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Growing Crisis in Nahr el-Bared

Interview with Rania Masri

Monday 28 May 2007, by Christopher Brown

For nearly a week the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared has been under siege by the Lebanese army, which claims it is battling militants from a previous unknown group named Fatah al Islam. As of this moment, conservative estimates have more than 100 Palestinians injured or killed. Thousands of residents from Nahr el-Bared have fled to Biddawi refugee camp. I spoke with Rania Masri, an environmental scientist, and asst professor of environmental science at the University of Balamand, who had traveled to the region of Nahr el-Bared.

Christopher Brown: Rania could you update us on the present situation in Nahr al-Bared?

Rania Masri: Well as we speak, from what I’ve heard from a photojournalist that is within the camp is that bombardment against the camp has continued; approximately half of the refuges in the camp have remained. So given that there were 40,000 refuges in Nahr el-Bared last week, we have, at least, 20,000 Palestinian refuges that have remained within the camp.

This camp is approximately one square kilometer in size. And right now the Palestinians are sequestered in half that area, trying to surround themselves within the very heart of the camp to be as far as possible from the Lebanese bombardment, but their not quite succeeding in that.

At the same times these thousands of Palestinian refuges that have fled from Nahr el-Bared have gone to other refuge camps. Unfortunately there is no single refuge camp in Lebanon that is operating in a healthy fashion, in the sense that before this crisis had enough food, infrastructure to sustain themselves. Now on top of that we have numerous camps that have almost doubled in size being able to absorb the refuges from Nahr el-Bared.

So we have two sets of crisis’: We have a crisis within the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp where people are not only besieged having to live with an extreme lack of food and medicine and at the same time trying to endure under bombardment and sniper fire, we also have another crisis from the refuges that have left Nahr el-Bared who are now trying to make it in other refuge camps throughout other refugee camps that are already at capacity.

The humanitarian conditions in Nahr al-Bared were dire long before this recent crisis. Has medical, food and other basic essentials been able to get into the camp?

It’s a big problem. I spent the day at the Biddawi camp, which is approximately 15 kilometers from Nahr el-Bared camp, and is now housing approximately 18,000 refuges from Nahr el-bared refugee camp.

Unfortunately 25 percent of the refuges are going into schools in the Biddawi camp and 75 percent are going into private homes. Most of the aid, approximately 80 percent of the aid, is going into the schools. Therefore we already have a meager amount of aid going to a minority group of people who happen to be in the schools. And the reason aid is going there is that the easiest place to distribute aid is in these centers.

So we have the majority of the people, 75 to 80 percent of the population of these new refuges, in an already refuge camp, not being able to receive this assistance. And we’re talking assistance such as bread, water, and very basic medicine. And even that, even those who have been able to receive assistance, all the individuals that we spoke to, spoke about a lack of mattresses.

To have an idea about the situation, imagine that have thousands of people leaving the camps with nothing but the clothes on their back. We spoke to one individual who said he could not even afford the cab fare for this short distance. So they have almost no money and with nothing but the clothes on their back, now being thrust into a community, a situation that already destitute and already impoverished. And this is what we see happening beyond this camp. The refuges have not only gone to the Biddawi camp, but other camps in Beirut and in other parts of the country. That as I have been saying does not even have the capacity to support themselves, let alone the capacity to support these new refugees.

Do we have any new information on who Fatah al-Islam is; clearly they are not Palestinians; so who are they, where are they from, and how did they get into the country?

Well Fatah al-Islam, if we are going to define an organization by its membership, or by its cause or by its funding, fails on all three counts. It is neither Palestinian in its cause, nor in funding, nor in membership.

And this needs to be repeated unfortunately because the corporate U.S. media continues to present it as if it were a Palestinian organization; it is not, it is unequivocally not Palestinian. Furthermore, it has received absolutely no political support from any Palestinian faction. So, with that we need to understand that it is not Palestinian.

Second as to the question of funding, as Seymour Hersh himself has stated, and as Alistair Crooke has stated — Alistair Crooke is a former British intelligence agent with more than 20 years — both these individuals have stated that Fatah al-Islam have received indirect funding from the United States government and received direct funding from Saudi Arabia and certain elements in the Lebanese government. The very same elements that are working to destroy Fatah al-Islam.

Fatah al-Islam is a radical, fundamentalist Sunni organization composed primarily of Saudis, Yemenis, some Afghanis and some Lebanese whose primary objective is to defeat Shias, be they in Lebanon or elsewhere. The primary objective is not to end the Israeli occupation in Palestinian territories.

So when we look at it that way, there could have been some logic behind creating this organization as a faction against Hezbollah. By which then defeats the second accusation presented in the corporate U.S. media, which is, Fatah al-Islam is supported by Syria. There is no evidence to say it has received funding from Syria. Nor would it make logical sense to claim that the Syrian government would support an organization whose main function is to destroy the primary Syrian ally in Lebanon, which is Hezbollah.

So on that grounds again it fails. So again, let us emphasize that Fatah al-Islam is neither Palestinian in funding, nor in cause, nor at the same time can we claim it is Syrian in funding.

The Bush administration stated it would be willing to give military aid to the Siniora government if needed. Condoleezza Rice, U.S. secretary of state, said, "The Siniora government is fighting against a very tough extremist foe. But Lebanon is doing the right thing to try to protect its population, to assert its sovereignty and so we are very supportive of the Siniora government and what it is trying to do."

However, this is does not seem like a quick fix solution. The West has failed to see a more pressing issue of Right of Return for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees whose families were displaced 59 years ago as a result of the creation of the state of Israel, Rania Masri your thoughts on this?

Well of course that Right of Return will be a question that the U.S. government will completely ignore. But let me go back to a few other statements that you posed.

One question that we need to ask ourselves about the shipment of arms that is coming, or if not has already been received in Lebanon is: Why would the Lebanese army need more weapons to fight against a few hundred people, regardless of how well armed these few hundred people are given that the Lebanese army does have heavy artillery?

There is no logic to this idea that the Lebanese army needs more weapons to defeat this terrorist organization. Unless one, there were going to be an expansion of violence; or two, this was a public relations ploy by the U.S. government to show its support to the Lebanese government. Or three, that this is a buildup of relations between the U.S. government and the Siniora government in order to get more U.S. influence on security matters within Lebanon and specifically within the Lebanese security forces that are already strongly aligned with the U.S. government. So there is that we need to keep in mind.

Also, if we are going to talk about the U.S. government trying to make appeals to the Lebanese population, forget the Palestinian population, even with just in regards to the Lebanese population the continuous bombardment of these camps is a detriment to the entire country not only to the status of the Palestinian population. Because so long as we have a segment of the people live in Lebanon being attacked, then we have a buildup of animosity in the country.

If we’re going to put everything else aside, we’re going to put law and ethics and history aside, whenever one segment of any country feels under attack then there is only a time limit before this segment of the population starts to defend itself. And if this is going to happen then we are going to have an escalation of violence. And if the violence escalates, we all know from previous historical examples how easy it is to start a violent conflict and how extraordinarily difficult it is to contain that conflict.

So even if the U.S. government is only claiming to support Lebanon and cares nothing for the Palestinian population, as a Lebanese I would tell the U.S. government, "Please do not get involved. Take your weapons and go back to the United States." Because this kind of involvement will prove detrimental to all the people living in Lebanon, be they Palestinians or Lebanese.

Furthermore, if anyone is truly concerned to deal with the heart of this matter, to deal with the situation of the Palestinian refuges, that we have to be strongly working on two fronts. One: the Right of Return of the Palestinians to their homes and second, the implementation of civil and political rights for the Palestinians in Lebanon for which they have been deprived of.

But what we need to understand and what, unfortunately, has been understood thus far by the Palestinian population in Lebanon is a conspiracy that is happening against the Lebanese army, against the Palestinian people, and against the Lebanese people.

Christopher Brown is an independent journalist living in San Francisco, Ca. He produces and hosts a weekly podcast titled, Crossing The Line: Life in Occupied Palestine (