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Identity is complex for the Christian Palestinian camp in Lebanon

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Dibayeh, Lebanon — Nestled beneath a Maronite monastery in the mountains north of Beirut, Lebanon’s only remaining Christian-majority Palestinian camp offers few outward clues to its identity. Unlike other Palestinian refugee camps in the country, Dibayeh camp has no flags or political slogans on display.

Behind closed doors, it’s a different story. At a recent community Christmas dinner for elderly residents, attendees wearing Santa hats danced the dab to popular Palestinian songs such as “Raise the Kefieh,” twirling traditional Palestinian scarves, or mimicking them using napkins. A speaker who toasted his hope to celebrate next year’s Christmas in Jerusalem in a “free Palestine” cheered.

Residents of the camp, established in 1956 on land belonging to the monastery that overlooks it, have good reason to keep a low profile.

During Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, the area was a stronghold of Lebanese Christian militias who fought alongside the Palestine Liberation Organization. Two other Palestinian camps in Christian areas — Jisr al-Basha and Tel al-Zatar — were destroyed during the fighting by militias, killing or dispersing their residents.

Dabayeh was invaded by the Lebanese Army in 1973 and by the Lebanese Phalangist militia in 1976. Many residents fled. Those who were stationed saw themselves as fellow Palestinians on opposite sides of the battle line, most of whom were Muslim.

In the decades since the war ended in 1990, Dwayh was largely forgotten by the rest of Lebanon’s Palestinians.

“Due to the regional separation… between the Muslim quarter and the Christian quarter (in Lebanon), the minority that stayed in the (Dbayeh) camp was completely isolated from other communities,” said Anis Mohsen, managing editor of the Institute for Palestine. Quarterly Arabic Journal of Studies.

The story of Dabaya is an extreme example of the widening divisions in the Palestinian community.

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

Palestinians are separated by geographic and political barriers, but religious differences between Christians and Muslims are not usually a source of division.

“We are one people,” said Antoine Helou, a member of the Higher Presidential Committee for Churches Affairs in Palestine and a former resident of Jisr al-Basha. “Our misfortune as Palestinians is greater than thinking that a Muslim is a Christian.”

But sectarian divisions in Lebanese society have left their mark on the Palestinian community.

Youssef Nahme, an 84-year-old retired teacher from Dibayeh, a resident of the now-destroyed village of Al-Basrah in present-day Israel, recalled having friends from a Muslim-majority camp in Lebanon as a youth.

But, he said, “After the civil war, these connections were disrupted. Not because they don’t like to meet us or we don’t like to meet them, but because of Lebanese society.”

Id Haddad, 58, fled Dwaba with his family after his brother was killed by Phalangist fighters and the camp was attacked in 1976. He said, it is difficult to fit in anywhere.

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

Some Dwayh residents who fled, like Nahme and his wife, returned after the war ended. Others, like Haddad, never returned. Currently he lives in Denmark.

“I wish I could go back, but every time I think about it, all (the memories) come back,” he said.

Currently, the camp is home to a population of around 2,000, a mix of Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian refugees. Wissam Cassis, head of a civilian committee that serves as a governing body, said of the 530 families living in the camp, about 230 are Palestinian.

Palestinian residents say they maintain good relations with their Lebanese neighbors. Many have intermarried and some have been granted Lebanese citizenship. But some Lebanese continue to blame the Palestinians for the country’s civil war. In Lebanon, Palestinians are barred from owning property and working in many professions.

“People say, ‘Go back to Palestine.’ I say, ‘Send us back,'” said Therese Seman, who lives in a two-room house her family built and then rebuilt after it was bombed in 1990 during fighting between rival Christian Lebanese factions.

Still, Seeman says, “we’re living better than the other camps.”

The camp receives limited services from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which was established decades ago to assist Palestinian refugees. The organization runs a clinic and cleans the streets but does not operate a school in the camp. In 2013 an UNRWA school in a Beirut suburb near Burj Hammoud was closed due to low enrollment – ​​a sore point among locals.

Until recently, relations with Palestinian officials were more limited. It was only in 2016 that Dobayeh formed its own committee to act as a go-between between UN agencies and Palestinian embassies and political parties.

Cassis said the parties themselves do not have an active presence in the conflict, and camp residents keep their political activities low.

“For example, if Gaza is bombed (by Israeli forces), we pray the most,” he said. “We don’t go out and protest in an aggressive way.”

Many Muslim Palestinians in Lebanon are either unaware of the camp or view its residents with suspicion, believing they were allied with right-wing Christian Lebanese groups that took control of the area during the war. Cassis acknowledges that this is true in some cases, but says it’s a small minority.

“There are people who love Palestine very much and there are people who don’t, but it’s a small percentage” who align themselves with the other side, he said. “We’re fighting to make ourselves more.”

In a new initiative, Dbayeh’s youth athletes play basketball and soccer with other Palestinian camps. The games have led to renewed bonding, Cassis said.

Eighteen-year-old Rita Al-Moussa, one of the players, speaks with a Lebanese accent, attended school in Lebanon and has Lebanese friends. Growing up, she felt little connection to her Palestinian roots, but now she plays soccer with a group of young women from Beirut’s Shatila and Mar Elias camps.

As a result, he said, “we have become closer with other Palestinian camps.”

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