It is no secret that Arab countries have long mistreated their Palestinian brothers and sisters, governing them with inhumane laws and imposing severe restrictions on their public freedoms and basic rights. Building a wall around a Palestinian community to prevent terrorists from entering or leaving, however, has raised the bar on such infringements.
This is precisely what is happening in Lebanon these days. The construction of a security wall around Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp (with a population of nearly 120,000), has drawn sharp criticism from Palestinians and revived memories of the abuse they regularly receive at the hands of their Arab brethren.
The Lebanese authorities say the Palestinians have left them no choice but to build the controversial concrete wall. The Palestinians, they say, refuse to cooperate against terrorists who have established bases within their camps. Yet that problem raises the question: "What has Lebanon done in the past half-century or so to help the Palestinians who fled to that country?" The answer: "Nothing."
In fact, among all Arab countries, Lebanon has been arguably the worst in its treatment of the Palestinians. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are denied access to adequate housing and certain categories of employment. According to Amnesty International: "Over half of Palestinian refugees live in decaying and chronically overcrowded camps and discriminatory practices are permitted under personal status laws and nationality laws."
These anti-Palestinian practices are regularly ignored by the international community, including the mainstream media and human rights organizations, whose obsession with Israel blinds them to Arab injustice. While, every now and then, an organization does publish a report on the misery endured by Palestinians in Arab countries, these bodies rarely follow up on their work, thus creating the impression that they are doing so only for the sake of protocol.
As such, the plight of the Palestinians in many Arab countries continues to be a taboo, as far as the international community is concerned. Typically, Western journalists and human rights activists do not even bother to report or document cases of Arab mistreatment of Arabs. This abandonment of professional standards is why apartheid laws targeting Palestinians in several Arab countries are still unknown to the international community. Even when Western journalists and human rights advocates do hear about these violations, they prefer to look the other way. A story without an anti-Israel angle is not a story, as far as they are concerned.
So what is going on in Lebanon, and why are so many Palestinians furious with the Lebanese authorities?
Until a few years ago, the population of Ain al-Hilweh camp was 70,000. But the influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, since 2011, has increased the camp population to nearly 120,000. It turns out that many of these new "refugees" are actually terrorists fleeing from Syria and Iraq.
A street celebration in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh camp, July 2015. (Image source: Geneva Call/Flickr)
Ain al-Hilweh, like most of the camps in Lebanon, has always been a major headache for the Lebanon. It seems, however, that the Lebanese government has had enough.
For years, the Lebanese authorities, for whom the camp is "off-limits," have been trying, unsuccessfully, to clean the camp of its hundreds of terrorists.
Lebanese security forces steer clear of the refugee camps in an attempt to avoid friction with the Palestinians living there. This evasion has allowed the camps to become hotbeds for various jihadi groups and terrorists who pose a threat not only to the national security of Lebanon, but to Palestinians themselves and neighboring Arab countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Syria (not to mention Israel).
Alarmed by this heightened threat, the Lebanese authorities recently began building a concrete wall around Ain al-Hilweh, sparking a wave of denunciations from Palestinians. The Palestinians claim that the new wall, which will be completed in 15 months, will turn the camp into a big open-air prison. They refer to it as the "Wall of Shame." Their main argument is that it is disgraceful that any Arab country would build a wall surrounding a refugee camp at a time when Palestinians are asking the world to condemn Israel for building a security fence to prevent terror attacks against Israelis from the West Bank.
Camp residents claim that the Lebanese authorities have misled them concerning the construction of the wall. According to the residents, the authorities led them to believe that it was to be a small fence on the outskirts of parts of the camp and not a massive concrete wall surrounding the camp.
The Lebanese security authorities have chosen to call the new barrier the "Wall of Protection" -- stressing that it is mainly intended to prevent terror attacks against Lebanon and stop the camps from becoming bases for terrorists and criminals. The authorities say that if anyone is to blame for the construction of the wall, it is the Palestinians themselves, who have refused to cooperate with the Lebanese government against the terrorists. "The goal is to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the camp," explained a Lebanese security official. "The equation facing the Palestinian factions is clear: Hand over the terrorists and there will be no wall. The Palestinians have proven that they are unable to take security matters into their own hands in this camp."
The Lebanese authorities also say that they decided to build the wall after discovering several smuggling tunnels in the vicinity of Ain al-Hilweh. These tunnels, they say, are being used to smuggle weapons and terrorists into and out of the camp.
Representatives of Ain al-Hilweh and other Palestinians have been holding marathon meetings with Lebanese government officials in the past few weeks to persuade them to halt the construction of the wall. The Palestinians in Ain al-Hilweh are now threatening that if the Lebanese government does not cancel the project, they will seek the intervention of other Arab, and also Western, countries, as well as the United Nations.
Notably, the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership in the West Bank has not joined in the efforts to persuade the Lebanese government to drop the idea of building a wall around the camp. This avoidance probably springs from the PA leadership and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, being well aware that Ain al-Hilweh and other refugee camps in Lebanon have fallen into the hands of their enemies, namely Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
The "Wall of Shame" appears particularly to bother Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. Last week, he telephoned a number of Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Tammam Salam and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, to warn about the consequences of the construction of the wall. Mashaal, who is based in Qatar and enjoys a luxurious life most Palestinians can barely dream of, urged the Lebanese government to halt construction if the wall and said that the wall jeopardized the lives of Palestinian refugees and would have "negative repercussions."
Hamas's spokesman in Lebanon, Ra'fat Murra, dismissed Lebanon's security concerns for building the wall. He warned that the wall would turn the camp into an isolated enclave and exacerbate tensions between Palestinians and Lebanese. Murra, however, expressed readiness to cooperate with the Lebanese authorities in apprehending and handing over wanted terrorists who had found shelter inside Ain al-Hilweh.
Protests against the wall reached their peak when hundreds of Palestinians (and some Lebanese) took to the streets of the nearby city Sidon, in southern Lebanon, calling on the government to stop construction immediately. The protesters warned that the wall would further increase tensions between Palestinians and Lebanese, and further reduce the quality of life for the camp residents.
Lebanon may be justified in building a security wall around the Palestinian refugee camp. Without a doubt, Ain al-Hilweh and other camps have become hubs for terror groups and criminals, and Lebanon has every right to combat terrorism. Yet, Lebanon needs to come up with ways to assimilate, rather than alienate, the Palestinians. Furthermore, this is a problem that extends beyond Lebanon's borders. The same applies to the camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syria and Jordan.
The continued mistreatment of Palestinians at the hands of Lebanon and other Arab countries is totally unjustified. The new wall, complete with watchtowers, that is being erected around Ain al-Hilweh may stop some terrorists from infiltrating the camp, but it will not solve the real problem -- namely the failure to absorb the refugees and grant them citizenship. In point of fact, Palestinians living in Arab countries are denied citizenship (with the exception of Jordan) and a host of basic rights.
Now is the time for the international community to apply pressure to the Arab countries to start helping their Palestinian brothers by improving their living conditions and incorporating them into these countries. Holding Palestinians in refugee camps for more than six decades is deadly counterproductive. The camps become sanctuaries for terrorists who pose a threat to the national security and stability in these Arab countries. There is no reason why a Palestinian living in Lebanon or Egypt or Kuwait should be banned from purchasing his or her own home.
Moreover, Arab states' lies concerning the return of refugees to former homes inside of Israel, so long a staple fed to the refugees, have far outlived their usefulness. The refugee problem will end on the day their leaders stop lying to them and confront them with the truth, basically that there will be no "right of return" and that the time has come for them to move on with their lives.
If the lies do not end, the day will come when these countries will be forced to place all the refugees behind walls and fences -- a move not likely to enhance stability in these countries. Ain al-Hilweh should serve as a wake-up call to all those Arabs who continue to subject Palestinians to apartheid laws and practices.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.