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Palestinians in Lebanon's Shatila camp share their feelings about the war in Gaza

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Forty years ago, a massacre took place in Lebanon's Shatila camp when local militias allied with Israel killed hundreds of people. The U.N. called it an act of genocide. While much has changed in the camp since 1982, Palestinians still hold the memory. And with the war in Gaza, many are now convinced that Hamas will restore their homeland. NPR's Jane Arraf takes us there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBIKE HORN BEEPING)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The narrow streets of the Shatila refugee camp are crammed with market stalls and motorbikes. Nests of snarled electrical wires hang between hurriedly built concrete homes. The camp is now home to not just Palestinian refugees, but Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Bangladeshis and others, most with nowhere else to go. But the heart of this camp is Palestinian. The scars of this community go back to the 1948 war, during Israel's creation, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out and weren't allowed back, and to 1982, with the massacre by Israeli-allied Lebanese forces. Scars reopened for many with the war in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

ARRAF: Down a tiny alleyway, Dr. Mohammad Khatib unlocks a door to the past.

MOHAMMAD KHATIB: It's museum of memories - memories museum.

ARRAF: It's completely dark. There are no windows, and the electricity is out. Khatib, who's 76 years old, lights an antique kerosene lamp.

KHATIB: This is the lamp of my grandmother, so we return back 100 years back.

ARRAF: Khatib worked in a United Nations hospital here for years. He was a few months old in 1948, when everyone in his village fled to Lebanon for what they thought would be a few weeks. Seventy-five years later, Khatib says his family home in northern Israel still stands, taken over by a Jewish Israeli family. He takes the lamp over to two wooden models, detailed down to the black-and-white checker pattern on the floor.

KHATIB: These two houses were done by a man when he was 82 years old. He said, this is for one grandfather, and this is for the other grandfather. And he was remembering how it is - the house built - the - is built.

ARRAF: When your home is lost, everyday things become important pieces of heritage.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: A lot of this is things people would have used every day in their villages - farm implements and kitchenware, rolling pins - old wooden rolling pins. There are coffee pots. I'm looking at a coffee pot with a bird on top.

And then, in a roughly made wooden and glass case, there's a rusty axe.

KHATIB: And this is the axe - was used in the 1982 - in the massacre. They were cutting arms - everything of the body.

ARRAF: In 1982, Lebanese Christian militias allied with Israel entered Sabra and Shatila, shooting, slashing and stabbing hundreds of civilians after Israeli forces sealed off the camp. An Israeli commission later found Israel indirectly responsible for the massacre. Israel had invaded Lebanon earlier that year in what it called retaliation for Palestine Liberation Organization attacks. A week after, Lebanon expelled the PLO, leaving the camps unprotected. The killing began. Khatib says once most Palestinians believed they could regain their homeland and live in peace with Israel, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows not to allow a Palestinian state.

KHATIB: So what do you think when a Palestinian hear that, when the Palestinians see the massacres that are now happening in Gaza.

ARRAF: He says there's renewed hope of a Palestinian state, but not through peace talks - through force. It's a sentiment we hear throughout the camp. While the massacre has faded into memory, the images now of children being killed in Israel's offensive in Gaza are relentless. Israel says it's aiming to destroy Hamas after the October 7 attack on Israel.

Near a vegetable market in Shatila, a simple granite monument rests in a field above a mass grave for massacre victims in 1982 - those who couldn't be identified or had no relatives to bury them. Fifteen hundred people were believed to have been killed. The parents and younger sister of the monument's caretaker, Adnan Maqdad, were among them. Maqdad has just been watching news of the Gaza war on a battery-powered television in a tent.

ADNAN MAQDAD: (Through interpreter) A truce is difficult now. It's not easy, but the war will continue until liberation.

ARRAF: The liberation of Palestine, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBIKE HORN BEEPING)

ARRAF: At a shop selling small toys, the owner, Nohad Ma'rouf, says she has to believe that the killing of so many children in Gaza will result in a Palestinian homeland.

NOHAD MA'ROUF: (Through interpreter) This is 100% our conviction. Praise be to God and soon. How? - with determination, fighting, war and faith.

ARRAF: She says even people who didn't support the militant Palestinian group Israel is fighting do now.

MA'ROUF: (Through interpreter) What's happening? Everyone is now Hamas. They have the right to fight - to enter Israel because, for 17 years, they have been besieged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: This camp is not Hamas territory. On almost every street, there are banners of a rival faction in the PLO and images of the organization's late leader, Yasser Arafat, who, in 1993, signed a peace plan with Israel. But that was a different climate. And since the war in Gaza, support for PLO rival Hamas has increased.

Down the street, we talk to a former PLO fighter, now 67, who's wearing a black-and-white scarf - a keffiyeh - around his neck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBIKE PASSING)

ARRAF: He won't give his name because he's afraid Israel could hunt him down. He says he witnessed the 1982 massacre and survived by hiding in the trees. But somehow, he says, seeing children killed in Gaza on television is worse. He, too, is convinced his homeland will be regained soon by force.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) How? I'll tell you how - with the determination of the youth and their faith in God.

ARRAF: After 75 years of despair, people here believe the war in Gaza, no matter how bloody, could be a path home.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Shatila camp, Beirut, Lebanon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.