The end of August is almost upon us and children around the world are getting ready to go back to school. It can be an exciting and demanding time. Parents are busy organising school runs as well as providing new uniforms and study supplies. Millions of young people will be sad to see the back of the summer holidays but will also be excited about being reunited with their schoolmates.
This is the experience of those who live in stable, prosperous countries. The Palestinian children of the Ain Al Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon are not so lucky. Already growing up as refugees from their homeland, all eight UN-run schools in their overcrowded and poverty-stricken camp have been occupied by gunmen locked in an internecine conflict with rival Palestinian factions.
According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), this seizure by the extremist fighters has jeopardised the start of the academic year for nearly 6,000 children. The turmoil being inflicted upon these vulnerable refugees is as dangerous as it is saddening. Growing up in the shadow of the gunman condemns another generation to the threat of violence and radicalisation. Sabotaging children’s education deals another blow to those who already face significant challenges.
Sadly, clashes are not uncommon in Ain Al Hilweh, which holds more than 50,000 registered refugees. The first UNRWA school was taken over by gunmen during a battle in July for control of the camp between armed factions and the powerful Fatah party to which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas belongs. Thirteen people were killed in a week of fighting and dozens were injured. About 2,000 refugees were displaced and forced to seek shelter in schools and mosques. Although a tentative ceasefire has held, the insurgents have so far refused to leave occupied UNRWA property.
A senior member of Fatah told The National that a meeting of the camp’s political leadership to come up with a way out of the current impasse was to be held yesterday. Although any moves to end the conflict peacefully are to be welcomed, the problem goes much deeper than these recent clashes.
Ideally, the Ain Al Hilweh camp should not exist. The fact that several generations of Palestinians have grown up as refugees who live a marginalised existence in Lebanon is a visible reminder of the displacement that the Palestinians suffered and continue to suffer due to the occupation of their homeland. Far from being accepted and supported in their displacement, many Palestinian refugees were left to fend for themselves, leading to the development of self-governing camps that effectively act as a state within a state. The camps and UN support that were meant to be temporary fixes have become permanent.
This presents a considerable challenge to a Lebanese state that is already on the ropes. The security forces’ reluctance to enter Palestinian camps has left them vulnerable to infiltration by criminals and smaller networks of Islamist militants.
The situation is too dangerous to be allowed to simply play out. Ain Al Hilweh is also home to some of the 30,000 Palestinians displaced from the Nahr Al Bared camp in 2007 during 15 weeks of fighting between the Lebanese army and Islamist extremists. Better co-operation between the camp’s leadership, the UN and the Lebanese authorities is one way to defuse the current situation. Leaving Ain Al Hilweh’s schools as hostages to fortune cannot be an option.