Issue 37 - Article 2

Lebanon and the Near East: new challenges, old dilemmas

April 13, 2007
Sarah Mahdi, independent consultant

The violence that broke out in Israel, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories in July 2006 was unexpected and, in the case of the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Lebanon, brief, lasting only 34 days. At the height of the conflict, over 900,000 Lebanese were displaced from southern Lebanon, and 1,191 Lebanese and 158 Israelis were killed. Reconstruction estimates run into billions of dollars, and the threat of sectarian violence and insecurity persists in the region. Since the Israeli government and civil society had the capacity to respond to Israel’s limited needs, the wider international scale-up of aid actors focused on Lebanon and Gaza.

The humanitarian response in Lebanon

A large-scale international aid operation was launched in response to the war in Lebanon, including the government, the UN, NGOs and local civil and political groups. The operational response in Lebanon was at first hindered by difficulties in accessing areas of the conflict due to the Israeli blockade of Lebanon and Israeli restrictions on movement south of the Litani river. There were also constraints in coordinating and negotiating with local political groups affiliated with armed forces. Difficulties in accessing the south during the bombing and blockade of Lebanese ports and airspace prompted warnings of critical fuel and food shortages, and left much of the affected population cut off from urgently needed services, including medical care.


A wider humanitarian crisis was averted by the response of local community networks and organisations, and the coping mechanisms of Lebanese families and communities remembered and restored from years of prior conflict. The international humanitarian community also reacted quickly, albeit at first to a displacement scenario – the movement towards Beirut of 900,000 IDPs from the south – that quickly dissipated after the ceasefire. Lebanon’s status as a middle-income country, and the rapid and large-scale support and dispersal of cash grants by local political organisations, also contributed to a speedy move into the early recovery phase. Large bilateral donations of aid and the ‘sponsorship’ of affected villages by Arab donors supported reconstruction plans, and Hizbollah disbursed cash grants of up to $12,000 to families whose homes were bombed.


Although most humanitarian needs were met, many considered the response to be too supply-driven, with food and non-food distributions predominating. The World Food Programme (WFP), as cluster lead in logistics, was accused of prioritising its own goods, and there were reports of unsuitable aid, including unnecessary food aid, inappropriate shelter and sub-standard blankets for displaced families. Evaluations highlighted yet again that agencies need to be more sensitive to the local context, particularly given the increasing number of humanitarian responses in middle-income countries like Lebanon; it is not enough simply to roll out distributions according to the traditional model.

Protection and the human rights response

The term ‘protection crisis’ was applied to the humanitarian situation in Lebanon and Gaza. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Lebanon was ‘not, and did not become, a humanitarian crisis. It began as – and remained – a crisis of protection. People did not die from poor sanitation, hunger or disease. They died from bombs and shells’.


The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) defines protection broadly as ‘all activities aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights of individuals in accordance with international human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law’. All parties to the conflict were in breach of international law. Israel was accused of violating the principle of distinction between civilian and military targets, of proportionality and of discriminate attack. Hizbollah was accused of using civilian populations in the south as ‘human shields’. International and local humanitarian and human rights agencies were vocal in their calls for a ceasefire as civilians in Israel, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) were killed.


OCHA played an important advocacy role, and the human rights story was well covered by the media and in campaigns by local and international NGOs. Senior UN officials and coalitions of NGOs engaged in direct and bold advocacy and policy initiatives to call first for a ceasefire and/or humanitarian access, and later for the protection of civilians (although the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called for a high-level commission in 11 August, OHCHR was a notable absentee in Lebanon). This resulted in widespread reporting and condemnation of the extent of civilian deaths during the conflict. Children have been a particular focus (it has been estimated that between one-third and a half of all casualties were children). On the ground, many organisations supported the clearing up of destroyed buildings, disseminated material to raise awareness of unexploded ordnance and landmines and help with psychosocial recovery, set up safe play areas and delivered schools kits for children, many of which were brought from partner organisations and offices in the oPt. Schools restarted only a month later than they would have done had the conflict not intervened.

Local coordination

In Lebanon, as throughout the Near and Middle East, civil society plays an important role, and people have years of experience in coping with and responding to conflict and displacement. Local organisations and community groups are generally divided along religious lines and have varying degrees of external influence, including from armed groups. The international response in Lebanon raised again the issue of how humanitarian agencies engage with local actors. Many agencies struggled to define or agree a policy for engagement with partners in view of the political and security context. Coordination meetings were conducted in English, with little or no local NGO presence, despite the fact that many international staff were deployed to Lebanon from regional hubs, and despite the presence of international agencies with long-standing local partner NGOs in-country.

The occupied Palestinian territories – an emergency within an emergency

While the war in Lebanon was dominating the headlines, the Israeli army launched Operation Summer Rains in Gaza in retaliation for the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. The action included numerous incursions by the Israeli military into Gaza, and the destruction of the power supply by the military. Palestinian Quassam rockets were repeatedly fired into Israeli towns. With Israel controlling access to the territories, the distinguishing feature of this conflict was that, unlike the population of southern Lebanon, the 1.4 million people in Gaza had nowhere to go. International aid agencies again had difficulty in accessing the area. After the bombing of Beit Hanoun on 8 November, a non-binding resolution was passed by the UN General Assembly calling for the end of Israeli military operations. Later that month, a shaky ceasefire took hold in return for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.


Even before the violence, the humanitarian situation in the occupied Palestinian territories was deteriorating as a result of the funding freeze implemented after the election of Hamas. Ongoing restrictions on movement and access have led to a collapse of markets and basic services, including healthcare, and rampant unemployment. Humanitarian aid to the oPt is, per capita, among the highest in the world, and agencies are used to scaling up quickly in times of increased violence and crisis. In 2006, organisations provided food, water and sanitation and undertook protection activities. Many organisations are engaged in human rights documentation and humanitarian advocacy, and OCHA’s role in protection is widely respected.


Many of the prominent donors in the oPt also have a stake as agents in the negotiation process between Israel and the Palestinians. This has meant that the humanitarian and political agendas have become entwined (articles elsewhere in this edition look at the issues of aid in the occupied territories). In the absence of a political solution, the humanitarian response continues. However, it is not the role of humanitarian organisations (and indeed it is beyond their capacity) to provide basic services to the civilian populations of the occupied territories. As the Occupying Power, ensuring protection and assistance is Israel’s responsibility.

Similar, but not the same

The crisis in Lebanon highlighted the need for agencies to react more flexibly and effectively to emergencies in middle-income countries, and anticipate and respond appropriately to the new challenges of humanitarian response. Better targeting of aid is required, based on specific needs assessments. The term ‘protection crisis’ also needs to be defined, and agencies need to decide what it means for the operational humanitarian response, the role of OHCHR and the independence of humanitarian agencies in the light of their increasingly high-profile advocacy initiatives.

The dilemmas presented by the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories are long-standing. Aid agencies do not wish, by their actions to relieve suffering, to be seen as taking on the responsibilities of the Occupying Power or as acting as what Médecins Sans Frontières has called a ‘social palliative’ for European and US policies. However, they cannot ignore the effects of the collapse of basic services. Two-thirds of Palestinians are living in poverty, a rise of 30% on last year. The number of families unable to get enough food has increased by 14%, meaning that more than half of all Palestinians are now food-insecure. The health system is disintegrating. A political solution is required, but in the meantime aid continues to be delivered, and monitoring and protection activities in country are ongoing.

Internal NGO policies and guidelines, donor policy and aid operations in the region need to be bolstered with creative, flexible and assertive humanitarian policy and programming attuned to the changing context. Advocacy to call governments to account for their duties under international humanitarian law, and to resist the politicisation and instrumentalisation of aid, are more important than ever in the current context of the Middle East. If humanitarian organisations do not address and respond to these issues, others will. A recent report on Iraq by the Feinstein International Center highlights the risks of failing to deal with these issues: ‘Protection and assistance gaps left by the incremental failure of the state and the absence of an appropriately scaled humanitarian response are being filled by militias and parties throughout the central and southern governorates. The pattern is similar to that evident in many other conflicts – Lebanon comes most recently to mind – where armed groups take up social burdens or exploit needs to gain legitimacy’.


References and further reading

OCHA Lebanon Crisis Interim Report, Humanitarian Response in Lebanon, 12 July–30 August 2006.

Larissa Fast, ‘Aid in a Pressure Cooker’: Humanitarian Action in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Case Study 7, Humanitarian Agenda 2015, Feinstein International Center.

Greg Hansen, Coming to Terms with the Humanitarian Imperative in Iraq, Humanitarian Agenda 2015 Briefing Paper, January 2007, Feinstein International Center.

International Development Committee, Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 24 January 2007.

HPG resources on ‘protection in practice’:

‘What Is the Responsibility of the International Community To Protect Civilians in the Lebanon Crisis?, ODI blog,

‘The occupied Palestinian territory’, special feature, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 28, November 2004.


Sarah Mahdiis an independent consultant and evaluation specialist. Her email address is:


Comments are available for logged in members only.