Burj al-Barajneh: Palestinian Camp's Response to Beirut Tragedy
August 26 2020
Editor’s note: First responders from the Palestinian refugee camps in and around Beirut rushed to aid the injured after the Beirut Port blast on August 4th. Palestine Square was able to reach residents and first responders from Burj al-Barajneh camp in southern Beirut.

On August 4, Hiba Al Ashkar, a 22-year-old resident of the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut, was in her room watching a Netflix series when she felt her bed shaking. At first, she thought that one of her cats had jumped off the wardrobe.

Her father came into the room and asked, “Did you feel that?”

A few seconds later, they both heard a boom. Hiba’s windows were open - her purple curtains were sucked out of the frames and then pushed back in. She was shaking, terrified.

“The way the curtains [flew] and the house shook was horrific,” Al Ashkar said in a WhatsApp voice note. “I rushed to [look] for a signal to call my brother, my mom. The feeling was… I hope that no one ever experiences it.”

According to Al Ashkar, the initial consensus among camp residents was that Israel had bombed Beirut. What had in fact taken place was the explosion of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut since 2014.

This negligent act by Lebanese authorities resulted in more than 6000 injuries and at least 200 deaths. Three weeks after the blast, 52 people are still missing.

The Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp lost one resident to the explosion. Muhammad Dgheim, 42, suffered a heart attack from the intensity of the blast, leaving behind his wife and five children.

Of the 12 officially-registered Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon, four are located in and around the capital, Beirut. They sustained relatively minor damage, allowing Palestinian first-responders to rush to the areas of the city that were devastated by the blast.     


On the day of the explosion, Mohamad Al Habet, 33, head of the Burj al-Barajneh unit of the Palestinian Civil Defense, had just come home from volunteering with a local NGO. He was planning to rest before heading to the first-responders’ center in the camp.

“As soon as I laid my head on the pillow, everything shook,” Al Habet told Palestine Square in a phone call. “I heard people screaming down the street and saw my mother running, with my daughter in her arms, saying that Israel had bombed us.”

Al Habet tried to reach members of his unit via WhatsApp but got no answer. He rushed to the center alongside other members of the unit. Once it became clear that an explosion had taken place at the port, the Civil Defense team made the decision to head there.

“We went there on our motorcycles,” Al Habet said. “When we arrived, we didn’t enter the port area itself because the buildings right outside it were ablaze and there were injured people everywhere.”

The members of the team soon realized that whoever had been inside the port at the time of the explosion was already dead. They decided to rescue the injured whom they could reach in the surrounding areas.

Other Palestinian Civil Defense units joined them, and they split responsibilities amongst themselves: some units would treat the injured on the spot, while others would transfer victims to hospital in ambulances or aboard Civil Defense vehicles.

“One of the units asked us to help with a search-and-rescue mission at a collapsed building in Ashrafieh,” Al Habet said. “We were able to bring out Ellen, an Ethiopian citizen. It took us [more than] 11 hours to dig Issam, a young Lebanese man, out from under the rubble.”

Videos of Issam Shams’ rescue went viral on social media on August 5th and were picked up by both local and international media outlets. Members of the Palestinian Civil Defense unit from Ein El Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country located in Sidon, had the equipment necessary to aid in his rescue.

This isn’t the first time that the Palestinian Civil Defense has lent a hand to Lebanese emergency services. When fires erupted in the Mount Lebanon region in October 2019, the Burj al-Barajneh unit was among the first to respond.

“Our work is humanitarian. As the Palestinian Civil Defense, we intervene to [save] human [lives], wherever duty calls us. We place our souls in the palm of one hand, and our families in the other.”


Despite legal restrictions on Palestinians’ mobility in Lebanon, whereby groups like the Palestinian Civil Defense would normally be restricted to areas inside the camp, the lines blurred on August 4. Members of the Palestinian Red Crescent were able to enter the blast site easily to stand by their Lebanese counterparts.

Khaled Al Ashwah, 53, leads a paramedic team and drives one of three ambulances belonging to the Palestinian Red Crescent in Burj al-Barajneh.

“Not to gloat, but as a Palestinian, I was humbled to enter the port, an area that I am not ordinarily allowed to even pass by,” Al Ashwah told Palestine Square in a phone call. “The army and the police were both helpful. ‘Come on, this way,’ they told us. Within 15-20 minutes, we were [deep] inside the port.”

Before the blast, Al Ashwah had been at home in Burj al-Barajneh, having coffee with his wife.

“When the chairs shook, I told my wife that I’d never before [experienced] an earthquake. I thought to take my family to the roof so that, if the house collapsed, first responders would find us easily.”

When Al Ashwah realized it was an explosion, he felt an ironic sense of relief. He hurried to get dressed and stood by for instructions.

“We [the Palestinian Red Crescent] are not allowed to move outside the camp without an official directive.”

Once the order came from Palestine’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Ashraf Dabbour, for the Palestinian Red Crescent to head towards the Port of Beirut, the Burj al-Barajneh branch prepared the three ambulances stationed at Haifa Hospital in the camp and left. The hospital, one of 14 medical facilities operated by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Lebanon, was able to treat dozens of victims affected by the blast when other hospitals were either overflowing or not operational.

“I transferred two children with their mother: one of the kids went into shock while I was driving, her heart stopped. I was in tears as I drove. I hope she survived,” Al Ashwah said.

Al Ashwah feels strongly that the work of Palestinian first responders is first and foremost humanitarian.

“At the end of the day, I live beneath the same sky [as the people of] this country. Your pain is my pain, and I [stand] by you as a human being.”

About The Author: 

Laura Albast is Palestinian-American and works at the Institute for Palestine Studies. She holds a BA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut, and an MA in International Affairs and Communication from Boston University. Her research has focused on public diplomacy, arms control, and community health work in the Middle East. She is also a professional translator.

Read more