Strategy of Destabilisation

The bloody standoff at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp has its roots in the historical conflict between the Palestinian groups in Lebanon, reports Bernhard Hillenkamp from Beirut

Lebanese army soldiers stand alert as they prepare to replace another unit at the refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared (photo: AP)
Given the military dimension of the conflict, the return of the refugees and the rebuilding of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp are not enough, writes Bernhard Hillenkamp

​​"The return to the camp and rebuilding of the houses is guaranteed," said a recent and rather bold statement from Lebanese television and radio, even as the fighting between the Lebanese army and the "Fatah al-Islam" group was still raging in North Lebanon's Nahr el-Bared camp, the second largest of the country's Palestinian refugee camps.

Such appeals for restraint and calm, on this occasion by the "Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee" are not fooling anyone about the true difficulties of the relationship between Palestinians and Lebanese in the land of cedars.

A look back

When the state of Israel was proclaimed, around 120,000 Palestinians fled north into Lebanon. Most of the refugees – half a million – headed for Jordan. After the expulsion and flight that Arab history refers to as "Nakba" (catastrophe), it was from the Hashemite kingdom that the political and military struggle for the liberation of Palestine was to be taken up.

However, following the so-called Black September of 1970 when the PLO were driven out of Jordan by the army it was to Lebanon that they turned. Thanks to the support they were given by the Arab states, the PLO was able to work its way into a position of power that made it into one of the most important domestic political players in the cedar state, while establishing itself successfully in an economic sense too.

Already, before the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, the PLO had become part of the country's political scene. When the Lebanese National Movement set its sights on abolishing the denominational system in Lebanon, the PLO became their partners in a domestic political struggle aimed at ending the country's Christian Maronite supremacy.

Interventions from Damascus

During the civil war, however, neighbour Syria intervened in order to prevent a defeat of the Christians by the Lebanese National Movement. The leaders in Damascus feared the consequences for the region were such a domestic paradigm shift to take place.

Amored vehicle in Beirut (photo: AP)
The Lebanese civil war lasted from April 1975 to October 1990

​​Syrian support for the right wing nationalist Christians did not last long however, and in the course of the civil war the Syrian troops also turned against them.

As far as the Lebanese-Palestinian relationship was concerned however, it was the 1982 Israeli invasion which marked the final turning point: the smashing of the PLO and its institutions the intended aim.

Between 1985 and 1987 even the Shiite Amal movement fought a proxy war on Syria's behalf against the PLO. Syria, for its part, choosing to support a PLO splinter group under the leadership of Abu Musa, which had broken away in the 1980s in opposition to Arafat’s Fatah.

It is before this backdrop that the present crisis has unfolded. The 391,000 Palestinians who, according to UNRWA, are registered in Lebanon have not only lost their political representation through the marginalisation of the PLO, they have also become economically disadvantaged and are suffering as a result of their current status.

There is, for example, a law that prevents them from acquiring tenure of their houses or apartments. Furthermore Palestinians, some of whom are already third generation in the country, are forbidden entry to over 20 different professions – even an expensive work permit is of no help in this respect.

"Whatever Siniora gives me, Lahoud takes away again!"

Until relatively recently these problems had no place on the official political agenda. In contrast to the situation in most Arab countries the Palestinian authorities long remained without diplomatic representation in Beirut. It was not until 2006 that a representative office was conceded to the PLO.

An initiative of the Sunni Prime Minister Siniora to grant embassy status to the representative office failed when pro-Syrian President Emil Lahoud vetoed it. Abbas Zaki, PLO representative in Lebanon, was reflecting wryly on this state of affairs when he commented: "Whatever Siniora gives me, Lahoud takes away again!"

The Syrian troops may have left Lebanon but the political situation remains highly charged. Many analysts even believe that Syria, with the help of the Palestinians, particularly extremist groups such as Ahmad Jibril's "Fatah-Intifada" or "Fatah al-Islam", are the manipulators behind attempts to tip the scales and upset the equilibrium in Lebanon.

The case of Nahr el-Bared

Until the Syrian army left, the Nahr el-Bared camp was a relatively peaceful place. Divided into areas named after places in Palestine, internal security in the camp was above all the responsibility of the so-called "Popular Committees". Operating almost like a city council, it was they who regulated the camp’s internal affairs.

An explosion strikes a building in the besieged Nahr el-Bared refugee camp (photo: AP)
An explosion strikes the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli

​​When "Fatah al-Islam" tried to settle in the so-called "Bedawi" Palestinian camp in North Lebanon, in the autumn of 2006, other political groups in the camp drove them out. Following this, the group then attempted to settle in Nahr el-Bared, trying first of all to pass themselves off as a PLO splinter group.

However their light weapons training and religious studies soon made it rather obvious that this was not a Palestinian group, while the clearly mixed provenance of the group's members, drawn from various parts of the Islamic world, was another giveaway.

With the camp's weak security committee unable to oppose them, the group had free reign. They intimidated other camp dwellers for listening to music. They used money to rent houses and leased a piece of ground with access to the sea.

Extremist violence in the shadow of the state

With the Lebanese state in absentia and the internal control structures within the camp weak, there was nothing to stand in the group's way or prevent it from successfully establishing itself. Weapons were hoarded, fighters trained. According to the Lebanese government, a bomb attack on two buses was also organised while the group was based at the camp.

Given the military dimension of the conflict, the return of the refugees and the rebuilding of the camp are not enough. So the "Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee" has set itself more ambitious goals – no less than the integration of the Palestinians into the country's political processes.

The Palestinians need to be protected not only against economic marginalisation, but, just as importantly, against the development of a political "parallel society". It is also necessary that the future should see the camps receiving better protection against the influence of extremist political forces. Only by ensuring this can things finally get back to normal for the Palestinians and their camp.

Bernhard Hillenkamp

© 2007

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Reconstructing Lebanon
High Expectations
Despite the stationing of UN troops in Lebanon the population still has no confidence in the peacekeeping capacity. And also the leadership in Beirut comes under increasing pressure since the Lebanese people are waiting for government action to rebuild the country. Bernhard Hillenkamp reports

Lebanese Civil Society after the War
National Unity and the State's Monopoly on Power
Bernhard Hillenkamp has lived and worked in Lebanon for the past eight years, serving, among other things, as coordinator of an international NGO project. In this interview, he talks about how civil society in Lebanon is likely to develop

Refugees in Lebanon
Fear Travels with Them
The cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel has launched a wave of refugees returning to their homes, but the problem of the displacement of many Lebanese still remains unresolved. By Anne Françoise Weber