Of the 12 official Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Ain El-Hilweh (‘Ayn Al-Hilwe) is the largest in both area and population and is known among its 33,000 or so inhabitants as the “Capital of the Diaspora”. This title is fitting considering the unmatched degree of political and territorial autonomy the Palestinians enjoy, arguably more than in any other Arab country.
It is also one of the most contested refugee camps in the country, containing a host of different political factions, many of which have their own armed militia. Navigating through this complex political landscape, Erling Lorentzen Sogge’s The Palestinian National Movement in Lebanon: A Political History of the ‘Ayn Al-Hilwe Camp provides an ethnographic study on the post-Oslo camp politics of Ain Al-Hilweh.
The book seeks to further our understanding of the “paradoxical duality of dispossession and rightlessness, on the one hand, and political agency, on the other”. Sogge through his research and fieldwork, which includes interviews with relevant political and militia members and representatives, expands on the pre-existing notion of the refugee camps, and Ain Al-Hilweh in particular as “Palestinian states in exile”.
This idea bolsters the argument that the revolutionary national movement in exile is still very much alive, in spite of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which gave rise to the mainstream Palestinian Authority (PA) and “was supposed to mark the end of an era for the Palestinian national movement’s existence in exile”.
The reader is provided with an informative socio-political history of the camp, which is located near the southern port city of Sidon, and where we learn how despite the vast majority having never seen the Palestinian homeland, many of the residents of the camp reproduced the social structures of the villages and cities they were forced to leave behind. Some of these now extinct villages, live on in name at the camps, showing the strong attachment and sense of identity of the Palestinian diaspora.
Sogge makes the compelling case that in many respects Ain Al-Hilweh mirrors the rife neopatrimonialism – that is to say the allocation of “state” resources for personal benefit and to secure the loyalty of clients in the general population – in the occupied West Bank. The obvious difference being that there is no equivalent to the PA in the camp, and therefore no one organisation is in control of it, in spite of the Fatah movement’s dominance (which we read is itself a deeply fractured party).
However, as the author concedes, this has not prevented various factions, secular and Islamist in trying to fulfil this role, especially with external backing. It is because of the involvement and interference of regional players in the camp, that Ain Al-Hilweh should in fact be perceived as an important geopolitical microcosm rather than a mere impoverished refugee camp on the margins of Lebanese society.
“In exile, members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were able to acquire funding, support and military know-how after coming into contact with the Syrian government and the Iranian-backed Hizballah, which significantly enabled them to strengthen their organizations in the homeland,” Sogge writes.
A significant portion of the book is focussed on the formation and function of the Joint Palestinian Security Force (JPSF), the camp’s de-facto military police. While it was an attempt for the various militias to form a somewhat unified front in bringing about a sense of law and order in the camp, Sogge presents the argument that it was also “party of a larger national project of safeguarding Palestinian autonomy”. Nevertheless, the initiative has routinely faced set-backs over the inevitable clash of interests and lack of experience in policing. Despite being framed as a symbol of Palestinian unity and a “turning point in the relationship between the Palestinians and the Lebanese state”, the JPSF also struggled to strike a balance between maintaining order in the camp and operating under Lebanon’s jurisdiction.
As with any national liberation movement, a vital aspect for its future survival is youth participation. In this regard, the author attempts to shed light on the prevalence of youth activism in the camp who have sought to carve out their own spaces, especially through the use of social media, challenging the hegemony of the older generation’s hold on the national movement.
While The Palestinian National Movement in Lebanon was a worthwhile read, it was not necessarily an engaging one, and at times was a challenge in keeping up with the myriad of competing factions, splinter groups and their acronyms. Yet in a way this perhaps is illustrative of the labyrinth - literal and figurative - that is the Ain Al-Hilweh refugee camp. Sogge summarises the Palestinian national movement in Lebanon aptly when he describes it as one consisting of “guerrilla groups without a war to fight and governing bodies without a state to govern, where every leader governs their own neighborhood.”