Defining Dbayeh

A refugee camp near Beirut mingles Palestinian and Lebanese identities

by Jim Quilty

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Tucked away in the Metn Hills, Lebanon’s Christian heartland north of Beirut, the Dbayeh refugee camp occupies a peculiar place in the histories of the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples. It is a locus of contending narratives involving questions of identity that are fluid and frozen in time.

Primarily, Dbayeh Camp belongs to the Palestinian refugee saga, which for more than 50 years has been dominated by the Israeli expulsion of Arabs from their villages during Israel’s war of independence. Coupled with exile, Dbayeh’s residents were drawn into Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90); Palestinian militants had joined Lebanese secular leftist groups to overthrow the constitutionally enshrined sectarianism of the country. During the chaos, waves of displaced Palestinians and Lebanese found refuge in Dbayeh, playing bit parts in the war.

Since the end of the civil war, the Lebanese have scorned the Palestinian refugee camps as hotbeds of criminality — “security islands” in local parlance. Lebanese law reinforces the segregation, strictly circumscribing the rights of refugees, who are barred access to some 70 professions (clerical and professional) and prohibited from owning property.

Where Dbayeh most strikingly departs from Lebanon’s other official camps is perhaps its Christian identity — the vast majority of Palestinians, and Palestinian refugees, are Sunni Muslim. Therefore, Dbayeh not only shares in the Palestinian refugee saga, but in an older story involving the region’s Eastern Christian minorities and their relationship to the Muslim majority and the Christian West.

Recent visits to Dbayeh coincided with a renewed scrutiny of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. Since 20 May, fighting has broken out between Islamist radicals ensconced in these camps and the Lebanese army. Though largely centered at the Nahr el Bared Camp, near the northern city of Tripoli, there have been incidents in other parts of the country. And while most of the Islamist militants fighting the army are not Palestinian, the clashes have ignited waves of latent anti-Palestinian sentiment throughout Lebanon, making the experience of visiting Dbayeh all the more incongruous.

Nestled in a once-bucolic setting on a hillside adjacent to Dbayeh, the camp’s four parallel streets extend over 84 dunums (1 dunum equals 1,196 square yards or 1,000 square meters) of land owned by the Maronite Monastery of St. Joseph. The village’s population, like that of the camp, is Maronite and Melkite Greek Catholic.

Mookie’s cafe welcomes the visitor, but the camp’s most prominent neighbor is a five-star hotel, La Royale. No wall or fence surrounds the camp, and the army positions seen around other Palestinian camps are absent here. The familiar blue-and-white sign of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reminds visitors that this is in fact a Palestinian refugee camp. Next to the UNRWA office is a simple structure housing the Little Sisters of Nazareth.

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Tags: Lebanon Palestine Refugee Camps Civil War