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Is the fighting at Nahr el-Bared merely another way to weaken the Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon?

nahr el bared 88 (photo credit: )
nahr el bared 88
(photo credit: )
On May 22, a young carpenter called Mohammed al-Saaid fled from Nahr el-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon where the Lebanese military are currently fighting the Islamist terrorist group Fatah al-Islam. He left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. "I had to leave at night," he says. "It was dangerous in the day because there were still some shots being fired." He does not support Fatah al-Islam, but he is angry at the Lebanese army for the way in which they are conducting the war. "They are firing artillery randomly, even hitting mosques," he says. "The day before I left, they destroyed my neighbor's house, and now since I have gone, I was told by phone that they have also destroyed mine." Current estimates put the total destruction at around 60 percent of the town. Furthermore, the army has now announced that any civilian left inside will be considered a combatant because they did not take the opportunity to flee during the cease-fire. It is true that, given the difficult circumstances of fighting a street war in unknown territory, the army has a case for using artillery to protect the lives of its soldiers; yet their uncompromising tactics have raised concerns and suspicions from various quarters. Christians and Shi'ites are worried that the Sunni-dominated government wants to naturalize the camp's inhabitants into Lebanese society and President Emile Lahoud suggested recently that the government was purposely razing the town "as part of a plot that aims to settle Palestinian refugees in Lebanon." As a Christian Maronite, he fears the greater voting power that a naturalized Palestinian minority of 400,000 people would give to the Sunni bloc. Dr. Hilal Khasham, the director of Political Sciences at the American University of Beirut, characterizes Lahoud's view as slightly paranoid. He argues that "due to the multi-confessional make-up of the country's electoral system, in which each religious sect has its specific allotment of power, nobody wants a naturalized Palestinian minority. Even the Sunnis fear that they would steal their slice of the electoral cake." Most of the 30,000 refugees who have fled are now living in the Beddawi camp, which lies on the outskirts of Tripoli. They are being housed temporarily in any spare space that can be found. "Every single household is putting up at least one guest," says Ali Abdul, an UNRWA employee there. The camp is so crowded, it is hard to drive up the main street to the UNRWA school, where al-Saaid has been sleeping on a classroom floor. Like many of his neighbors, al-Saaid believes that the government is trying to demolish a trouble-spot camp to reduce the number of refugees in the country. This would be in keeping with previous government policies. Al-Saaid recalls how after the Nabatiyeh refugee camp was destroyed during the civil war, its inhabitants were dispersed among the other already-overcrowded camps, mainly Ein el-Hilweh on the outskirts of Sidon, or given visas to go abroad. The government has long followed discriminatory policies toward the Palestinians, which Khasham says are meant to keep them poor and confined to their camps. A report recently published by the UNRWA entitled "Employability of Palestinians in Lebanon" demonstrated how this policy works: "Palestinians do not have social and civil rights, and have very limited access to the government's public health or educational facilities and no access to public social services … Considered as foreigners, Palestine refugees are prohibited by law from working in more than 70 trades and professions. This has led to a very high rate of unemployment amongst the refugee population." Worryingly, the UNRWA report warns that "the newly-emergent and fragile sovereignty of post-war Lebanon has seen a hardening of attitudes towards the refugees and foreign workers." Meanwhile, a comparative study conducted by Marwan Khawaja of AUB showed that Palestinian workers in three impoverished areas are paid an average of 80% of the wages their Lebanese peers with the same qualifications receive when performing similar jobs. THE BURJ Barajneh and Shatilla camps, which lie on the southern outskirts of Beirut, are poor and overcrowded slums. In Burj Barajneh, 17,000 people inhabit an area of 1.5 sq. km. - most of which is illegally-occupied Lebanese land. Many of the buildings which rise up above the narrow streets are crumbling and falling into disrepair. Even more are scattered with bullet holes from the various battles the PLO fought with Lebanese armed groups during the civil war. Baha'a Hassoun, the UNRWA camp service officer, says the government regularly cuts off electricity, has not provided clean drinking water since 1985 and often stops supplies from entering the camps. In 1992, the Lebanese government passed a law banning Palestinians from buying property outside the camps. Doctors at the UNRWA health clinic say that levels of depression are unusually high and that many people suffer from respiratory tract infections, which they suspect are due to impurities in the water. Yosef Bader, the head of the Popular Committee in the camp, sums up the situation with the gloomy assessment that "nobody treats the Palestinians like human beings, not even the Lebanese." According to Rosemary Sayigh, author of Too Many Enemies: Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon, the principal root of the discrimination was Lebanon's sectarian regime, set up to maintain Maronite political domination and threatened by high rates of Maronite emigration, higher Muslim birthrates and the country's pro-Western foreign policy orientation. "Official discrimination against the refugees has been supported by large sectors of Lebanese society since somewhat before the Israel invasion of 1982 - as a result of Israeli aggression, but also PLO mistakes in the South. The main motive behind post-1982 government discriminatory measures has been to reduce the number of refugees. Their resettlement in Lebanon was excluded by the Ta'ef pact that ended the civil war." However, aside from the political discrimination, Khasham says that the army's actions reflect a racism that pervades Lebanese society. "There is only one thing that unites the Lebanese; that is their hatred for the Palestinians. Because of the parochial nature of our society, people look down upon newcomers - and especially the Palestinians - because of their inferior status as refugees." THIS SEPTEMBER marks the 25th anniversary of a civil war atrocity which still scars the Palestinian consciousness. In the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, as many as 3,000 Palestinians were slaughtered by Bashir Gemayel's Christian Phalangist group. Mohammed was a young man when the Phalangists entered with the apparent intention of routing out PLO terrorists and ammunition. "I did not realize that the massacre had happened until it was over," he said. "It was only when I came outside afterwards that I saw how they had killed my neighbor's wife and children." Munir Marouf, the UNRWA camp service officer at Shatilla, explains that the Phalangists mainly killed their victims using knives so that the majority of residents were unaware of what was going on until it was too late. "It was a revenge attack because they [the Phalangists] believed that Palestinian terrorists were behind the assassination of Gemayel." It is clear that the war at Nahr el-Bared does not fall into the category of atrocity that the Shatilla massacre does. However, Human Rights Watch has issued a report cataloguing a series of complaints from Palestinians fleeing the camp of beatings by the army. In one case, the Lebanese military reportedly detained a 21-year-old Palestinian man for interrogation at different locations for four days. During the interrogations, he was at various times punched and slapped by army interrogators. "They put me back in a cell, and I slept blindfolded with my hands tied. I heard screams from other rooms: 'My arm! My hand!'" In another case, the army interrogated three young Palestinian men in a private house near Nahr el-Bared. According to two of the young men, members of Lebanese military intelligence subjected them to kicks, punches and beatings with rifle butts. "They beat me with their hands, feet and even their weapons, on the arms, hands, back and even my face and legs. It lasted, on and off, for about three hours. They threatened me with a knife that they would cut off my toes if I didn't speak," he said. GIVEN THE circumstances, one would have expected the siege of Nahr el-Bared to have ignited an angry response from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). However, Fatah has publicly distanced itself from Fatah al-Islam and sided with the Lebanese army. After Prime Minister Fuad Saniora met with the Palestinian Follow-Up Committee, PLO representative in Beirut Abbas Zaki told the Daily Star, "We stressed ... that [Fatah al-Islam] has nothing to do with the Palestinian people, and anyone who sees it as being under Palestinian cover is mistaken, because we were alongside the army in this battle from the start. We were both the victims." There was not even any complaint from them when the army broke the 1969 agreement that forbids them to enter any refugee camp. According to Sayigh, "Their support for the army tries to protect camp inhabitants from those Lebanese who identify them with the extremist Islamic groups. The current battles have brought Lebanese anti-Palestinianism to the surface again." However, it is also clear that the PLO has been silent because it is too weak to stand up against the government. The organization has never really recovered from the joint Israeli-Christian Lebanese offensive of 1982, when 8,800 PLO guerrillas - including former PLO leader Yasser Arafat and the whole Fatah hierarchy - were removed from the country. Since then, the Lebanese government has tried to stifle their power, since as the representative force of the Palestinians, they have the greatest ability to push for more rights. "Now they are a defeated organization who have no hope of coordinating a successful resistance," says Khasham. "They are surrounded by the Lebanese military, their land is not contiguous like in Gaza, and they are simply too poor to afford a war." In fact, the PLO is so weak that many people suspect it is supporting the army in hopes of eliminating an emergent Islamist faction that would naturally oppose the group. Sayigh points out that "Fatah al-Islam was heavily armed from the start, and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the PLO to have 'controlled' them." In Beddawi, al-Saaid says the PLO felt threatened by the existence of Fatah al-Islam but was unable to deal with the insurgents on its own, so it was glad to have the army rid the place of them. What no one knows is how Fatah al-Islam gunmen were able to enter Nahr el-Bared in large numbers with their families and with heavy weapons. The current war has demonstrated that for the Lebanese government to purposefully keep the Palestinians poor and the PLO - their overarching authority - weak is a risky strategy. THERE IS overwhelming support for armed resistance within the Burj Barajneh camp - the place is bedecked with posters of gunmen and banners honoring the likes of Saddam Hussein, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Rantisi - and it is clear that the social degradation plays some part in this. Currently, however, the intended violence is almost exclusively aimed against Israel, the occupiers of their "real" home. One old man I meet tells me that he fled here during the war in 1948. He says that life has only become worse in the camp, but he shrugs and says that it is not their home, anyway. Even though he believes he will never return to Palestine, he says the urge is just as strong in the younger generations. He is not exaggerating. A group of young girls say that "God willing, Israel will be destroyed!" and that if they ever lived in the same country as Israelis, they "would drive them out." In fact, the feeling that Israel is to blame for all their woes, and people's blindness to their conflict with Lebanese factions, are occasionally perverse. Bader tells me that a bullet-riddled wall opposite the Popular Committee's offices has been left standing as a testament to Israeli oppression. Yet these were not bullets fired by the IDF, since in 1982 Ariel Sharon kept the army out of Beirut as far as Burj Barajneh. It is most likely that they were fired by members of the Shi'ite Amal armed group in the War of the Camps in 1986, when large parts of both Burj Barajneh and Shatilla were destroyed. The Lebanese government can take partial credit for the prevalence of this attitude. They have continually championed the Palestinian "right of return," successfully masking self-interest as a pan-Arabic moral crusade. In the first week of the war, when the camp was being bombarded with artillery, Saniora gave an emotional speech in which he talked about standing "side by side with our Palestinian brothers." However, the rise of Islamist groups shows how these discriminatory policies can suddenly backfire. Fatah al-Islam has proved that without much difficulty, a well-equipped armed group can infiltrate a refugee camp and leave the PLO fairly powerless to deal with them. As extremism becomes less secular and ever more centered against Western influence, Saniora's government is now realizing that it, too, has become a target.