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Lebanon’s Palestinians set market value

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KAI RYSSDAL: Eight Palestinians were killed by Israeli raids in the Gaza Strip today. The airstrikes were the latest in back-and-forth attacks that’ve been happening all week. Over the years Palestinians who can have left Gaza and the West Bank. An estimated 300,000 of them have found their way to Lebanon. Palestinians make up about 10 percent of the population there. But they still have trouble finding jobs and buying property. So they’re left to find economic advantages where they can. Don Duncan reports from the Nahr al Bared refugee camp.


DON DUNCAN: When you hear the word “camp,” you may think of tents. And that’s how it all started 60 years ago. That’s when Israel was created, sending thousands of Palestinians to Lebanon where they pitched their tents and waited to return. Over the years, the tents morphed into a concrete ghetto of busy streets, and a vibrant marketplace was born.

Hanin Rafae [translator]: That’s where I would go to shop every week. I used to buy clothes for the children and things for the house. Food, house supplies, sometimes utensils.

For 60-year-old Hanin Rafae, the camp near her town was a kind of half-price destination. Bread inside the camp cost 60 cents, outside it cost a dollar. Cigarettes? $4 versus $7 everywhere else.

But the shelling last May changed that. A conflict between the army and Islamic militants reduced the camp to rubble, scattering the residents and the market.

Camp Nahr al Bared was a key commercial hub for the northern region of Lebanon. The camp generated about $100 million in sales annually, making life cheaper for up to a quarter of a million people in the area.

Ismael KHASSAN: Palestinians ask for very, very little profits.

That’s Ismael Khassan, a local architect and urban planner.

KHASSAN: They transform a room of their house into a shop so they don’t have to pay money to create a shop. They work themselves — the father, the son, the daughter — so they don’t have to pay money for people.

But there was another reason the camp was an economic hub: the black market. There was no sales tax or import duty. Most of the products were smuggled from nearby Syria. This drove down the cost of services across the north. Cheap supplies from the camp fueled construction, health care and the clothing industry.

So when the bombs fell on the camp and its black market, prices in neighboring towns kept rising long after the dust settled.

NADIM TALAWI [translator]: The cost of living for people here has risen anywhere from 60 percent to 70 percent.

Nadim Talawi is mayor of Mohamra, a Lebanese town adjacent to Nahr al Bared. He says families are going into debt. And despite the dislike many Lebanese feel toward Palestinians, they want them back. More specifically, they want the cheaper cost of living the Palestinian merchants ensured.

TALAWI [translator]: People feel the economic situation will improve once the Palestinians return — and we pray for their return.

And it looks like their prayers may be answered. This month, the United Nations began providing temporary housing to Palestinians who want to start over once again.

In Lebanon, I’m Don Duncan for Marketplace.

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