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The Palestinians’ Purgatory In Lebanon

July 2007

Media reports in the last few days have been focused on alleged Iranian support of various radical Shia factions in Iraq and elsewhere. The same mainstream media have been, with few exceptions such as the New Yorker magazine that publishes investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, deafeningly silent on reports of U.S. and U.S. allies’ involvement in supporting various radical Sunni groups, including in Lebanon.

In a matter of just a few days in June, the Palestinian unity government patiently brokered by Saudi Arabia three months earlier foundered in bloody clashes between Hamas and Fatah. Outnumbered and outgunned but more disciplined Hamas fighters routed Fatah in a violent takeover of the Gaza Strip. Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah and president of the Palestinian Authority, promptly dissolved the power-sharing cabinet led by prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. The US, Israel and the European Union joined in a chorus of support for Abbas, praising him as a “moderate” (because he has serviced Israeli policies diligently, though not always successfully, in the occupied territories) and pledging to help him fight off the “Hamas extremists” (because they remain an obstacle to the ongoing dismemberment of the territories). They have now resumed financial and material aid for a Fatah-led administration in the West Bank, while continuing the blockade of the Gaza Strip which they started shortly after Hamas won in the legislative elections in January 2006.

Thus another episode in the long and painful fragmentation of Palestinian society has come to a close, with unavoidable repercussions on Palestinians everywhere. The separation of Gaza and the West Bank under two rival administrations — and each largely disconnected from Palestinian communities in surrounding Arab countries, inside Israel proper, and in the global diaspora — makes Palestinians ever more vulnerable to the regional power play and the idea of an independent Palestinian state more remote than ever. Beyond a shared identity and a shared experience of deprived rights in host societies, powerful bonds as these may be, the truth is there is not much left that is institutionally binding the splintered and dispersed Palestinian communities together.

Perhaps nowhere is this fragmentation and absence of unifying institutions felt more acutely than in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon today. There is bitter irony in this. Although Lebanese and Palestinians are in many ways closer to each other than they are to any other Arab society — in their cultural and social habits, in their long experience of facing Israeli military might and manipulation at the hands of more powerful regional players — Palestinians in Lebanon are subjected to some of the most discriminatory and demeaning measures.

There was a time in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, in the heydays of PLO power, when Palestinian factions coordinated their activities in the camps, dispensed social services in orderly fashion and projected their influence throughout the Palestinian diaspora, in Lebanon and elsewhere. Since that time, through repeated setbacks over more than three decades, the PLO and its institutions have become a bloated and largely ineffectual bureaucracy, more a burden than an instrument of liberation for the Palestinian people. That was the corrupting legacy inherited by the Palestinian Authority, when the latter was established in the occupied territories in the mid-1990s, pursuant to the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO in 1993.

Abandoned to their fate by a declining PLO, the Palestinian camps in Lebanon have become a breeding ground for competing armed groups, which are all too often unaccountable to outside authority and which, for sheer survival, engage in petty criminal activities or accept to do the dirty work of the highest bidder among local parties or regional governments. Some of the more recent among these groups include violent fugitives of various political stripes that are neither Palestinian nor Lebanese, who come from countries far and close, traveling across the porous borders or slipping through the notoriously lax security measures at Beirut International Airport.

The Cruelty of the Camps

Some 400,000 Palestinians are currently registered as refugees in Lebanon with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Of these, more than half live in refugee camps scattered throughout the country. Of the original 16 official camps in Lebanon, four were destroyed or evacuated during different periods of conflict since 1948. According to the UNRWA, the remaining 12 camps in Lebanon:

“suffer from serious problems — no proper infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty and unemployment. [They] have the highest percentage of Palestine refugees who are living in abject poverty and who are registered with the Agency’s ‘special hardship’ programme.”

The UNRWA further reports that:

“Palestine refugees in Lebanon face specific problems. They 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. The majority rely entirely on UNRWA as the sole provider of education, health and relief and 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.”

Palestinian refugees enjoy far fewer civil liberties in Lebanon than in Syria, Jordan or the other Arab countries they fled to after 1948. As a result in Lebanon, the refugees have to rely more on UNRWA services, where they are forbidden by law (though often broken) from building inside the camps, owning property or working in jobs other than the most menial. The situation has been documented in numerous UNRWA reports over the years. Sheer ordinary living is thus all to often and unavoidably a criminalized activity. To secure the means of a meagre existence, the refugees often have to pay exorbitant bribes to work (illegally) for subpar wages or else to emigrate (also illegally).

Since the “Cairo Agreement” (November 1969) and the “Melkart Understanding” (May 1973) brokered by Egypt between the Lebanese government and the then-powerful PLO, the camps have been off-limits, at least officially, to the Lebanese army and police. With the gradual demise of the PLO in the 1980s and 1990s, the camps have turned into something of a no man’s land. The lack of a recognized authority in the camps became more acute after the abrupt withdrawal of Syrian troops, in April 2005, which had maintained a heavy-handed security presence, especially in the camps around Beirut and to the north. In the larger ones, most notably in Ain al-Hilweh (in the southern coastal city of Sidon) and Nahr al-Bared (the northernmost camp on the Lebanese coast), several armed groups have emerged to fill the political vacuum — competing or coexisting with remnants of earlier PLO factions, carving out their own enclaves of influence and racketeering, and shifting political alliances according to needs and circumstances.

To be sure, this is not the entire Palestinian experience in Lebanon. Middle-class Palestinians have always had the means to buy their way into Lebanese society or to migrate to other lands. None of these have ever needed to register with the UNRWA as refugees for the meager rations and services it doles out. If successful in finances or in business, well-off Palestinians have seamlessly joined the ranks of the Beirut bourgeoisie over the years. Thus, among many others, Yusuf Baydas developed his Intra Bank in the 1960’s into the largest bank in Lebanon, and the Palestinian (and Lebanese and Jordanian) founders of Dar al-Handasah have transformed their modest Beirut office of the mid-1950’s into one of the top ten international contracting and consulting firms in the world fifty years later.

The lot of the camps in Lebanon is therefore that of the poorest and wretched, those who came with nothing except for a few bundled clothes on their backs, from their villages in Palestine in 1948, and their descendants who were born in the camps since. The humane solution is of course to lift all legal restrictions on the camp dwellers and, even more, let them integrate into the rest of Lebanese society, if they so wish, with the right of acquiring Lebanese citizenship. This is moreover the practical solution, if one is also concerned about ultimately dismantling the camps as incubators of despair, lawlessness and unnecessary animosity between their disfranchised inhabitants and the rest of the population.

But Palestinian integration is one of the permanently debated issues of Lebanese politics since 1948, a political football that all parties, both internal and external, have always played in pursuit of their own short-sighted agendas quite separate from the well-being of the Palestinian refugees themselves and, in the long run, also the well-being of the Lebanese population surrounding them. What is at stake is the delicate balance of the sectarian-based (so-called confessional) system of government which would be undermined as a result. The sectarian power-sharing formula is in fact as much crippling as it is delicate, the cause of many of the country’s woes in recent decades, with politicians all too ready to decry its ills but none really willing or able to give up the privileges it accords them.

The majority of the Palestinian refugees are Sunni Muslim whose integration, it would seem, would be encouraged by the Sunni segment of the Lebanese ruling class, since it would tip the sectarian balance in their favor. But confessionalism is not just a power-sharing formula based on religious sects only, but a whole system of patronage, increasingly entrenched in the political life of the country, into which the landless and stateless refugees (and other non-Palestinian migrant workers) do not readily fit. This system of patronage identifies ordinary citizens by both sects and districts of origin (the latter being often different from districts of residence), and makes them depend on politicians of their own sects and districts of origin to promote and defend their rights. Class interests cut across these divisions promoted by the confessional system, and any form of class solidarity undermines them. Integration of Palestinian refugees would likely lead to many of them joining an urban lumpenproletariat that would not be answerable to the established Sunni (or other confessional) parties and would thus be disruptive of their hold on power.

There are courageous voices that defend the only humane option, namely, that of allowing all Palestinians in Lebanon to be fully integrated, if they so wish. One such voice is that of Fawwaz Traboulsi, a historian and prominent advocate of human rights and democracy in Arab countries.But these voices remain too few and isolated, without much echo from (extra-parliamentary) secular left parties that have been in decline since the 1970’s. If the issue of al-tawteen (settling) of the Palestinian refugees is raised, politicians and public commentators of all stripes, whether in pro-government or opposition parties, routinely reject the idea because they consider it “a burden Lebanon cannot shoulder alone” or “a betrayal of the Palestinian cause,” or they even argue against it in thinly-disguised racist terms.

Nahr al-Bared and Ain al-Hilweh

On May 19, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces botched a raid to apprehend members of a fundamentalist Sunni (Salafi) group, Fatah al-Islam, that had robbed a bank near the northern city of Tripoli. Overwhelmed by a handful of gunmen of Fatah al-Islam, the ISF called the Lebanese army for help. Soon after the ISF raid, other militants of Fatah al-Islam, based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, made stealth attacks on several positions of the Lebanese army nearby; they killed many soldiers, first torturing them and then beheading them. As there was little or no coordination between the ISF and the army, the latter had not alerted its men around the camp and was badly mauled, suffering a larger number of casualties than Fatah al-Islam.

With scores of its soldiers killed in the initial assault and determined to prevail, the Lebanese army has received uniform support from all parties across the Lebanese political spectrum, as well as from Palestinian organizations wary of extremist and largely non-Palestinian groups gaining influence in the camps. Having nothing to lose and no place to retreat to, Fatah al-Islam has dug in for the long haul, even though it has gradually abandoned many of its positions and retreated to the southern parts of Nahr al-Bared in the face of the army’s superior firepower. Reacting to the growing humanitarian crisis in Nahr al-Bared, violence has fitfully spread to other Palestinian camps, notably to Ain al-Hilweh in the southern city of Sidon where, on June 3, gunmen from another extremist group, Jund al-Sham, attacked a nearby army checkpoint slaying two soldiers.

As of this writing, more than 200 people have been killed in the Nahr al-Bared events, in the worst internal violence since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. Since the middle of June, Lebanon’s defense minister Elias al-Murr has on several occasions announced that “Fatah al-Islam has been crushed,” only to be refuted within hours by another armed clash in the fight in and around Nahr al-Bared.

These are the incontrovertible facts since May 19, reported equally by all sides of the Lebanese media — pro-government, pro-opposition, and independent. Beyond the facts however, explanations abound as to what party or government is really at fault for the violence.

The political rumor mill is always buzzing in Beirut, and perhaps never at a higher pitch than after Seymour Hersh repeated to the Beirut press some of what he had written in his article “The Redirection” (The New Yorker, March 5, 2007). According to Hersh, the Bush administration, with the help of members of the Saudi royal family, has been secretly funding radical Sunni groups, some with ties to al-Qaeda, to counter Shiite groups in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region that are backed by Iran. Hersh maintained there is American money, none of it approved by Congress, sent to the government of prime minister Fuad Siniora, which then funnels it into “at least three different Sunni jihadist groups.” Among the radical Sunni groups Hersh explicitly mentioned in his article were Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared and Usbat al-Ansar in Ain al-Hilweh. (The group that attacked an army checkpoint on June 3, Jund al-Sham, split from Usbat al-Ansar in 2002.)

If the information passed on by Hersh is correct, the whole episode since May 19 is the consequence of a reckless policy that backfired of trying to contain Hizbullah by arming unruly radical Sunni groups. This is a highly embarrassing charge against the Siniora government which, naturally enough, vehemently rejects it. Instead, Siniora and his allies put the blame entirely on the Syrian government, which they accuse of constantly fomenting disorder to remind the Lebanese (and the world) that security in Lebanon cannot be maintained without a Syrian presence. They point out that Fatah al-Islam started in late 2006, splitting from another older group, Fatah al-Intifada, totally aligned with Syria; its members are extreme Sunni fundamentalists that entered Lebanon across the border from Syria, then ensconced themselves in Nahr al-Bared where they took over the quarters of Fatah al-Intifada. The opposition parties led by Hizbullah have been a little more circumspect in the blaming game, simply accusing Fatah al-Islam and other al-Qaeda inspired extremist groups of trying to ignite a Shiite-Sunni confrontation in Lebanon.

This is all a little murky, and it will take some time for the truth to surface about which parties and which governments have been involved — directly or indirectly — whether because of recklessness, or incompetence, or outright complicity. But be that as it may, what is already clear is that the biggest losers from these events are the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

First and foremost are the 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants of Nahr al-Bared themselves, many of whose homes have been turned to rubble, creating a new humanitarian crisis among a segment of the population least prepared to sustain it and in a country still reeling from the devastating US-Israeli bombing campaign of July-August 2006. During sporadic lulls in the fighting in and around Nahr al-Bared, most of the camp dwellers have managed to flee to the nearby camp of Beddawi or to take shelter with friends and family further south. Various news reports mention that approximately 2,000 refugees are still inside Nahr al-Bared. If and when the fighting stops, it is not clear how much of the camp infrastructure will be left intact, much of it already in ruins after the point-blank exchanges of artillery and heavy machine-gun fire.

The Lebanese government has repeatedly announced it will shoulder the burden of rebuilding Nahr al-Bared and compensating its inhabitants. However, given the government’s sluggish performance in rebuilding after the war in July-August 2006, these announcements may turn out to be mostly worthless promissory notes. If precedents are any indication, it will be the Palestinian refugees themselves and non-governmental organizations allied with them that will have to shoulder the burden of rebuilding Nahr al-Bared. This is an effort that will be far more difficult this time around, given that world attention is turned elsewhere; if it is about Palestine and Palestinians, the struggle between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and the West bank now grabs the headlines; if it is about Lebanon, international opinion is almost entirely focused on the ongoing crisis pitting the pro-US Siniora government against the Hizbullah-led opposition; and if it is about the region as a whole, the catastrophe in Iraq dominates most public discussions. More than ever, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, hapless and desperate, are thus left to fend for themselves.

Quite apart from the humanitarian crisis and the burden of having to handle it on their own, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are already facing the scapegoating from the political fallouts of the Nahr al-Bared events. In typical right-wing fashion of blaming the victim, prominent politicians allied with the Siniora government have suggested Palestinians have only themselves to blame, since they allowed Fatah al-Islam to enter Nahr al-Bared in the first place. Conveniently ignored is that for years Lebanese security agencies — up until 2005 acting at the behest of Syrian intelligence — worked diligently to deprive the Palestinian camps of any effective independent authority, especially in the northern camps. The bitter irony is that the vast majority of the 200 to 300 gunmen of Fatah al-Islam are neither Palestinian nor Lebanese, and among the few that are the latter, there are probably more Lebanese than Palestinians.

None of the opposition parties have mounted a serious campaign to counter right-wing declarations whipping up anti-Palestinian feelings, as all parties, both pro-government and pro-opposition, seem engaged in a competition to rally behind the army and pay tribute to the troops. As if to preserve the only institution of the Lebanese state that still unites all factions of the political establishment, support for the army has taken precedence over the human suffering in the camps.

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