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Palestinian Social Fabric Frays in Lebanon’s Camps

Shatila Palestinian Camp, Beirut

The past few years have witnessed an alarming increase in drug distribution in several of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian camps, as dealers reportedly target children and teenagers, becoming increasingly brazen in pushing their narcotics.

This conclusion is based on research and surveys by camp officials, residents and activists, as well as in-depth interviews with mothers of targeted Palestinian children between the ages of 11-15 by this observer and discussions with other Palestinian community caregivers.

Candy is reportedly being increasingly used to create child addicts who are then recruited into gangs of thieves and/or to work as drug deliverers. One 11-year old boy makes drug deliveries around Shatila camp’s narrow fetid allies on his bicycle or sometimes on a small motor scooter according to a mother who lives next to his family.

Mothers in Lebanon’s camps claim that dealers are selling drug-injected candy and chewing gum outside of primary, middle and secondary schools as well as inside schools such as ‘‘Ramallah’’. The example of drug-laced candy shown below was given to this observer by two mothers who watch dealers from their third floor balconies. Another mother who lives across the alley from a claimed drug shop and next door to two dealers, one on either side of her building, confirmed these reports. These mothers and other camp residents identified the chewing gum shown below, as being sold cheap with injected/rubbed-in narcotics, in some camp shops.

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Photo: Franklin Lamb, Shatila camp, Beirut 10/24/2016, the above narcotic-laced chewing gum costs camp kids 250 LL or approximately 25 American cents. Sometimes it is offered to children free to get them addicted according to camp residents.

One eleven-year old boy “Maher”, a student at UNWRA’s ‘‘Ramallah’’ school recited last week to his mother, his aunt and this observer the well-known case of 12-year old M. J. A reputedly sweet and pretty child, M.J. is reportedly a drug addict whose handlers supply her daily with personal drugs, as well as an additional supply (as shown below) to sell to other children even inside ‘‘Ramallah’’ school. M.J. has been caught selling drugs by school staff more than once, suspended for two weeks more than once, and has since transferred to the larger UNWRA ‘‘Haifa’’ preparatory school on the southern edge of Shatila camp, according to her neighbor.

UNWRA and school staffs are acutely aware of the problem of drugs in the camps, as are the camps’ Political and Social Committees, camp Clerics, NGOs, Lebanese government Ministries and UN agencies etc. But to date all have been impotent to effectively challenge it. Last month one drug dealer whom this observer interviewed, had the audacity to address a public meeting following a march in Shatila by angry residents over the brazen drug selling which targets camp kids. He told the angry gathering:

“Yes, I am a drug dealer. I admit it and camp leaders can condemn me. But, excuse me please, what have they ever done for our camp and our families? Our water is salty, we have little electricity two children were electrocuted last month from bad wiring, our air is polluted , no regular garbage collection, sewage running down the streets, no playgrounds for kids, no right for their parents to even work! In Lebanon there are basically only two jobs open to young Palestinian men like me. We can accept a gun and join one of the militias run by politicians or we can sell drugs, also supplied by some politicians who in cooperation with some Lebanese police who provide people who do the job I do with political cover!”

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Above Photos: Wael al Hajj 10/12/2016 .Drugs commonly sold in Palestinian camps in Lebanon

One example of what the young man was talking about occurred in Shatila camp last month, two days before an angry camp march largely ignored by the local media erupted with intense anger. It involved the arrest of 3 camp drug dealers who were being held by the camp’s “security committee’” pending transfer the next morning to the Lebanese police authorities outside the camp. During the night, as the prisoners awaited transfer, a bribe of $ 2,000 was offered to the “camp policeman” assigned to guard them overnight. The guard, well-known in the camp, is a member of Fatah Intifada and like other camp police earned $ 200 per month. (The camps Political and Social Committees as well as camp “police forces” typically include the main 13 Palestinian factions two or more members from Fatah,  the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), Fatah Intifada, As-Sa’iqa, & Hamas among others).

Their guard freed the three prisoners in exchange for the cash, the three disappeared into the dark camp alleys, and as of 11/12/2016 are still at large, reportedly in the well-armed Bekaa village of Britel, where the authorities are generally loathe to tread.

The bribe-taking camp “policeman” also promptly disappeared. This episode understandably angered the camp residents and is one reason why many living in Shatila camp have little confidence in some of the camp leadership. On 11/7/2016, this observer learned that Fatah Intifada located their bribe-taking member, arrested him, expelled him from their organization and handed him over to Lebanese authorities. He currently is awaiting trial.

One much respected Palestinian gentleman who runs an NGO inside Shatila camp explained to me that even if the Lebanese authorities do take a camp drug dealer into custody, one of three things is likely to occur. The drug dealer pays a bribe and is let go, the drug dealer is freed as the result of “political protection” by someone he may work for, or after a few days he may be released by Lebanese police after making an agreement that he will become a camp spy. For the police and for some political groups who maintain low profiles publicly regarding camp affairs, but who monitor camp life through informants, this is a valued service.

Drugs being sold in the camps include, but are not limited to: Hashish, Marijuana, MDMA

Cocaine powder, Crack cocaine, Heroin Tramel pills and increasingly, Captagon – an amphetamine psycho-stimulant, traditionally mixed with caffeine that is popular among partygoers and front-line militia fighters. Captagon’s trade has skyrocketed in the Middle East and its current black market value is estimated by the UN to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. These huge profits potentially mean funding for weapons, while the drug itself helps fighters on days of fighting assignments. The cheap and simple method to produce drug requires only a basic knowledge of chemistry and drug sells for $ 4 to kids in Shatila and as high as $ 20 or more in the East Beirut more affluent areas. One dealer explained that Shatila drug dealers give 75% discounts to camp residents and make it up from buyers from Hamra and East Beirut, who have more money to spend.

Clinicians at the American University of Beirut Hospital advised this observer that they are now finding that ordinary Syrians and Lebanese are increasingly experimenting with Captagon, caused they theorize, by intensifying pressures in their lives. All foreign and domestic militia fighting in the Syrian conflict are said to use Captagon although they all deny it while claiming that only their opponents, the “terrorists” use drugs.

According to Zeinab X, who was born and raised in the same Shatila camp flat her large family still lives in reports that some camp children use the following lingo recommended by drug dealers, to refer to other popular drugs: “Green Drugs, Rivotril –Tramal, cough medicine  (Kana Kemo), Speed-Ecstasy, PCS, White Drugs, and Falawra.”

One of the most commonly abused “Prescription” drugs currently being given to children in Lebanon’s camps is Tramadol, an opiate derivative used for pain relief. The current Shatila and Ein el Helweh camp price for Tramadol is $ 5 for thirty pills. Another is Xanax, also highly addictive for children and is claimed to “alleviate anxiety.” Xanax sells in the camps for $ 7 for eight pills. According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), both drugs produce side effects including nausea, hallucinations and sedation, and as user tolerance increases, child addicts consume heavier doses to achieve the same high.

Due to an absence of Lebanese government presence inside Palestinian camps per the 1969 Cairo Agreement, over the counter drugs that require a doctor’s prescriptions in virtually every country are “legally” sold in camp pharmacies to “patients” without a need for prescriptions.

Another drug-pushing method being employed in Palestinian camps in Lebanon is for “ adult role models” (drug dealers) to bait and encourage children to act “grown up” and “cool”, and to smoke Water Pipes, aka Hookah, Shisha, Narghile, Argueli, hubbly-bubbly, Hub or Goza, despite the fact that that UN World Health Organization (WHO) and other scientific studies have determined that a single “Shisha session” is the same as smoking 200 or more cigarettes in terms of damage to the lungs and other parts of the body. What the drug dealers mix in the pipe tobacco “clump” is Hashish or other drugs achieving the intended addictive effects on Palestinian camp children.

Most of the drugs arrive at the 12 Palestinian camps and 46 Palestinian Gatherings from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, notorious for its lawlessness and cultivation of cannabis crops, as well as being the prime location for manufacturing and distributing various drugs. (The 46 Informal Palestinian Gatherings are groups of families joined by many Palestinians and others from Syria, who cannot fit into the 12 camps and consequently squat “temporarily” near population centers and are not under direct UNWRA control or assistance). Several drug production locals are controlled by local political chieftains and former War Lords, who became Political Lords due to the amnesty for all Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) war crimes as part of the 1989 Taif Agreement. Through due diligence with their political careers some have now become Drug Lords. They operate with little pressure because they are in fact more powerful than the government and this includes the police authorities.

However, Lebanese custom officials, to their great credit, do regularly intercept smuggled drugs, especially Hashish, Cocaine Powder, Heroin and Captagon and make arrests at Lebanese Ports and at the Beirut International Airport. A recent, 10/12/2016 Captagon bust netted 3.5 million pills across Lebanese territory – the third seizure last month. On 11/5/2016 another 20 kg of Hashish was confiscated in Tripoli, waiting for shipment to Jordan and the Gulf. Lebanon continues to be awash in drugs – and arms, the majority of both being largely controlled by militia.  Late this week, Thursday, 11/10/2016 Lebanese army intelligence raided two marijuana factories, one shown below, and seized a ton of ready to sell drugs (hashish)on the outskirts of the northeastern city of Hermel in the Al-Shatah area. According to a source at Lebanon’s Internal Security Force (ISF) they also found seven trucks full of cannabis leaves, 1.5 million Captagon pills, 10 military assault weapons and hunting rifles as well as ammunition and hand grenades, RPG’s, IED’s and a stockpile of high explosives.

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Above photo: Mahar al Hajj ( maherjabar30@gmail.com)

Lebanese security forces routinely attempt to crack down on Hashish/Cannabis farmers in the rather lawless and poverty-stricken Bekaa Valley. But they are also accused of not being serious and only conducting very limited operations, under pressure from Drug Lords, with a TV camera crew in tow to assuage the public that they are serious.

According to mothers and teachers interviewed in several of Lebanon’s camps many Palestinian youngsters are dropping out of high school and have given up on the idea of college after seeing friends or relatives who have obtained diplomas in fields such as engineering and medicine working as seasonal farm laborers, taxi drivers, and construction workers. These jobs pay approximately $ 13 per day which is insufficient to lift them out of poverty. Adolescents and young adults in Lebanon’s camps are under mounting pressures and desperate about their future.

Shatila camp, which was originally built for 3,000 refugees in 1949, is now home for up to 25,000, only 12 % of whom are Palestinians, the others being approximately 40 % Syrians and another estimated 40+ percent being poor Lebanese Shia who moved to Shatila when Tel az- Zattar camp was destroyed at the beginning of this country’s civil war. All are sardine-canned within the same narrow boundaries. Hundreds of young males are turning to selling drugs or seeking jobs as AK-47 carrying, hired gunmen. Community leaders explain that some young men claim that their work gives their lives at least some purpose, and while these are not ideal jobs, they at least can earn something for their families.

Qassem al-Saad, the Director of Nabaa, a child rights NGO present in some camps, claims that “Drug use is partially due to unemployment and also because political parties inside Palestinian camps use drugs ranging from hash to heroin as a recruitment method”. According to Saad: “First of all, the level of unemployment among Palestinians is over 65 percent and political parties are using drugs as a tool to motivate youth to join them. This is one of the problems we face here.” Saad claims that the drug market in Shatila and other camps is fueled by the camp political parties competition with each other for dominance: “Many of the main political factions are involved with the drug trade while paying lip service to the need to get serious about stopping this assault on camp children”, a lady who works for a European NGO in Shatila advised.

Another mother, who is an UNWRA teacher from Burj al-Barajneh camp in South Beirut spoke for many Palestinians at recent meeting of camp women when she said: “Dealers have guns and some even have political protection. So how can we as parents or neighbors or anyone in Lebanon’s Palestinian community confront them and prevent them from selling drugs to our children?” Her question had many refugees in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps grimly nodding at her words, but resolved to rescue the children as they ponder what is required to rid Lebanon’s Palestinian camps of the drug scourge.

More articles by:

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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