Palestinian Refugee Camp Life in Lebanon

Bassem Sirhan is a sociologist who is the author of several articles in Arabic on the Palestinians.

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Up to the present there exist no scientifically compiled studies covering all aspects of the Palestinian refugee camps. Apart from a few reports dealing with particular problems relating to the camps, the two main sources available are the UNRWA statistics and a special manpower survey carried out in June 1971 by the Statistics Department of the Lebanese Ministry of Planning. The latter has not as yet been published. The present study is based both on information obtained from these two sources, and on unstructured participant and non-participant observation of Palestinian camps over several years. It seeks to present an up-to-date picture of life in the Lebanese camps today with special regard for physical conditions, demographic, economic, social, political and cultural factors and indications of social change. The period under examination extends from 1969 to 1973 and though the observations reported here concern the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon it should be noted that conditions are basically similar in the refugee camps in Gaza, Syria, the West Bank and Jordan. In fact such differences as exist consist of a descending scale of general physical conditions - space, housing, basic amenities, etc. - in the camps: those in Lebanon and the West Bank ranking highest, Syria and Jordan next and Gaza lowest.


The Palestinian camps in Lebanon were set up on small areas of uncultivated land or on abandoned military camp sites formerly occupied by the French army. Primitive in the extreme up to the early 1950's, certain improvements have been effected over the intervening years; naked earth or sand were covered by cement, tents gave way to shacks which in turn were replaced by brick-built houses; gradually public latrines for all were replaced by private installations so that today, according to the Lebanese Survey of 1971, at least 80 per cent of the camp population now possess toilets - private or shared between one or two families. The terrain being so harsh, water had at first to be supplied by tankers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) but today most camps have a water distribution system, though in some, the construction of above-ground sewage systems, attracting mosquitoes and flooding in winter, remains a serious problem.

Such improvements, however, have to be qualified by the fact that while the camps have expanded very little in area, the camp population has more than doubled over the past twenty-five years, with consequent overcrowding and high population density. Space and basic amenities intended for a certain number of refugees are now occupied and utilized by two or three times that number. An example: Al Karameh camp near Beirut was set up by UNRWA to accommodate some 5,000 Palestinians; today the same camp is inhabited by 17,000 people! Owing to the low standard of living and lack of means only a very small number of the refugees have been able to leave the camps. On the other hand there has in fact been a movement into the camps by poor Lebanese and Syrians unable to afford normal housing. According to the Lebanese Survey of 1971: "11,500 Lebanese, of whom 5,500 come from Southern Lebanon, and 3,300 Syrians are living in Palestinian camps."

There are now seventeen Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon with a population, as estimated by camp leaders and others on the spot, of totals of 140,000 to 150,000. The Lebanese Survey and UNRWA statistics gave totals of 106,440 and 96,000 respectively in 1971, but these figures are most probably inaccurate; errors have occurred in estimating the population of the camps listed below:


The errors in estimating the total population of these camps are mostly due to the influx of Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan, who are not registered by any authority.

Housing As the Lebanese Survey shows, on the average 6 or 7 persons inhabit houses of two rooms or less; 88.3 per cent of the houses have a total living space of less than 80 sq. meties. If French density standards are used for comparison, 88.5 per cent of the camp population are living in severely over-crowded conditions to say the least (See Table 1).


Basic Amenities in the Camps

The standard of these in the Palestinian camps under review is very low. Less than 12 per cent of the houses have bathrooms, nearly 60 per cent have no running water and while 80 per cent of the houses now possess private or semi-private toilets the remaining 20 per cent have none. Most houses have kitchens and over 65 per cent electricity. For heating, over half the houses have gas-heaters or some more primitive heating device. Only 0.1 per cent of the houses have a telephone and these are probably also shops. [2] 


The most striking characteristic of the population figures of the camp population is its extreme youth; over 64 per cent fall in the 1-19 age-group and only 8 per cent in the 50 and above group. The remaining 27.6 per cent are between 20 and 49 (Table 2). This fact, resulting from a very high birth- rate, is an important one in assessing the outcome of the Palestinian people's protracted struggle to regain their rights and its political implications have been a constant and growing cause of concern to Israeli leaders.

The birthrate is increased by the fact that the average age of marriage in Palestinian camps is relatively young: 24.5 for men and 21.6 for women. A single status among those of marriageable age (20 and above for men, 15 and above for women) is correspondingly low; 17.7 per cent and 24.3 per cent respectively. At the same time, the rate of divorce is very low; among men aged between 15 and 39, none are divorced; of females under 39, the percentage of divorced compared to the married ranges from under 1 per cent to 7 per cent. The stability of arranged marriages, and the mechanism of social and family pressures on married couples to remain together, are strongly reflected in these figures. [3] 




Palestinians are not admitted to government schools in Lebanon at any level of education. The situation in other Arab countries is that they are admitted to government schools in Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq while in Kuwait a significant proportion of the school-age population is now attending schools run by the PLO but partly subsidized by the government of Kuwait. At the university level, UNRWA provides a very limited number of scholar- ships to outstanding refugee students.

With regard to the general educational situation, this study again relies on the UNRWA and Lebanese Survey figures of 1971 and these show variations in the estimates relating to enrolment and to literacy. The Survey estimates illiteracy among camp residents as high as 58.4 per cent which would seem exaggerated, particularly in view of the fact that 48.4 per cent of illiteracy is attributed to the age group 6 to 9. The UNRWA figure of 17 per cent for the same age group appears more probable. As UNRWA provides no schooling for children up to the age of 5, illiteracy is almost total in this age group. Another fact to be noted from the statistics is the high percentage of illiteracy among the older groups: this is due to historical factors - the lack of educational facilities for the mass of young Palestinians in the years preceding and immediately after the loss of their homeland in 1948.

The level of education among the camp population is low. The overwhelming majority of refugees in the camps never get beyond the elementary stage: 76,020 persons above the age of 5 have received one to six years of schooling. In comparison only 2,310 have completed preparatory school and 1,020 secondary school levels. A mere 300 residents possess university education. Another factor to be noted, and one which may have serious repercussions in the immediate future, is the high discrepancy between male and female illiteracy - 48.7 per cent and 68.7 per cent respectively. Even allowing for traditional attitudes to girl's education, the existence of this discrepancy after over twenty-five years is significant (Tables 4 and 5).

UNRWA figures refer to the total school-age population (6-20) and cover both refugees living inside and outside the Palestinian camps. We consider that at the elementary level there is no difference between these two categories as far as enrolment is concerned. There is, however, a slight difference at the preparatory and a very marked difference at secondary level because obviously economic factors dictate whether students may continue their education up to these stages.

Sixty-four per cent of Palestinians of school age in Lebanon were enrolled in 1971: this represented a total of 65,536 children of whom nearly 42,000 were enrolled in schools, at the following levels (Table 6):


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Very noticeable is the sharp fall-off in enrolment from the age of 15 and the very small percentage of those who continue after 18.

From 1950 onwards there was a steady increase at the enrolment level, especially in regard to that of girls. At the elementary stage girls' enrolment was 26.5 per cent in 1950-51; it advanced to 43.3 per cent in 1960-61 and by 1970-71 it had risen to 47.5 per cent of total student enrolment. Similarly at the preparatory level the percentage rose from in 1950 to 27.5 per cent in 1960 and 43.6 per cent in 1970-71. [4] 

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UNRWA schools are overcrowded: pupils per class there were 42 in Lebanon in 1971; the ratio of teachers per pupils was 1 to 40. In 1974 the ratio was even higher with the result that UNRWA felt obliged to adopt the double-shift system. The latter has proved most unsatisfactory from all points of view; what was really needed was to increase the number of teachers and open more schools.

In 1971 there were 117 Palestinian students holding university scholarships in Lebanon: of these, 56 held UNRWA scholarships and 52 scholarships from West Germany. In addition, UNRWA has recently opened five vocational training and technical education centres in Jordan, West Bank, Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. Over 2000 Palestinian refugees were attending courses at these centres in 1971 (196 at the Siblin Centre in Lebanon) but such vocational training facilities need to be greatly expanded if they are to be of significant benefit to the Palestine population as a whole.

The UNRWA "Institute of Education" has played a major and efficient role in modernizing educational and teaching methods and in training UNRWA teachers. But it is now a frequent Palestinian complaint that there has been a lowering of standards of teaching in the refugee schools, and the problem has been discussed over and over again at study groups and teachers' seminars organized by the PLO Planning Centre over the past two years. Teachers have been accused of negligence and of lack of interest in their work or students, and UNRWA has been charged with excessive bureaucracy and hostility to the teaching of Palestinian national and political subjects in school.

Perhaps two main causes of the decline in standards and enthusiasm in the camp schools are the existing double-shift system introduced as a means of grappling with the population increase and limited funds, whereby some children attend from 8 to 12 noon and others from 12-4 p.m., and the automatic promotion from lower to higher classes - meaning that no students "fail" and none is permitted to repeat any school year.


The economic situation of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon is very depressed. In the first place no permanent employment is available for a large number of people. Secondly, wages are generally low and the meagre income of one, or perhaps two, wage earners, to support a family of 8 or more is totally inadequate. Many families are barely above the subsistence level. The Lebanese Survey shows that over 19 per cent of the camp population have no gainful employment permanent, seasonal or daily. About 40 per cent of the population of working age (15 and above) are employed but owing to the very high rate of unemployment among women and girls (see Tables 7 and 8) it is correct to say that half the potential manpower available in these camps is not utilized. As might be expected, the low standard of education coupled with the serious lack of technical and vocational training result in the refugees being employed in lower-paid jobs, whether in agriculture, industry, building, trades, transport and services.

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An examination of Table 9 (which is broken down into clearly defined categories) shows that most of the Palestinians from camps who obtain employment are agricultural labourers, unskilled manual workers or in low-grade jobs in the Lebanese service sectors. The 14.4 per cent listed as employed in "trade and hotels" is misleading for it refers in fact to small shop-keepers in the camps or in towns in the proximity of the camps. More- over the statistics do not indicate how much of the manpower employed in agriculture, industry and building (45.5 per cent) is skilled or unskilled.

A very high percentage of those employed are on a daily basis. There are over 11,000 daily workers as against some 2,000 in permanent employment and the former constitute 58.4 per cent of all employed camp workers (See Table 9).

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In brief, it can be stated that economic conditions in the camps are harsh and the standard of living in general very low: with the men mainly bringing home the wages of unskilled labourers and the women bearing large numbers of children, it could hardly be otherwise.


Social Cohesion

The people in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon are not just a chance collection of individuals or families brought together by some accident. From the social point of view they are thus unlike the slum areas of large Western cities and much closer to the village type in social organization. In fact, the inhabitants of the camps are grouped around the Palestinian villages from which they originated and the extended family units are still the basis of social life. In this way many villages which the Israelis occupied by force, evacuated and demolished in Palestine are still, socially speaking, alive and coherent units. They have lost neither their social consciousness nor their family and village ties and if they returned tomorrow, this extraordinarily tenacious social factor would be of the greatest importance in the rapid re- construction of Palestinian society.

The camps in fact grew up in spontaneous formations rather than in accordance with some United Nations refugee relief plan: this explains why the various forms of social relationship and organization existing before 1948 have been so well-preserved and why the sense of being Palestinian, of the Palestinian "identity," is so strong today. The sense of solidarity, of sharing a common tradition, of looking forward to a common destiny - the return to the homeland - has not only enabled them to withstand the long years of hardship and humiliation but also to forge the bonds of a well-knit, highly conscious community. It may be true that this process was to some extent encouraged by the cramped social conditions within the camps where privacy is almost unknown and where it is literally impossible to ignore one's neighbours.

Naturally this situation does not always make for social cohesion: social conflict is not absent on either the community or the family level. Old inter- village and inter-family disputes carried over from Palestine sometimes used to surface in the communities in the camps. Conflicts over water supplies or areas allocated for housing are also recurrent, and recently affiliations to various political groups (i.e., rival commando organizations) have caused some social tension within the community. Within the family, conflict is mainly caused by the struggle between authoritarian parents or grandparents and their children seeking freedom from parental restrictions. The economic hardship that dominates the Palestinian family also affects family relations: where one member of the family (usually the father) is supporting the others (e.g., unemployed sons), there is a tendency to be assertive in his behaviour.

Yet the forces making for social cohesion are still more powerful; most of the camp population under consideration here come from the same region, Northern Palestine, and family and regional ties persist. There is a common sense of being an uprooted and persecuted refugee community. A feeling of solidarity in overcoming daily problems exists. There is also the wider political consciousness, the struggle to return to their land against those they consider mainly responsible for their present misfortunes - the USA, Israel, West Germany, Britain and Arab reactionary forces. The attitudes and social values of the Palestinian village have been transported and preserved within the precincts of the refugee camps. The camp community still stresses traditional values such as respect for elders, family honour and loyalty, toleration of personal inconvenience for others' sake, not being too individualistic, and offering hospitality and generosity. Deviations from the accepted norms are not tolerated beyond a certain limit and such deviations are often severely punished.

The physical and social setting of the camps creates a strong apparatus of social control. It is for this reason that crimes against persons or property (incidents of rape are non-existent despite the degree of sexual frustration to which the young are subjected in these camps) are so rare. The same applies to the type of youth crime so prevalent in the West today - violence and robbery in organized gangs, hashish smoking and narcotics addiction. Personal and family disputes are in general handled by the community and the intervention of the camp leaders is often highly efficient.

Leisure Time

As far as the use of leisure time is concerned, however, the social life within the camps is generally sterile as a result of the poverty of the residents and the overcrowded conditions of the camps. Children between 3 and 6 can be seen spending their time playing and fighting in the alleys and open areas within or adjacent to the camps. These habits continue between the ages of 6 and 15, although children at this age also improvise games involving little means or skill, with balls, sticks, old knives, tins, etc. Those who can afford it start to make trips to nearby movies. But there is a lack of organized activities, although some better-off families make a regular picnic outing on Sundays to the beach, a river-area or the woods.

For the youth (age 16-30) the basic camp conditions are conducive to boredom and time-killing. The absence of collective social activities reduces them to a routine of going to movies, playing cards and sitting in cafes. They have no common activities with girls and sexual frustration is widespread. The resistance organizations since 1969 have provided their offices as gathering places for youth, for both social and political purposes, and the effect has often been beneficial, without however completely solving the problem of leisure time.

For adults, leisure time is spent in a round of exchanging visits, a practice facilitated by the closeness of the dwellings. A few residents have acquired TV sets, which become a common gathering-point in the evening. Cafe-haunting, card-playing and backgammon are major parts of the routine.

The Situation of Women

The situation of Palestinian women in the camp communities is similar to that of women in most Arab countries. The idea of a woman's role as being to stay at home and attend to her menfolk is still prevalent. Women are brought up for marriage, and are extremely limited in their social relationships with others. Single girls are not allowed to go out alone or with boys and traditional values which vest family honour in female sexual purity still apply. When they marry the girls' parents usually play a major role in the choice of the husband. Their chances of education, too, are lower than those of men.

There has been movement in the direction of change in some aspects of a woman's life since the rise of the Palestinian resistance movement. It has become more respectable for women to participate in the political and even military struggle, and some educated women have been incorporated into the PLO apparatus. Others have now taken jobs in town. Yet the traditional social and cultural norms still apply to the daily life of most women. The resistance has helped to liberate women in the sense of involving them more closely in the struggle of their nation, but the social traditions that determine the other aspects of a woman's life are still dominant. It is regrettable that the resistance did not use its great social power and prestige to accomplish more in this respect.


The Palestinian, particularly the camp resident, is highly sensitive politically. Politics, he feels intensely, has determined his present lot and politics will determine his chance of change in the future. Other aspects of life are subordinated to politics in such a way that his whole attitude to the future is conditioned by them. This conditioning was not of his choice: it was imposed from outside, he feels. Nevertheless, it is inescapable. He cannot remain in- different to his political situation; he cannot forget for a moment what he is, what brought him to his present situation, what has to be done to change it. As one leader put it, "Whether we like it or not, we are all players and we have to run after the ball all the time; we can never afford the leisure of being spectators."

This absorption with political considerations is reflected in certain aspects of camp life. The major part of the camp population spend several hours every day engaged in the discussion of politics and news or in listening to the news, commentaries and political broadcasts from a whole series of radio stations round the world: Voice of the Arabs (Cairo), Voice of Palestine Revolution (Cairo), BBC, Monte Carlo, not to mention Moscow, Iraq, Jordan, the networks of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Voice of America. Talking about and listening to politics are much more common than reading, because of the educational level and concentration required by the latter.

This interest in politics became even more intense after 1967 when the camp population was no longer subject to direct Lebanese police control but became "autonomous." The development of the different programmes and activities of the Palestine movement: commando operations, militia training and so on has further increased the time devoted to discussing political affairs.

Listening and discussion were followed rapidly by action: the Palestinian camp population responded readily to all major political movements in the Arab world and their participation was always sizeable. It should be noted that despite their absorption with the problem of their own homeland, the Palestinians have never been primarily concerned with regional political issues and movements: from hard experience they have come to see their own problem as part of a wider whole; they see its solution within the context of the unity and independence of the Arab nation, embracing all Arab countries. This has led them to join in large numbers the two main pan-Arab movements of the past 25 years - the Arab Nationalist Movement and the Ba'th Arab Party. Most Palestinians were confirmed Nasserites and regarded Nasser as the real leader of the Arab world.

Similarly, the Palestinians have taken part in political activities within the Arab host countries. In Lebanon they have participated in protests, strikes, peaceful and violent demonstrations and also secret organizations. The motives for their participation are always the same: liberation of Palestine and Arab unity and independence. Such action has sometimes brought them into conflict with the host countries concerned: the latter regarded them as alien refugees, with no right to intervene in internal affairs or as trouble- makers helping to undermine the local Arab regime. How often has the refugee demonstrator been dragged into a police station and asked: "Why are you, a Palestinian, mixed up in this? What happens in our country is none of your business." To this the Palestinians' reply might be: "As Palestinians, we are Arabs, and all Arab business is of our concern."

It is not surprising that in times of tension within certain Arab countries, the Palestinian camp population have been subject to the severest repression: after all, they formed a large bloc, identifiable and unprotected.

At this point the question may be asked: to what extent have differing political affiliations, within the Palestine movement itself, tended to weaken internal solidarity in the camp communities? The answer is - never to breaking point. The reason is that fundamentally these various affiliations differ in regard to means rather than ends. Moreover, the resistant and tenacious ties of family and kinship rarely yield to such pressures: it is not at all unusual to find Palestinian families in which brothers and cousins belong to different political factions.

Political Leadership in the Camps

Who are the leaders of public opinion in the Palestinian camps and how do they come to exert their authority? From the historical point of view, the first to be mentioned are the wujaha or notables whose social and political prestige derive from the status they held in Palestine. These are now living in Lebanese towns and cities - mainly Beirut - and used to have influence over sections of the Palestine community living both within and outside the camps. Next, there are the "extended" family leaders who are also often village heads (a small village is generally composed of two to four such families). Familiarly known as the local mukhtar or sheikh, they still have a certain influence in the camps by virtue of their family position.

Thirdly, there are the new leaders who have emerged from within the camp population on account of their own merits. Some have achieved recognition because of their efforts within the Arab political movements, some on account of their educational attainments (the Palestine masses have a profound respect for the educated) while others such as camp leaders, doctors and high officials exercise it by virtue of their function within the camp. For many years these people acted as camp advisers and helped to mobilize the refugees' political force on behalf of their own political parties.

Lastly, there are the fedayeen (commando) leaders: they have surpassed all previous leaders of opinion in the camps. They have arrived on the scene armed: at last the dispossessed, unarmed refugee found leaders of his resistance who were not merely political revolutionaries but clearly intended to do something in practice about the Palestinian fight. For the Palestinians, these leaders have liberated them from years of frustration and helplessness and showed the way to become masters of their own fate. Though the respected family heads still retain some influence within their sphere, the fact is that the commandos have captured the imagination and enthusiasm of the Pales- tinian youth. Political leadership among those who live in the camps rests today firmly in the hands of the vanguard of the resistance movement.


These are difficult to assess precisely in a community such as that of the Palestinian camps. To an outside observer it might appear that in many respects things have not changed much over the past 20 years. But this impression is mainly due to the fact that the economic basis has not been altered and the consequent general shabbiness and low living standards evident in the camps remain accompanied, as has been shown, by such factors as poor educational facilities and the low status of women, etc.

However, important evidence of social change exists. For one thing inter- village conflicts and squabbles have become things of the past because of the growth of national consciousness. Again, the evolution from traditional to revolutionary leadership is a vital change: for the first time, the camp population have accepted as leaders persons not from their own village or region (e.g., fedayeen from Gaza). This leadership, however, has mainly restricted itself to the political and military spheres, although sometimes the fedayeen have been requested to arbitrate in social disputes. In view of its considerable and extensive social power, if the present leadership would also turn its attention and efforts to social matters - for example, the position of women in society - very rapid changes for the better could be expected, with the woman assuming her full responsibility throughout the whole Palestinian society. Already there are some encouraging signs in this direction and increasing numbers of women and girls in the camps are demanding the right to education and to work.

Again, the gap between the generations is evident in the camps despite the continuing strength of traditional ties. As yet the extent of this divergence is difficult to assess without further study. But one thing is certain: the camp community has experienced increasing solidarity as the former psychological state of complete dependency, and the feeling of degradation resulting from refugee status, have given way to a psychological state of independence and a fuller Palestinian identity.


Bassem Sirhan is a sociologist who is the author of several articles in Arabic on the Palestinians.

1. As estimated by camp leaders and others on the spot.

2. Figures from the Lebanese Survey, as yet unpublished.

3. Ibid. 

4. Figures are taken from the UNRWA Statistical Yearbook, 1970-71. 




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