SHATILA CAMP, Beirut — Here in the damp, narrow alley ways of the Palestinian refugee camp, where generation after generation has dreamed of returning to their homeland, Mohamed Azzouka sits in a plastic lawn chair and dreams only of escape.
For this 22-year-old inhabitant of a refuge that has become one of the most potent symbols of both the the plight and the resilience of Palestinians displaced by war, the recent Gaza conflict has dimmed any prospects that he might return to historic Palestine.
“I’m going to travel to Dubai,” said Azzouka, who is studying at a technical school in Beirut to become an interior designer. “When I finish my studies, I have to go. What do I have to do here? Just sitting like this and smoking a cigarette.”
Azzouka looks out across muddy alleyways and the cinder-block shelters where some 12,000 Palestinian refugees live in a shantytown built on an area the size of a few football fields.
“It’s a shit situation, especially for Palestinians in this country,” he said. “All the guys my age want to travel and go out, wherever, whatever the work, just go out from this situation. We want to live in peace and get a better life, better than this … camping.”
Azzouka’s situation is indicative of the dilemma facing the estimated 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon — and a new generation of some 4.6 million Palestinians who ended up in the squalor of the UN refugee camps here, as well as in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank.
Lebanese law bans refugees like Azzouka from employment in more than 70 types of jobs, especially in professional fields. They are prohibited from owning property. Azzouka said he wouldn’t hesitate to take an opportunity to move to North America or Australia.
“Do you know if Canada or Australia are accepting Palestinians?” he asked this reporter.
He was visibly disappointed when I said that Iraqi refugees probably have a better chance at admittance to those countries than do Palestinians.
Although he would gladly accept a second nationality, Azzouka said that by leaving the camp, or Lebanon, he wouldn’t want to give up his right to return to where his father was born. The Palestinian dream of the so-called "right of return" does not die easily.
Azzouka’s father was born in Haifa, in what is now northern Israel, in 1947. His family fled to Lebanon when the state of Israel was created in 1948 — an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or the “catastrophe.” His family has lived in the camp since then, and witnessed and suffered some of the most traumatic events in the Palestinians’ history.
In 1983, Lebanese Christian militiamen massacred at least 700 Palestinians here as Israeli forces watched from a nearby hill. From 1985 to 1987, Syrian troops and Lebanese Shiite militiamen fought to eject the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon’s refugee camps, resulting in more death and destruction in Shatila.
But now, the camps are largely peaceful, but tense, dreary and hopeless places. Pictures of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and Hamas’ assassinated spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, look down from pictures plastered on cement block walls, along with dozens of pictures of young men who have died during the camp’s turbulent history. Sunlight doesn’t shine in the damp, narrow alleys, where pools of black sewage water sit stagnant.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East provides schooling and other services here. And remittances from Palestinians abroad, who long ago went to work in the Arabian Gulf countries, North America, or Europe, also play a big role to support people in the camps.
Hassan Hussein, 47, runs a small grocery store on the camp’s edge, funded partly with money from his brother and sister, who left Lebanon in the 1980s for Sweden and Germany. He says he didn’t go with them because he considered the camp as his home. But now he says he’s ready to get out.
“I want to leave Lebanon now because of the fights between Palestinians themselves,” he said. “To see a brother fighting a brother makes a person feel sick about the situation. This is why I want to leave the camp and leave Lebanon.”
The same splits that divide the Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, and between the secular Fatah movement and the Islamic Hamas, are evident here. Jihad Saleem, 32, said he’s “fed up” with the divisions between Fatah and Hamas. And as those splits become wider, his hope falters.
“If there’s no unity between Palestinians, then no solution,” he said. “Without being united, we won’t go back to Palestine.”
Now disillusioned, Saleem says pledges by other Arab countries to help rebuild Gaza don’t make him optimistic. With the Palestinians in dispute over who is the legitimate authority in the territory, Saudi Arabia’s pledge of $1 billion for Gaza’s reconstruction brings out Saleem and Azzouka’s cynicism.
“Who will they give it to, Hamas or Fatah?” Azzouka scoffed.
Saleem said he would like to get out of the camp, to the U.S. or Europe. But, like Mohamed, he said he would not forfeit his refugee status, and "right of return," which Palestinians claim and the UN prescribes to anyone having left what is now Israel during the conflict between 1946 and 1948. The issue has been one of the thorniest pieces of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process now fully eclipsed by the fighting in Gaza.
“The disastrous situation we are living in Lebanon right now leads us to take the chance to leave Lebanon to another foreign country to get the citizenship, but for sure, we won’t forget Palestine,” he said. “The citizenship is security for me and my children.”
Others in the camp said they are inspired by what they say was a Hamas victory over the Israelis in Gaza. Abu Mussa, the head of the Shatila branch of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command, said Palestinians are now more dedicated to violent resistance to Israel’s existence.
“After what they’ve seen in Gaza, Palestinians are sure that the peace process is nonsense,” he said, an assault rifle sitting on a chair nearby. “Fighting with the Zionist state is the solution.”
Azzouka, aspiring interior designer, isn’t so sure. He would like to move out and get a job, make money, have a family. And maybe if he had a European or American passport, he could travel to Israel and see what he calls his homeland.
“Any citizen all over the world wants to live in his country in peace,” he said. “But if I’m still here, I won’t do anything, me and other guys, who finish the university. We’ll be selling vegetables in the market.”