Conflict in Lebanon displaces vulnerable Syrian refugee communities


BEIRUT — The simmering conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has upended life in much of southern Lebanon, including for Syrian refugees who lived and worked near the border but are now displaced with few resources and few people willing to take them in.

For months, the Israeli military and Hezbollah fighters have traded strikes, killing civilians and combatants in both Israel and Lebanon, as tensions have flared over the Gaza war. In northern Israel, more than 60,000 people have been displaced, according to the prime minister’s office, many of them living in hotels or rentals across Israel. In southern Lebanon, the fighting has displaced more than 95,000 people, according to the International Organization for Migration, and damaged homes and the farmland where many Syrians worked as day laborers.

The plight of Syrian refugees was already dire in Lebanon. The country has grappled for years with an economic crisis, which has hardened resentment toward the more than 1.5 million Syrians who took refuge in Lebanon after the start of the 2011 Syrian civil war. Now conditions are worsening, as fear of a potential war with Israel looms.

Politicians and media outlets have called for mass deportations of Syrians and tighter rules around the ability of refugees to move within the country, even as they flee dangerous conditions in the south. Vigilantes have attacked Syrians in the streets of Beirut and other cities, and local authorities have imposed rental restrictions, curfews and other strict legal requirements on Syrians residing in their jurisdictions, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

A report by Human Rights Watch in April found that Lebanese authorities had “arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forcibly returned Syrians to Syria in recent months, including opposition activists and army defectors.”

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“They told us: ‘No Syrians are welcome here,’” said a Syrian mother of three who was displaced from the border area and tried to settle her family in the city of Tyre, about 12 miles north of where the hostilities are taking place.

The woman, who spoke in late April on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said she and her family were forced to set up camp in a lemon grove in the outskirts of Tyre, using nylon sheets provided by the landowner as shelter.

“I borrow money to eat,” she said. Her husband tried to go back to work at a vegetable farm near the border but decided it was too dangerous as the conflict ramped up.

Israel and Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political party and militant group, have clashed since the 1980s, when the Israeli military occupied southern Lebanon. The two fought a blistering war in 2006, after which the border area remained relatively calm until last fall.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, began firing rockets and artillery at Israel on Oct. 8, one day after Hamas gunmen stormed southern Israeli communities and killed about 1,200 people. Since then, Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged near-daily cross-border fire, with the scope and intensity of the strikes steadily increasing in recent weeks.

More than 400 people have been killed in Lebanon as a result of the fighting, including more than 300 Hezbollah fighters and at least 92 civilians and noncombatants, according to a Washington Post tally. Nine civilians and 19 soldiers have been killed in northern Israel in the same period, according to the Israeli military and Israel’s National Insurance Institute.

About 1,680 hectares (4,151 acres) of agricultural land in Lebanon has been damaged by the fighting, the Agriculture Ministry said, including by white phosphorus shells fired by the Israel Defense Forces.

In a statement, the IDF said that it uses white phosphorus shells to create smokescreens, not for targeting or causing fires. Israeli forces possess safer alternatives, however, such as M150 artillery rounds, which produce screening smoke without the use of white phosphorus.

Seventy-two percent of farmers in southern Lebanon — many of whom grow wheat, tobacco, figs and olives — have also reported a loss of income, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

But the government’s response to the displacement crisis has focused on “handling the needs of the Lebanese displaced only,” said Christina Abou Rouphaël, a researcher at Public Works, a local think tank.

Nasser Yassin, Lebanon’s environment minister, is responsible for coordinating the response with international aid groups. He said that as part of the response plan, U.N. agencies are responsible for providing assistance to Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Anti-refugee sentiment in Lebanon abounds. Earlier this year, a popular television channel and the Beirut Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture sponsored a campaign of billboards and TV ads that urged Lebanese to “undo the damage” of hosting a Syrian refugee population “before it’s too late.”

In March, a U.N. Security Council report said that last year 13,772 Syrians were either deported from Lebanon or “pushed back at the border.”

Shelters for the displaced, run by local municipalities, are hosting Lebanese citizens, while Syrian refugees have reported being harassed and evicted from the facilities.

Many refugees fleeing the hostilities are relying on support networks and living with friends or relatives, or in rental units, according to UNHCR. But rental fees have soared in the south, and some landlords are reluctant to take on Syrian tenants.

The displaced Syrian mother eventually left the lemon grove and found spots at a local school that had been converted into a shelter. But even there, her family felt unsafe, she said, adding that vigilantes attacked their room and cursed her children.

“I’m not allowed to take my kids out to play,” she said. “It is like living in a prison, but at least in a prison you get to have a walk to breathe some fresh air.”

She was not sure whether the family would be able to return to the farm in the south, even if the fighting stopped.

“I am worried about how the situation has changed,” she said. “As Syrians, are we allowed to go back?”

Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.



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