Who killed Mohammed Wahbah?

A Palestinian toddler, Mohammed Wahbah, has become the symbol of the prolonged suffering of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Mohammed, aged 3, died on December 18 after being denied critical surgery at a Lebanese hospital.

The boy’s mother tried in vain to save her child’s life. But, according to a report detailing her ordeal, every hospital they approached refused to provide Mohammed with treatment based on a different pretense.

“If he had been admitted to an intensive care unit on the first day, and received the care he needed, he would have still been alive in my lap,” Mohammed’s mother said.

Hariri and Karantina hospitals would not even look at the boy who suffered from a chronic neurological condition known as hydrocephalus. Hammoud hospital, where Mohammed had previously stayed, based his treatment on the condition that his family settle their bill.

With all roads to saving the boy’s life closed, his desperate family simply watched him die. The story of Mohammed Wahbah’s death gained some unusual traction thanks to social media which offered a moment of fleeting outrage before things returned to normal. No amount of Facebook attention would bring Mohammed back to life.

However, Mohammed’s life and untimely death are only a facet in a protracted story of Palestinian refugees that began 70 years ago. Israel’s culpability in that story is obvious, and often highlighted by Palestinians, Lebanese and Arabs, but what is rarely discussed is the Lebanese government’s responsibility in the ongoing hardship of Palestinian refugees.

It may come as a surprise to many that in November 2016, the Lebanese government began constructing a wall around the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country.

Ignoring the misery of Palestinian refugees of Lebanon is now coming at a heavy price. Prolonging their plight till ‘the final status negotiations’ is leading to a two-fold crisis

Ramzy Baroud

Apartheid wall

The wall around Ein el-Hilweh is not entirely different from the Apartheid wall that Israel is actively building around Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, with its watchtowers, massive gates and well-controlled passage points.

Once upon a time in Lebanon, the Palestinian national movement, championing the “Right of Return” for Palestinian refugees, had acquired so much momentum that it inspired generations of Palestinians in refugee camps throughout the Middle East region.

Things must have changed so much since then that the current generation of refugees is literally caged behind walls, and figuratively trapped in a systematic and relentless campaign aimed at pushing it to the point of seeking escape elsewhere.

While the early wave of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon trace their origins to the Nakba, the Catastrophic Zionist destruction of the Palestinian homeland, recent decades have worsened an already terrible situation.

As early as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and certainly since the Oslo Accords in 1993, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been relegated to the bottom of the region’s political priorities.

The ‘82 war saw the purposeful destruction of Palestinian political influence in Lebanon and the ‘93 agreement designated what should have been a pressing issue of refugees to be discussed in the ‘final status negotiations’, but which never actualized.

The consequences of these two events have been dire, particularly to the refugees of Lebanon scattered in 12 refugee camps and many other ‘gatherings’ throughout the country.

Little sympathy

Considering the little sympathy that Palestinian refugees enjoy within the Lebanese government, Lebanon has become the most opportune place for the ongoing plot against their Right of Return, which has been at the center of the Palestinian fight for justice for seven decades.

Particularly worrisome is that there is little by way of counter-efforts made by Palestinians and Arabs to at least raise awareness of the massive change in perception regarding the plight of the refugees and their ‘inalienable right’ to return to their Palestinian homeland, as confirmed repeatedly by international law, starting with UN Resolution 194 in 1948.

Many news reports have been pointing to an elaborate American plot to downgrade the status of refugees, to argue against UN figures indicating their actual numbers and to choke off UNRWA, the UN organization responsible for refugees’ welfare, from desperately needed funds.

Israel and the US understand that without refugees collectively demanding their rights, the issue of the Right of Return could move from being an urgent, tangible demand to being a sentimental one which could be nearly impossible to achieve.

I spoke to Samaa Abu Sharar, a Palestinian activist in Lebanon and the director of the Majed Abu Sharar Media Foundation. She narrated that the nature of the conversation among refugees has changed in recent years.

In the past, “almost everybody, from young to old, spoke about their wish to return to Palestine one day; at present, the majority, particularly the youth, only express one wish: to leave for any other country that would receive them.”

Marginalized and mistreated

It is common knowledge that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are marginalized and mistreated, especially when compared to other refugee populations in the Middle East. They are denied most basic human rights enjoyed by Lebanese or foreign groups, or even rights granted to refugees under international conventions. This includes the right to work, as they are denied access to 72 different professions.

With the Syrian war, the situation has worsened. Nearly 2 million refugees from Syria flooded Lebanon, many of whom sought shelter in already crowded refugee camps that lacked the most basic services.

Things worsened as discrimination against Palestinian refugees in Lebanon was always the norm. Samir, an unemployed Palestinian refugee explained the refugees’ dilemma to Public Radio International last month.

“When we apply (for work), the second we are known to be Palestinians, they act as if they don’t need anyone anymore. And if we are accepted, we work for less income,” he said.

“I know a person that has a PhD in chemical engineering from Baghdad who works as a janitor. I also know a lawyer who works illegally as a taxi driver and if he is caught, then he will be fined.” Then, there is the demographic war which has, for years, subjected Palestinian refugees to increased social isolation and political marginalization.

A suspiciously-timed census – the first of its kind – by the Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics, conducted jointly with the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics last December, resolved that the number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon stands at only 175,000.

The survey was conducted at a time when the US Administration has been keen to lower the number of Palestinian refugees, in anticipation of any future agreement between the PA and Israel.

Influx of refugees

According to UNRWA statistics, there are more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees who are registered with the UN. There is no denying that there is an influx of Palestinian refugees wanting to leave Lebanon. Some have done so successfully, only to find themselves contending with the misery of yet a new refugee status in Europe.

Clearly there are those who are keen to rid Lebanon of its Palestinian population. “There is more than one organized network that facilitates the immigration of Palestinians at prices that have recently gone down, to make it more accessible to a larger number of people,” Abu Sharar told me.

Ignoring the misery of Palestinian refugees of Lebanon is now coming at a heavy price. Prolonging their plight till ‘the final status negotiations’ is now leading to a two-fold crisis: the increased suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and the systematic destruction of one of the main pillars of the Palestinian refugees’ ‘Right of Return.’

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies.

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