A Challenge for Lebanon’s Sovereignty: The Implications of Palestinian Refugees’ Militarization

Miguel Mendelek, Research Affiliate, Institute for Migration Studies


Since 1948, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have been in a state of temporality and limbo. Following their exile from Palestine with the establishment of the State of Israel, most refugees have assembled in jumbled camps and settlements, often in the misery belts of major cities. While they remain militarily immobilized in most countries like Jordan and Syria, their displaced footing in Lebanon has been irregularly expanding since 1969, when the Cairo Agreement formally recognized Palestinians’ right “to join the armed struggle of the Palestinian revolution.” This agreement—a jeopardy to the Lebanese state’s sovereignty and more specifically, the control over its territories—heightened competition among Palestinians to militarize and engage in armed struggles. Subsequently, a multiplicity of armed groups have sprouted over the years, engaging in infighting over dominance and control, primarily in Lebanon’s largest camps, like Ain al-Helwe. Even more, these armed groups have unhesitatingly exploited Lebanese territory to launch their solo jihadist confrontations against Israel, in turn evoking adverse security repercussions that outstrip Lebanon’s power to withstand. To this day, the aggregation of these practices continues to undermine the Lebanese state’s sovereignty and its ability to maintain territorial integrity.

Overview of the Socio-Political Status of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

In the wake of the Nakba, around 100,000 refugees were first displaced to Lebanon. Today, while 489,292 persons are registered with UNRWA, unofficial statistics often report a varyingly much greater number. Most of these refugees are concentrated in 12 recognized camps and are alienated from the state which imposes stringent restrictions on their subsistence (e.g., the rejection of permanent settlement and associated citizenship rights). While these camps were first established as “temporary,” they have transformed into lasting spaces marked by overpopulation, poor or depleted infrastructure, and limited access to basic resources. For more than 70 years now, UNRWA has been the nearly exclusive organization responding to refugees’ needs, with the role of successive Lebanese governments being limited to facilitating its operation. Consequently, refugees have continuously turned to UNRWA, and occasionally other smaller organizations, as their principal source of livelihood services.

However, as of the Hamas-Israel conflict on October 7, 2023, political pressure on organizations, specifically UNRWA, supporting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and neighboring countries, like Lebanon, has reached unprecedented levels. In a very daring and exceptional move, major donors, including the US, Germany, and the European Union, have declared the suspension of their funds to UNRWA. This decision came shortly after 12 of its employees were accused of having partaken in the October 7 attacks and thousands of others were suspected of holding close ties with Hamas. If UNRWA were indeed to abort most of its operations because of a shortage in funding, and given that the Lebanese government is both unwilling and incapable of providing humanitarian assistance, Palestinians relying on its services will become at risk of complete abandonment. Much like a collective punishment for Hamas’ attacks, bringing UNRWA to its keens will cut off essential resources, including health, education, and cash services for most, if not all refugees.

These rampant consequences, as numerous as they may be, will nevertheless fall short in the face of the emergence of new breeding grounds for radicalization, notwithstanding that several camps already serve as a haven for armed groups. Owing to an expected increase in feelings of acute marginalization, indignity, and resentment due to unattended poverty, many of the refugees might become even more susceptible to exploitation by radicals, who will emerge as the sole entities offering a sense of empowerment and belonging. So, what does the current landscape of refugees’ militarization look like, and what opportunities do armed groups have in it?

Opportunities for Militarization

Often united by the “Palestinian Question” and their strictly unprivileged status, refugees have created their own sociopolitical and cultural base in detachment from an already frail Lebanese national identity. Their identification of the “self” and the “other” is highly tied to the aspirations of the struggle to return to their homeland, and this has become a catalyst for armed groups to rise, wrest the state’s authority, secure enclaves, and amass popular support. Through militarization, they have heightened their sense of heroic resistance. Yet, although united by the same struggle, multiple rivaling cells have emerged with divergent political agendas, often in direct response to the changing tides of conflict and politics in Lebanon and beyond. A sheer number of armed groups (e.g., Hamas, Fateh, and other hardliners), reinvented in the wake of geopolitical and strategic shifts, have eagerly vied for control. Through multiple alternative authorities, they took advantage of their self-regulated activities to cultivate political and military ties with local, regional, and sometimes international forces in the interest of ensuring strategic viability. Their rise has been greatly made possible by the Lebanese government’s permissive stance vis-a-vis a camp environment conducive to their upbringing and expansion. The foundation for their birth was laid in 1969.

That year, the Cairo agreement awarded the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, particularly the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a generous margin to escape direct state control. By allowing Palestinians to militarize from within the camps, the agreement conflicted with the relationship between the Lebanese and Palestinian authorities. In consequence of this new arrangement, mostly radical militant Islamic movements emerged to espouse the message of struggle and resistance, while combining a religious and political narrative that best appeals to the grievances of their people. Although today the agreement is not in force, its ethos continues to serve as a precedent that greatly determines the dynamics of rule and militarization within tinderbox camps.

Contrasting Palestinian Refugees’ Militarization and Lebanese Sovereignty

For a long time now, Palestinian refugee camps have been strictly barred to Lebanese authorities. They are crucial arenas in which Lebanese state sovereignty has been asserted, contested, contaminated, shared, and lost.” Every armed group, whose behavior is an encroachment on the state’s ability to monopolize power and control, contributed to the abeyance of the rule of law in every way possible. The camps have accordingly introduced an odd arrangement of “hybrid sovereignty” which further complicates the already delicate governance structures in Lebanon. Several events, beginning with armed groups’ participation in the 1975 civil war, continuing with incessant intra-camp battles among their ranks, savage skirmishes with the Lebanese army (e.g., the 2007 Nahr al-Bared clashes), and very occasional attacks on Israeli settlements from the southern borders of Lebanon (e.g., the most recent rocket launchings on Israel following the October 7 attack), collectively offer ample evidence of how these armed groups have become focal points of violence that venture way beyond the boundaries of legitimate authority structures. In “these spaces of exception in which the rule of law is suspended,” armed groups have unshyly established quasi-sovereign authorities through their leadership, military, and service structures. Not only did they import the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to Lebanon but they also launched their inhouse wars for the establishment of a parallel order of governance.


In Lebanon, the Palestinian refugees’ striving for self-determination has become a microcosm for the struggle for existence and the search for an identity in the Middle East. While disarming armed groups in camps might represent the most direct panacea for the sovereignty of Lebanon, the situation of refugees is essentially rooted in displacement, statelessness, historical injustices, and a quest for a homeland. Unfortunately, however, the refugees have unwittingly injected an inorganic narrative of conflict and tension into Lebanon’s already complex and delicate design, thus alienating a substantial proportion of the population from their cause. Owing to this, Palestinians’ relationship with Lebanon has straddled the line of “brotherhood” and “fratricide.” Today, like every day, the displaced existence of refugees, particularly their armed presence, requires immediate action to reclaim a shard of Lebanon’s lost sovereignty.