From the trenches

A 'Jerusalem Post' correspondent speaks with a cross-section of discontented - and often heavily armed - Palestinians living in Lebanese refugee camps.

leb feech 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy  )
leb feech 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Checkpoints are a way of life in the Palestinian refugee camp Ein el-Hilweh, a sprawling shantytown perched on a hillside above the Lebanese southern port city of Sidon. Between 55,000 and 65,000 people are squeezed into one square kilometer, making this Lebanon's largest camp. Set up by the United Nations in 1948, Ein el-Hilweh, which means "Sweet Water Spring," is a time bomb waiting to explode. Radicalized and oppressed youth, nearly all of whom carry weapons - more often than not unconcealed and hanging from their belts - fill the monotony of their days walking the narrow cobbled streets. They can't go anywhere - or if they can, they have nowhere to go. The camp is like a maximum security prison surrounded by walls topped with barbed wire. Fortified army posts line its perimeters. Driving in through the main gate, Lebanese conscript soldiers wearing tin helmets stand guard. Around them are piles of tires and barrels filled with sand. Fifty meters on, a second checkpoint is manned by Palestinians. While this is nothing new, what has changed over the past five weeks since brutal urban-style guerrilla fighting erupted in the north of the country is more stringent checks and tighter controls over who enters and leaves the camp. One has to get special accreditation from the authorities, who in turn warn you against traveling here. Since May 20, Lebanese soldiers have been battling gunmen from the extremist Fatah al-Islam group at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp, just outside Lebanon's second-largest city, Tripoli. More than 150 people, among them civilians, have been killed so far. The strict entry controls at the camp have managed to prevent the violence from spreading further south, but haven't calmed tensions. The burnt-out shells of two buildings on the outskirts of Ein el-Hilweh are a reminder of the violence that spread to the camp in the early days of the clashes. Palestinian and Lebanese members of a small extremist group known as Jund al-Sham took up arms against Lebanese soldiers. Two of the gunmen were killed. Although Jund al-Sham is thought to have fewer than 50 fighters, some of its members, like in other jihadi groups in the camp, are veterans of the war in Iraq. These groups are flourishing in all of Lebanon's 12 refugee camps. During the hour-long drive from the capital, Beirut, we are pulled over four times to have our passports checked. We pass a truck where the driver is unbundling his goods on the side of the road. There's been an explosion in or around the capital nearly every day for the past month, and many Lebanese say they live in fear of the next attack. It's not clear how - and if - these attacks are related to the fighting at Nahr el-Bared. My translator is apprehensive about entering the camp. Even the interviewees I've lined up are cautious. "Let's just see what we get," he tells me. Barefoot children, many with their noses running, play in the main street. A busy vegetable market veers off to one side, while piles of garbage and open sewers litter the roads. Like other Lebanese camps, Ein el-Hilweh is deeply divided. The factional rivalries mirror those in the Gaza Strip, where violence has torn the society apart. Pictures of former Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat hang alongside posters of Hamas's spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Gunmen sporting Kalashnikovs and M-16s patrol every street corner - each belonging to a different faction. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah group dominates, but small Islamic groups have a foothold here, as they do in other camps across Lebanon. Although the camps are supposed to be weapons-free, various United Nations reports claim they have become a base of operations for terrorists, several backed by Syria and Iran. "We are afraid of these terrorists," says a local analyst. "Lebanon is easy to enter, because we are a state without borders. There are a lot of guns inside the camps, and they flourish because the army can't go in. There are a lot of groups like Fatah al-Islam operating from inside." The Lebanese military stays out of the camps in keeping with a 1969 agreement. As such, the Palestinians are free to run them. "We are most afraid of these terrorists leaving the camps and targeting Lebanese," continues the analyst. "And it's happening. We have a lot of bombs outside the camps, in Christian and Muslim areas. So of course the situation will lead to problems between Lebanese and Palestinians." However, the one thing the different factions operating in Ein el-Hilweh agree on - at least publicly - is that they're not aligned with Fatah al-Islam. "They're foreigners, not Palestinians," a local Hamas leader tells me. "We are all Islamists, but they do not show Islam in a true way. They are not part of us." But what's not clear is who exactly Fatah al-Islam is a part of. The United States and some Palestinians claim it is a pawn of Syria, while others think it is the unintended outgrowth of a US-backed plan to develop a Sunni counterweight to Hizbullah. Echoing the sentiment of most camp inhabitants, Muhammad, an elderly vegetable seller with dark brown chocolate eyes, believes the Lebanese government - in particular the Hariri family (of whom former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated two years ago) - is supporting the fighters in an attempt to get rid of the country's Palestinian population. "The Palestinian problem is a problem of land and people," he says, puffing on a nargileh pipe. Tomatoes, potatoes and wilting carrots are piled high on the ancient-looking wheelbarrow behind which he sits, fanning himself underneath an enormous umbrella. "If there are no people, then the land can be solved. The Lebanese think the main reason for the civil war was the Palestinians. They want to repeat the same problem so they can solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees." It's a charge the Lebanese government refutes. It maintains it does not wish to naturalize the refugees, so that they keep alive the desire to return to Palestine. It's a policy that seems to be working. Look anywhere in the camp, and the pictures of dead gunmen, hailed as martyrs, stare down from just about every stone wall. Maps of Jerusalem and Palestine are engraved in the bricks. Palestinian flags fly over doorways, and slogans demanding the right of return, refusing "naturalization" and protesting the Oslo process fill up every available space. This is a place where the stones seemingly breathe politics; the hope and determination to return to Palestine fills the air. "We will return to Palestine," Muhammad declares emphatically, blowing the nargileh smoke out through his nostrils. "I spent four years in an Israeli prison. For what? For what, I ask you? They occupy my land and they put me in prison because I want to go home." His voice is laced thick with hatred and cynicism. "I can't work. They [the Israelis] broke my knees," he says, accentuating his point by picking up a twig and snapping it in his fingers. "But prison was my education. There I learned from the other prisoners everything I need to know about how to liberate our land." EIN EL-HILWEH is dirty, crowded and deadly boring. But there's an eerie sense that the gunmen standing at every street corner, eyeing one another, are simply waiting, and looking, for the next fight. Old men sit in front of their shops, smoking and sipping black coffee. The aroma of tobacco and strong Nescafe fills the air. Overhead, a maze of electrical power lines almost blocks out the daylight. Each neighborhood in the camp carries the name of its inhabitants' original village or town. Stop any youngster in the street and ask him where he's from, and he'll name where his parent or grandparent came from. The camp is desperately poor. Run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the only source of income is from UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) projects and terrorism. Mahmoud is 19 years old. He's never left the south of Lebanon, traveling only as far as Beirut. I ask him where he's from, and without pausing he says Haifa. He sits with his friends under a poster of a dead leader. Like most of the young men, he is unemployed; he dropped out of school when he was 15. "I wake up in the morning, have something to eat at home and then spend the day hanging out with my friends. I don't like to leave the camp very much because I feel more comfortable here," he says. But he admits it's boring. "I know everyone here. I've known them since the day I was born." Mahmoud shows me his home. He lives with his mother and three younger sisters in a four-room apartment at the end of one of the camp's many alleyways. The television is permanently switched on, alternating between Al Jazeera's 24-hour news channel and the soap operas his sisters like to watch. "It's a waiting game," Mahmoud's 79-year-old shopkeeper grandfather, Ibrahim, who comes from a village near Acre, tells me. He sits outside the family's cellular phone store, peeling an orange while shading his eyes from the harsh midday sun. A crowd gathers around to hear our conversation. "I still have the key for our home," he tells me, warning that Israel's days are numbered. "The big governments of the world said we, the old Palestinians, would die, and that would be the end of it. People would forget our suffering and injustice. They said our children would forget about liberating Palestine. But now it's our children who fight the occupier. They will be the ones to free us." No one here uses the name "Israel" - talk is of the "occupier" and returning to Palestine. It's almost as if by not saying "Israel," the country ceases to exist. "I've waited nearly 60 years, so what's another 60?" Ibrahim cackles, much to the delighted chuckles of nodding heads. BUT OTHERS in the camp are less optimistic, although just as brutal in their condemnation of Israel. "My family is in Canada," says Wafa, a 24-year-old university student. "My husband and I are trying to get into America. It breaks my grandfather's heart that we are, he thinks, deserting his dream to return to Palestine, but you have to be realistic. It's not going to happen any time soon, and I want to give my children a better future than what they'd have if we stayed here." I meet Wafa and her Palestinian friends in a trendy outdoor caf in downtown Beirut. They're the success stories - Palestinian youngsters who've managed to attend university. Outside, flashing neon lights sparkle over the doorways of expensive caf s, designer stores and ice-cream parlors. The busy streets of the affluent downtown Hamra neighborhood hum with the constant stream of traffic. Loud Arabic music plays from the stereos of fashionable cars. It's difficult to imagine we're only a 10-minute drive from another refugee camp, Shatilla, infamous because of the 1982 massacre of some 3,000 Palestinians by Christian Phalangists. Wafa and her friends have taken time off from their studies to try and ease the situation for the 30,000-odd refugees who've fled the fighting in Nahr el-Bared and who are temporarily residing in the nearby Beddawi camp. For weeks, they've been coordinating food and medical collections from around the country and making sure they get to the refugees. On a large table in front of them, maps of Lebanon, records of supplies and pages of mathematical calculations are spread out between glasses of Coca-Cola and half-eaten hamburgers. "You see what it's like for us," 19-year-old Monir states. "Because I'm Palestinian, I can't buy property outside of the camps. Yes, I can rent an apartment in the city, but it's too expensive for me and the government knows that. In that way, they make sure we live as refugees. But I can't really blame them. We are not their responsibility. Israel is to blame for everything." Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, of whom there are nearly half a million, believe they are the worst-off of all the refugees. They're prevented by law from working in some 75 professions, among them law and medicine, and can't be employed by the government. "We can't work, we can't get money like in other places," points out 22-year-old Mustafa. "It's better in Jordan because there, Palestinians are regarded as Jordanian and have a Jordanian passport. It's also better in Syria. There, Palestinians can work in the government and many other places. It is the responsibility of the whole world to find a solution for us, but I'm not positive it will happen any time soon." Three streets from where we're sitting, a bomb exploded two weeks ago, killing anti-Syrian parliamentarian Walid Eido. His assassination followed the killing last November of industry minister Pierre Gemayel, also a vocal opponent of Syria. The government has set August 5 for by-elections to replace both MPs, but many Beirutis are wondering what could happen between now and then, especially as the anniversary of last year's war between Hizbullah and Israel looms. "We have a good relationship with Hizbullah," says Wafa. "All Palestinians love [Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah because he is a big, serious man in the world. He is the leader who fights Israel and gets a victory over its army. No leader around the world can do what he did last summer. We loved him before the war with Israel, but now we love him even more. "No one here believes Hizbullah wants another war with Israel," reflects Wafa, "but if Israel continues with their aggression towards Lebanon, it will happen, and we will support Nasrallah's fight against the aggressor Israeli army." Nasrallah recently warned Lebanese troops not to enter the Palestinian camps to confront the Fatah al-Islam gunmen and their allies. In a televised address to mark the seventh anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, he said that would be crossing a red line, and Palestinians should not be touched. Monir is the only one here who is not a fan of Hizbullah. "They are Shia, we are Sunni, it is a problem for history," he says.