Every so often in life you meet people who leave a real and lasting impression. Last year, I travelled to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon with Norway’s largest trade union – Fagforbundet – and Norwegian Peoples Aid. There we met Ahed Baar.
Ahed’s first memories are from the narrow alleyways of Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. He was born and raised there. In 1948, his parents and 750,000 other Palestinians were forced to flee their homes in Palestine by the Israeli war machine. They were told it would only be temporary. The family has lived in exile since. 70 years in exile.
In 1982, when Ahed was 16 years old, Israel invaded Lebanon. The aim was to destabilize the country and crush the Palestinian resistance movement. Beirut and the refugee camps were the main target and the civilian population was considered collateral damage.
Under massive military pressure, the Palestinian guerillas were forced to withdraw. Ahed and other teenagers moved with them, ending up in the Bekaa valley. The Israeli offensive forced Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership out of Lebanon.
Who can forget the dramatic footage as ships loaded with young guerrillas sailed for Tunisia? Most of Lebanon including the refugee camps were now under Israeli control – unguarded and defenseless.
That’s when it happened. Pro-Israeli forces stormed Shatila and slaughtered 2,000 Palestinians in what Robert Fisk called “the forgotten massacre”. Norwegian journalist Odd Karsten Tveit was among the first to enter the camp. Armed with only a tape recorder, his sound-only report was to become historic.
The photographs taken by other journalists afterwards show what Tveit described with words – countless dead bodies, Palestinian refugees, slaughtered without mercy. In some places the bodies lay in piles, where people had been mowed down in cold blood. Men, women and children – whole families were wiped out. The guilty were never punished.
Our delegation and Norwegian People’s Aid visited the memorial to the victims along with Ahed. It took quite some time to get through the camp. We stopped continually along the way for a chat – he knows people here and they know him. It brought back personal memories of walking through Ballymurphy in Belfast with Fr Des Wilson and Gerry Adams in the 1990s.
Palestinians in Lebanon are struggling to survive. Although born and raised in the country, they have few rights. They have no vote, no right to own property and no right to citizenship. They are subject to open discrimination especially in the labor market where they are banned from many professions. Nor are they entitled to use public schools and health services.
The conditions in the camps are appalling. People we met asked the delegation to tell the world about what we saw. UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, led by Irish woman Gwyn Lewis, is in serious crisis due to lack of funding – something which has been well documented for a number of years. The Palestinians are the world’s forgotten refugees.
And European nations have a particular responsibility here – our five largest pension funds have €7.5 billion invested in companies with business activities in and around illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Something which is in total contradiction of United Nations guidelines and totally undermines Palestinian human rights and a potential end to the occupation.
People in the refugee camps in Lebanon are suffering – high unemployment, lack of facilities, outdated water and sewage systems, poor diet and crushing poverty. Children and young people are a particularly vulnerable group – one of the reasons Ahed and others started the Al Walaa Center in 2015. Their goal is an ambitious one – they are determined to save the next generation of Palestinian youth.
Seventy years after Palestinians were forced to flee their homes, they are still in exile and dependent on international goodwill to survive. The election of Trump in the United States means that positive forces in Israel and Palestine who want to build bridges and create peace are now under even greater pressure.
|The message Ahed wanted us to bring home was simple and communicated with quiet and determined dignity:
“We do not need charity. We only need the same rights as all other world citizens have. And we need more people in the international community who will stand up for Palestinian rights.
We must work together to safeguard the youth and give them a future they deserve. ”
Surely that is a goal the international community should be supporting?