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An Austrian delegation visits the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon: We never imagined the massive extent of the suffering; we were amazed at the capacity of the Palestinian people to persevere

Over ten days in the month of August, full of various activities, the Palestinian Return Centre/London in collaboration with the “Palestine Media Association in Austria” organised a visit of an Austrian delegation from the NGO “Dar Al-Janoob”. The visit aimed to provide a close look at the conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in both its humanitarian and political dimensions, through listening to firsthand accounts from the refugees, living their daily routine, in addition to hearing leaders, decision makers, and those in charge of the humanitarian and political conditions of the refugees.

The delegation was headed by Peter Leidenmuller, accompanied by Katerina Obert, Iris Khalaaf, Oliver Hashimi-Zada, and Ismail Khalaf. The tour included many visits to the Palestinian refugee camps, civic institutions, research centres, events, and influential persons working in the field of refugees. For example, a visit to the director general of UNRWA in Lebanon, Richard Cook, the representative of Hamas in Lebanon, Usama Hamdan, head of the parliamentary human rights committee in Lebanon, MP Marwan Faris, Secretary General of Fatah and the factions of the PLO, Sultan Abul Ainain, coordinator general of the coalition of associations and NGOs working among the Palestinians, Qasem Aina, President of the General Union of the Palestinian Woman, Aamina Jibreel, director of Ajyaal organisation, Salah Salah, director of the Palestinian Organisation for Human Rights, Ghassan Abdullah, president of the preventative centre for human rights, Sohail Al-Natoor, head of the Palestinian committee for Culture and Heritage, Mahmoud Dakoor, the Tarshiha Village Association in Burj Al-Barajneh camp, Abu Jihad Al-Wazir organisation for care of the handicapped, Haifa Hospital belonging to the Palestinian Red Crescent in Burj Al-Barajneh refugee camp and meeting the medical services manager, Dr. Salah Ahmad, the Arab Centre for Information (JANY), the popular committees from the refugee camps of Mar Ilyas, Burj Al-Barajneh, Nahr Al-Barid, Ain Al-Helweh…

Visiting the refugees for the first time
This was the first time that the delegation had visited Lebanon, and the refugee camps. For four of them, it was also the first time they had visited the Arab World, except for Mr. Ismail Khalaf, a Palestinian from the village of Nawras, Jenin province, with dual Jordanian and Austrian nationality. The first that the delegation had heard of Palestine and the Palestinian issue was through the various media, aligned to the Zionist lobby, to the point where they thought that the Palestinian people were the oppressor, and the Zionist occupier, the victim! Then the situation changed, and they found out the truth of the matter, and decided to make this trip to see firsthand the reality of the situation.

The humanitarian situation of the refugees
Shock was the predominant feeling of the delegation, on seeing the camps, and the utter poverty of the refugees. This was expressed by Mr. Peter, spokesperson for the delegation, saying: “we saw families forced to live in tight spaces, and in uninhabitable houses, living their for 57 years – the age of the Nakba. We saw children suffering from diseases that are no longer known in Europe, because of their life in the camps.

However, the most prominent thing that struck us, was the fierce resistance to suffering, rejection of surrender, and determination to hold fast to the right of return to their homes in Palestine. We were amazed by the ability of the Palestinian people to organise themselves by themselves inside the camps and population centres. They have nurseries, schools, popular committees, civic organisations and NGOs, and organisations for the handicapped, youth and women. There are artistic and traditional theatre groups…”

On the impressions of the delegates on meeting the refugees, Mr. Peter said: “We will never forget the traditional Palestinian food, still present in the houses of the refugees, representing an extension of Palestinian heritage before the Nakba, and which speaks volumes of the right of return to Palestine. We witnessed how the Palestinian child expresses his belonging to his village in Palestine through theatre. For in every festival, every meal, every song, Palestine was present, even speaking of the weather, among refugees, Palestine is still alive in the soul of every Palestinian, and so the preparation for return to Palestine”.

Between imagination and reality
Katerina, born in Austria, had not been able to imagine the meaning of “tin” houses, in which the refugees lived, because in Austria they did not have this type of house, however she knew that it was a harsh life, she says: “I heard a lot about the “tin” houses in which the refugees lived, I would add something from my own imagination to the scene to feel the human suffering. However, seeing the “tin” with my own eyes, and in reality; touching it, feeling the searing heat from the fierce August sun, and entering some of these houses, I asked myself, what is this capacity, and power possessed by the Palestinian people helping them persevere? More importantly, that whenever we spoke to people, they would speak with smiles and huge confidence in victory and return”.

Carries Jordanian and Austrian passports and wants to return
Ismail Khalaf, from the village of Nawras, Jenin province, left Jordan for Austria, 14 years ago. He is married to a Ukrainian lady, and has two children. He has both Jordanian and Austrian nationalities. He says: “whoever believes that the Palestinian forced to migrate to Europe will forget Palestine, and give up his right to return to his home in his land, is deluded. Sooner or later, I shall return to my village of Nawras, and shall never forget it so long as I live. I am bringing up my children and teaching my wife the Palestinian culture, and the right to return to it”.

As for Iris Khalaaf, she says: “after what we saw of the suffering of the refugees and the firm resolve to resist that suffering, our conviction has increased to be ambassadors for the refugees in our country, and Europe generally, and raise the voice of the refugees at international forums, and defend their legitimate rights in front of the world”.

Democracy will not be achieved in Lebanon in the absence of Palestinian rights
With this phrase, the (Palestinian) as he likes to call himself, member of the Lebanese parliament, Dr. Marwan Abu Faris, summarised the situation in Lebanon, when the delegation met him in his office at the Council of Deputies. He considered that real democracy in Lebanon would not be achieved so long as the Lebanese state denied the human rights of the Palestinian people. Moreover, that democracy would not prevail in the world as long as there were injustice to peoples, and confiscation of their legitimate rights, which is what America is doing in Iraq, and Afghanistan.

As for the saying that the Palestinian is a stranger or foreigner, this must be struck of the dictionary of Lebanese culture, because the “relationship of the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples must be on the basis of brotherhood, and common causes of concern to both countries”.

He added that “whoever said that if we give the Palestinian his rights of ownership, to build, establish an institution, to work, or anything else, then this will contribute to his surrendering the right to return to his home in Palestine”. This statement is unacceptable and erroneous. Denying the Palestinian these rights is political, par excellence, to force him one day to surrender, and accept whatever is offered to him” according to the member of parliament.

On the current challenges in light of the developments on the Lebanese arena, parliamentarian Abu Faris pointed out that the “level of challenge and difficulties is now quite high, because the current round of elections has produced few members of parliament willing to speak for and defend the Palestinian issue, in the same way that I do today”.

Resistance in Lebanon is an extension of the resistance in Palestine
In his meeting with the Austrian delegation, the representative of Hamas in Lebanon, Usama Hamdan, expressed that “the Palestinian people are one, indivisible unit, whether in Palestine, Lebanon, other places of refuge, and Diaspora; we categorically reject any division of the Palestinian issue, and its conversion into separate files”.

In terms of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Hamdan emphasised that “the Israeli expulsion from the Gaza Strip, was only achieved by the resistance, and that this resistance in Palestine gives the Palestinian people in the places of refuge, and the Diaspora strength, resolve, and steadfastness in confronting all difficulties, whether humanitarian or political”.

He added: “what you need to explain to the European people and leaders, is that the Palestinian people is resisting so as to regain their rights, and that the Palestinian people are no aggressors, rather they had been attacked, and whoever defends himself cannot be accused of terrorism, rather it is the aggressor who should be so”.

Hamdan encouraged the delegation to visit the Gaza Strip in Palestine to have a close look at the conditions of the Palestinians there.

UNRWA services are insufficient and on UNRWA services to refugees in Lebanon
The director-general of UNRWA in Lebanon, Mr. Richard Cook explained to the delegation that the agency strives hard to provide all humanitarian services; education, health, or emergency aid to the refugees in Lebanon. However, it sometimes falters in face of donor states not delivering the required funds.

As for the situation, particularly in Lebanon, Mr Cook said: “we know that in Lebanon we have a problem in building additional schools, or increasing health services, however there has been an improvement, even though it does not meet all the necessary and urgent needs”.

He added: “starting January 2004, we began to provide full services to the refugees coming from Palestine after 1951, and not registered in UNRWA records, but registered with the Lebanese general security service, with exception of the services of the Sbleen centre, as there is huge demand from Palestinian youth, and priority goes to those registered refugees”.

Mr Cook mentioned that he had worked with UNRWA for ten years, four of these spent in the Gaza Strip, and six in the West Bank. He found that the Palestinian refugee in Lebanon lives in conditions of greater poverty and humanitarian difficulty compared to the Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.

The blood of the martyrs will not go to waste
In his interview with the delegation, the secretary general of Fatah, and the factions of the PLO in Lebanon, Lieutenant-Colonel Sultan Abul Ainain, said that “after 57 years, the age of the Nakba, the blood of the martyrs spilt for the liberation of Palestine will not go to waste, and the dream of the Palestinian of return will come true, and that this Palestinian revolution had arisen fundamentally for a return to homes and possessions in Palestine, and we shall remain firm in holding to this dream, which shall not be lost, and we shall continue to struggle, until we regain all our rights”.

NGOs are no substitute for UNRWA
As for NGOs and their relationship with UNRWA, Qasem Aina, coordinator general of the coalition of associations and NGOs working among the Palestinians, explained to the delegation “what the NGOs are doing, and the humanitarian services they provide to the Palestinian people are no substitute for UNRWA. “We believe that UNRWA is an international witness to the Zionist crime committed on the Palestinian people; uprooted from their land, and possessions by force of terror and arms, and that what the NGOs provide in terms of services, only complement those of UNRWA, which does not cater for children from age 3 to 5, pointing out the absence of UNRWA-run nurseries.

Mr. Aina pointed to the important role played by the Palestinian NGOs in educating the Palestinian child, and reinforcing his adherence to the right of return, especially since the UNRWA curriculum taught in schools lacked the special focus needed to properly educate the Palestinian child, whether history, geography, occupations, customs and traditions of the Palestinian people, with the excuse that the curriculum of UNRWA schools must be as that of Lebanese state schools –alleges the agency.

Therefore “NGOs attempt to fill this vacuum, and so we have folklore, and heritage groups, and special acces programmes, directed at the different age groups. These are not only during the school summer holidays, but during those days when schools are closed. We have many friends supportive of our idea, and our nationalist approach, from Japan, Germany, Malaysia, and other countries”, according to Mr. Aina.

Role of human rights organisations
Given the importance of human rights organisations in these modern times, and because the refugee issue is a humanitarian one in the first degree, the delegation met with the director of the Palestinian Organisation for Human Rights, Ghassan Abdullah, who considered that “there was constant striving from Palestinian institutions working in the area of human rights to coordinate, discuss, and study, whether with international institutions, or decision makers in Lebanon, or Lebanese members of parliament to work towards securing the civil and social rights of the refugees in Lebanon”.

The delegation also met with Sohail Al-Natoor, who considered that “providing the humanitarian rights to the refugees was in no way contrary to holding fast to the Palestinian’s right to return to home and possessions in Palestine. The Palestinian living in Syria is the best example. The number of organisations working in the area of return are close to twenty in Syria, while in Lebanon, there are only six.

Also the example of the Palestinian in Jordan, who had received civil rights, yet still steadfast on returning to his home in Palestine”.

On the role of women in the struggle, Aamina Jibreel, President of the General Union of the Palestinian Woman, mentioned that “the role of the Palestinian woman was no less important than the role of the man in the struggle, Ain El Helweh camp had become known as “Kingdom of the Woman” during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in the absence of the men detained in Ansar prison, and Israeli jails. The Palestinian women successfully bringing up the childen to love the homeland, and hold fast to Palestinian rights. Her role did not end, as she continues to fulfil her role in the struggle”.

On the noble humanitarian spirit of Palestinian doctors, Dr. Salah Ahmad, medical services manager of the Palestinian Red Crescent recounted that “during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when Israeli warplanes were bombing the refugee camps, hospitals, and shelters, my medical team and I, were tending to a wounded Israeli soldier called Gideon Ezra, later handed over to the Israeli occupation forces!”.

To become aware of the efforts to preserve Palestinian heritage, the delegation met with head of the Palestinian committee for Culture and Heritage, Mahmoud Dakoor, who explained the idea of his museum saying: “the museum contains more than 2500 Palestinian artefacts that were in use before 1948, in addition to hundreds of original Palestinian manuscripts, all eloquently expressing the civilisation and history that was the Palestinians’, while the Zionists wish to erase us from human civilisation. The Palestinian attachment to these artefacts to this day is clear evidence of his attachment to village, town, and home in Palestine”.

The importance of Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue among the youth
Due to the importance of this topic, the delegation met with Salah Salah, director of Ajyaal organisation in Dar Al-Hanan in Bekaa, on the first day of the third summer camp on 25 August. The camp this year brings together Lebanese and Palestinian youth, a group of fifty from all sects, and political persuasions. The camp seeks to entrench the concept of relationships amongst the youth, to set the relationship between the two peoples on the right track, which is beneficial to the Palestinian and Arab cause generally, and the refugee issue and right of return particularly.

Salah Salah spoke of the vital role played by the youth in bringing change, and that “this group of youths suffers unemployment after graduation from university or technical college, their ages between 18 and 30 years, coming from the different refugee camps, population centres, and Lebanese villages and towns to spend an entire week in the camp”.

The key, deed, and soil
Hajj Saleh Me’aari – 67 years old – still possesses the key to his house, the ownership deed of his home town of ‘Akbara, Safad province, and has a bottle of soil from his town brought to him by an Australian journalist. He said to the delegation, as he served them coffee, that he “wished to live long enough to return to ‘Akbara, and that if he could not then he had asked his children and grandchildren to bury his bones later on in his town”. He added that he was “positive that if one Palestinian were to remain on Earth then he would work to return, and that the two keys in his possession would be handed down to the generations after him”.

Plan of work in Europe
On the delegation’s plans in making good use of this visit, Mr. Peter mentioned that they now had a huge amount of information, and recorded experiences in image and sound, and that this will require a long time to sort, and then they would be able to put it in service of solidarity and support of the Palestinian cause, whether through seminars, lectures, or exhibitions of children’s drawings and photographs, organising protests and marches in support of the refugees and their cause, as well as campaigns pressuring politicians in Austria, and the European Union. Mr. Peter concluded his statement saying that he knew the way was not easy, and that there were the supporters of Israel, who would place obstacles in their way, however they would not give up their support of the just Palestinian cause, and the oppressed Palestinian people.

Source: Ali Huwaidi- Lebanon
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