refugee camps in the country, there are no flags or political slogans displayed in the 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 such as “Raise the Keffiyeh”, twirling traditional Palestinian scarves or using towels to simulate them. A speaker who toasted his hope of celebrating Christmas next year in Jerusalem in a “free Palestine” drew ululations.

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

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

Dbayeh was invaded in 1973 by the Lebanese army and in 1976 by the Lebanese Phalangist militia. Many residents fled. Those who remained found themselves on the other side of the battle lines from their fellow Palestinians, mostly Muslims.

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

“Due to the separation of territories… between Muslim and Christian neighborhoods (in Lebanon), the minority that remained in the camp (in Dbayeh) were completely isolated from other communities,” said Anis Mohsen, editor in Head of the Institute for Palestine. Quarterly Arab review of studies.

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

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 war in the Middle East to create Israel. Today, several million Palestinian refugees and their descendants are scattered across Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza, lands captured by Israel in 1967.

Palestinians are separated by geographic and political barriers, but religious differences between Christians and Muslims are generally not divisive.

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

But sectarian divisions in Lebanese society have scarred the Palestinian community.

Youssef Nahme, an 84-year-old retired teacher from Dbayeh, originally from the now-destroyed village of al-Bassa in present-day Israel, recalled that as a young man in Lebanon he had friends in predominantly Muslim camps.

But, he says, “after the civil war, these ties were disrupted. Not because they don’t like visiting us or we don’t like visiting 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 camp was invaded in 1976. He said it was difficult to fit in anywhere.

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

Some of the Dbayeh residents who fled, such as Nahme and his wife, returned after the fighting ended. Others, like Haddad, never returned. 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 around 2,000 people, a mix of Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian refugees. Wissam Kassis, head of a civilian committee that serves as a sort of governing body, said that out of about 530 families living in the camp, some 230 are Palestinian.

Palestinian residents said they have good relations with their Lebanese neighbors. Many married and some obtained Lebanese nationality. But some Lebanese continue to blame the Palestinians for the civil war in the country. Palestinians in Lebanon are prohibited from owning property and practicing 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 Lebanese Christian factions.

Still, Semaan said, “We live better than the other camps.”

The camp receives limited services from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which was established decades ago to help Palestinian refugees. The agency runs a clinic and cleans the streets but does not run a school in the camp. An UNRWA school in Beirut’s neighboring suburb of Bourj Hammoud was closed in 2013 due to low enrollment – a sore point among locals.

Until recently, relations with Palestinian officials were even more limited. It was not until 2016 that Dbayeh formed his own committee to act as an intermediary between the UN agency and the Palestinian embassy and the 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 bombardment (by Israeli forces) in Gaza, we do a prayer vigil at most,” he said. “We don’t go out and aggressively protest.”

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

“There are people who like Palestine very much and others who don’t, but it’s a small percentage” of people who lined up on the other side, he said. “We are fighting to create more of a sense of belonging.”

In a new initiative, young athletes from Dbayeh are playing basketball and football alongside those from other Palestinian camps. The games led to renewed ties, Kassis said.

Community groups from other camps have started coming to Dbayeh, repairing the streets and distributing aid and Christmas gifts.

Kholoud Hussein of the NGO Najda Association, 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 Dbayeh,” she said, but now they are starting to know.

Recognition goes both ways. Rita al-Moussa, 18, from 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 football with a group of young women from the Shatila and Mar Elias camps in Beirut.

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

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