Sunday, 23 March 2008

Economic blow

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the economic impact of the destruction of Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp in north Lebanon:

The past several months have been Lebanon's coldest winter in 25 years, and Hanin Rafae is struggling to keep her family warm. Since her home has no fireplace, she and her five sons and six daughters huddle nightly around a fire on the patio overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Yet even more foreboding than the bitter winter cold, Rafae says, is the nation's declining economy, which worsened here after a three-month conflict between the Lebanese military and a group of al Qaeda-linked militants holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp down the hill.

"I try to save money by shopping less," said the 60-year-old Rafae as she warmed her hands over a charcoal pit.

In Bibneen and other surrounding villages in northern Lebanon, Palestinian stores had been a safety valve during times of inflation. Since Palestinians are excluded from paying sales tax, they offered cheaper products, and camp merchants had used the sizable Palestinian diaspora in neighboring Arab states as a de facto trading network.

Many goods sold at Nahr al Bared were smuggled across the porous Syrian border, eliminating import duties.

Rafae would regularly walk down the hill and purchase a loaf of bread for half price, 5 kilos of cooking oil for $4.50 instead of $7 and a carton of cigarettes for $4 instead of $6.

But those days are over. "Many Lebanese were killed, so we won't buy there," said Rafae. "I prefer to buy from the Lebanese now - not from Palestinians."

But with the camp's cheap products gone, the reality of rising inflation and a 10 percent sales tax has forced many to rethink their opposition to Palestinians coming back to the camp.

Bibneen resident Abdal Qader Saad says his family's monthly food bill has increased from $200 to $330 since the Palestinians left. "My wife had to go to take a job to help make ends meet," he said.

As a result, Talawi says most residents want the Palestinians to return as soon as possible.

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