Cheering crowds have greeted the arrival of Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Lebanon. But though the Iranian president’s car was strewn with flowers and rice on his way to meet Lebanon’s leaders, for many Lebanese his visit is an alarming one. The Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, backed by Iran, is seen as stoking division across the region and encouraging the rise of Islamic radicalism, particularly among Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees.
The government is concerned to stem growing radicalism among this large refugee community. Around 5 million Palestinians were displaced from the Middle East after the state of Israel was established in 1948 and many fled to Lebanon. Palestinian refugees residing in the country are estimated to number up to 400,000. Most have settled in one of 12 refugee camps, extensive slums of cheaply-built dwellings with open sewers running down the streets.
Earlier this year, the Lebanese parliament passed a law which gives legal status to the Palestinians living in Lebanon, allowing them to work legally for the first time. The government hopes that through wider possibilities of finding employment, Palestinian refugees will be able to improve their lives.
However, public-sector jobs remain unattainable, requiring membership of Lebanese syndicates and the refugees still have no rights to state services. Nor are they allowed to buy property, though conditions in the camps are squalid. In the sprawling Burj Brajneh camp, located in the centre of Beirut, around 20,000 people struggle to make a decent life for themselves. Here families rely on the health and education services of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Mothers also depend on the food vouchers given out by UNWRA to provide their families with enough food and basics. A spokesperson from UNRWA says much more needs to change in Lebanon before families living in these camps feel they have dignity, explaining that “the head of a family who cannot cater for the needs of his children feels humiliated”.
Because of the widespread poverty and reliance on handouts, the camps have become a focal point for radical messages and fundamentalism. Large pictures of Palestinian fighters can be found on many walls in the alleyways. In 2007, Lebanese soldiers ended up fighting extremist groups in one camp, Nahr al-Bared. The camp was destroyed and all its 27,000 residents displaced.
Many Lebanese citizens are worried that attitudes fostered in the camps will spill over into the wider society, especially when they witness the scenes of support given to the visiting president of Iran. But as UNRWA workers point out, until the Palestinian refugees are no longer treated as second-class citizens, downtrodden Muslims living in squalid conditions will continue to find solace in radical Islam.