Palestinians in Beirut pass down memories of Palestine so the new generation never forget

‘The children need to learn why the Palestinians are here in Lebanon’

A small troupe of Palestinian boys and girls kick their feet in unison before turning and clapping their hands to the music’s beat. The rhythmic steps of Dabkeh are counted out by their instructor Mohammad Abdel Latif Al-Hajj, who learned the traditional Palestinian folk dance from his late father while growing up in Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut. “Dabkeh reminds these children that Palestine is still alive,” says Al-Hajj.

The dance rehearsal takes place in a Palestinian community centre improbably squeezed between Shatila’s narrow alleyways. Run by the NGO Beit Atfal Assomoud (The House of Resilient Children), the centre provides social services and a kindergarten. One classroom displays a poster with the date in 1917 when the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour promised support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, which has become a day of protest for Palestinians.

In another room a girl colours Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, while a younger boy draws a large key. Old Ottoman keys are a common Palestinian symbol for the right of return for 700,000 Palestinians and their descendants who were displaced from their homes in 1948 when the state of Israel was formed. “The children need to learn why the Palestinians are here in Lebanon,” says Ashwak Ashabbi, one of the centre’s social workers.

An estimated 210,000 Palestinian refugees live in a network of ghettoised camps in Lebanon run by the UN agency Unrwa. Security within the impoverished camps is provided by Palestinian factions and committees rather than Lebanese security forces. The secular-leaning Fatah party has traditionally dominated camp governance but support for its Islamist rival Hamas has grown since October 7th when the group launched a surprise attack in southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, according to Israel, and taking more than 200 hostages.


Fresh posters featuring Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh hang on display in Shatila, alongside the faded yellow flags of Fatah and faces of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his unpopular successor Mahmoud Abbas. Since Unrwa’s funding was cut after Israel alleged that some of its staff were involved in the October 7th attack (a claim which the EU humanitarian chief, Janez Lenarcic, says is not backed up by evidence), cash-strapped Fatah has had diminishing influence over limited jobs and resources in the camps.

Meanwhile, Hamas offers fighters in Lebanon a small monthly salary and a quixotic promise of military victory over Israeli forces, which have so far killed more than 33,000 Palestinians during their latest campaign in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. “Fatah has been very quiet in the camp since the war began,” says Muhammad Al-Khatib (76). “I’m not a member of either party or a believer, but Hamas are fighting for their freedom – how can we speak out against them?”

Born in Al-Khalisa in the dying gasps of British Mandate Palestine, Al-Khatib was a baby when his family fled to Lebanon in 1948. He says his family home is still standing but is now inhabited by an Israeli family. After qualifying as a doctor in Spain, Al-Khatib worked for Unrwa in Shatila (Palestinians are not allowed to work in Lebanese hospitals) – “I think I picked medicine by mistake, as my mind always goes to literature.”

Now retired, Al-Khatib runs the Museum of Memories in Shatila where in one modest room he has gathered items that Palestinians carried with them as they fled from Palestine to Lebanon in 1948. The generator cuts sporadically as he describes the different artefacts – coffee grinders, musical instruments, saws – and shows photographs of Palestinian life before 1948. “They want to think nothing existed there before Israel,” he says.

Even before the October 7th attack, a Palestinian right of return was widely viewed in Israel as an existential threat to the state’s Jewish character and majority. Since then Israeli government has repeated its calls for Unrwa to stop granting new generations of Palestinians refugee status and for host countries instead to fully integrate them with full citizenship. Underpinned by a fragile sectarian power sharing arrangement, Lebanon’s political system has already excluded Palestinian refugees from the majority of professions in Lebanon and even owning property. Outside of marriage and old-fashioned corruption, Palestinians in Lebanon know securing Lebanese citizenship is unlikely.

In the event of a future political resolution to the decades-long conflict, the Israeli government may allow a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. A larger number could have the option to return to whatever shrinking territory remains for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. But, in his room of memories beside a table with old keys to homes that Palestinian families left behind, 76-year-old Al-Khatib says he only wants to go home to Al-Khalisa.

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