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Lebanon builds wall around refugee camp

Wesley Dockery
November 22, 2016

Lebanon has decided to build a wall around the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp. Authorities have claimed the wall is a security measure, while detractors have argued it’s a barrier that isolates Palestinians

Libanon Mauerbau beim Flüchtlingscamp
Image: Getty Images/AFP

Lebanon's military announced the construction of the wall on Monday and that it will take approximately 15 months to complete. The refugee camp, named Ain al-Helweh, is located in southern Lebanon near the city of Sidon.

"The construction of the wall began some time ago and the aim is to stop the infiltration of terrorists inside Ain al-Helweh from nearby orchards," said a source from Lebanon's military to the AFP news agency.

Lebanese armed forces are not authorized to enter the camp and the government claims fugitives are residing within it. Loyalists belonging to various political factions live in the camp - recently there was fighting between Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement and the Jund al-Sham Islamist group. Palestinians leaving the camp have to be inspected by Lebanese authorities.

The camp's population in the early 2000's was hovering around 70,000 residents. This changed when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, causing the population to swell to 120,000 people. The war displaced many of the Palestinian refugees living in Syria, forcing them to move to the camps like al-Helweh in Lebanon.

Controversy on social media

The move brought out condemnation in much of the Arab-speaking world, particularly on social media. Many are calling it the "wall of shame."

"For the record, the same Lebanon that can't sort out its trash has the capability to build a wall of shame around the Palestinian Ain al-Helweh camp," said Twitter user Sherazade Bareda, with pictures of the wall being constructed.  She's referring to when Lebanon closed one of its landfills last year in the city of Naameh, which then resulted in an eight-month crisis where trash piled up in the capital, Beirut. The crisis subsided in March 2016, when crews finally began to pick up the trash.

"The Lebanese authorities are building an apartheid wall surrounding the Ain al-Helweh camp in Sidon," tweeted an account called Yarmouk News. Commentators on social media have used the term apartheid to describe the wall, claiming that it isolates and separates the Palestinians in the camp from the rest of Lebanese society.

After the war of Arab-Israeli war of 1948, many displaced Palestinians were forced to flee to Lebanon. The majority of these Palestinians remain stateless refugees even today. The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) provides food, medicine, education and other necessities to the Palestinian population in Lebanon. The Lebanese government bars Palestinians from taking white-collar jobs such as in the law and engineering fields. Palestinian refugees in Jordan, on the other hand, are eligible for Jordanian citizenship.

Syrien Flüchtlinge
Palestinian refugee children from Syria play with a tire in the Ain al-Helweh campImage: Reuters

Lebanese security concerns

Lebanon's government has been wary of its Palestinian population since its 15-year-long civil war between 1975 and 1990. The multisectarian country is composed of Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as other religious groups. The civil war saw these factions pitted against each other.

Ain al-Helweh currently faces some of the biggest issues in the eyes of Lebanese authorities. Assassinations are frequent as Fatah and Islamist groups like Jund al-Sham clash. In April, a car bomb went off in the camp. There's also been claims that groups such as al-Qaeda and the so-called "Islamic State" are recruiting within the confines of the camp.

Lebanon also faces a worsening security situation as the civil war in neighboring Syria rages. Authorities hope the wall around the camp will be another precaution to keep the country stable in an unsecure region.