On May 19, in an alleged bank heist at a branch of Banque de la Méditerranée in Amyoun, not far from the northern coastal city of Tripoli, several armed men made off with a sum estimated at between $1,500 and $100,000. Early the next morning, units of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) moved against several buildings in Tripoli where they thought the villains were holed up. The ISF, under the command of Lebanon’s Interior Ministry, has been associated with the Future Movement founded by the late ex-premier Rafiq al-Hariri since the election of the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, also of Future, in June 2005. When the ISF encountered stiff resistance in Tripoli, they called in the Lebanese army.
Shortly after the ISF assault began, militants based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Barid, about nine miles north of Tripoli, overran four Lebanese army positions outside the camp. They killed several soldiers and took more hostage, reportedly torturing and beheading them. It was later said that for some weeks the ISF had been monitoring Sunni Islamist activities in Tripoli, and that the bank robbers were militants belonging to a salafi organization called Fatah al-Islam. Since there was no liaison between the intelligence units of the two security services, the army was not informed of the ISF’s activities and so did not alert its men around the camp.
The Lebanese army responded by cutting off water and electricity to the entirety of Nahr al-Barid, and pounding the camp with tank, artillery and heavy machine gun fire, inflicting heavy damage. Palestinian refugees inside Nahr al-Barid got no warning of an impending assault, and so no opportunity to avoid it, resulting in a humanitarian crisis among the sector of the population least equipped to sustain it. Four days into the bombardment, those Palestinian refugees who were able to leave — over two thirds of the population of 31,000 to 40,000 people — left. According to UN figures, 4,487 Nahr al-Barid families have sought shelter in the nearby Baddawi camp. Another 895 families have turned to friends and family in Tripoli or else points further south. At least 20 civilians have been killed in the Tripoli camp, though limited access to the camp has made it difficult to verify the figures. Fatah al-Islam appears dug in for the duration.
On June 3, the violence in Nahr al-Barid reverberated in the ‘Ayn al-Hilwa camp in the southern coastal city of Sidon, when gunmen from the militant Jund al-Sham group attacked a nearby army checkpoint. The two-day exchange of fire that ensued left two more Lebanese soldiers dead. The reinforced UNIFIL contingent that has been guarding Israel’s northern border since the end of the 34-day war in August 2006 was nervous about its security even before this violence. An unclaimed Katyusha rocket attack into northern Israel on the afternoon of June 17 has only added to ambient anxieties about the ramifications of the country’s deteriorating security situation.
If past precedent is anything to go by, most of the questions surrounding the immediate causes of this crisis will remain unanswered. One thing that can be said for certain is that the violence in Nahr al-Barid, and thus in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, is embedded in the Lebanese state’s struggle to fill the vacuum caused by the termination of its relationship with the Syrian security apparatus following the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in the spring of 2005. The Syrian pullout fulfilled one major stipulation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 passed in September 2004, the other being the “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” The refusal of Hizballah to dissolve its Islamic Resistance, a refusal reinforced by the fight with Israel in 2006, is one issue underlying the Lebanese political stalemate. But another explosive question raised by UNSC 1559 was how the state might seek to apply it to Palestinian and other armed groups operating in Lebanon’s refugee camps.
For all the deep-seated differences between the Siniora government and the Hizballah-led opposition, the Lebanese political class has been united behind support for the army in its drive to root out Fatah al-Islam from Nahr al-Barid. The Siniora government called upon Washington to redouble its commitment to resupplying the army, and Washington responded with alacrity, airlifting materiel to Beirut in a military transport. In his highly anticipated May 25 speech on the crisis, Hizballah Secretary-General Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah condemned the airlift as a marker of widening US intervention in Lebanon. He was nevertheless careful to draw two red lines at Nahr al-Barid, warning against any attack upon the Palestinians, whom Hizballah has so often claimed to champion, and condemning any attack upon the army, with which the Shi‘i party has had a warm working relationship over the years.
If Lebanese politicians on both sides of the government-opposition divide have emphasized support for the army over empathy for human suffering in the camps, their rhetoric betrays the marginality of the refugee community. It also reflects the centrality of the Lebanese army in the ongoing contest over the future direction of state policy. At the end of the day, it is entirely likely that the Palestinians in Lebanon will be three-time losers in this bloody episode: enduring the humanitarian crisis that grows out of it, shouldering the burden of containing it and suffering a backlash in Lebanese political opinion for being seen as somehow responsible for it. The anti-Palestinian feeling in Lebanon is all the more bitterly ironic since so few of the radical Sunni Islamists battling the Lebanese army in Nahr al-Barid are themselves Palestinian.
ONE “SECURITY ISLAND” IN AN ARCHIPELAGO
There are two complementary narratives of the Palestinian refugees’ condition in Lebanon. The most common in Lebanese political circles is that of the camps’ political autonomy, which dates back to before the beginning of the country’s last civil war in 1975.
In the late 1960s, the heavy-handed tactics of Lebanese police and intelligence operatives in the camps clashed with the growing Palestinian militancy there. The state’s security forces were eventually ejected, as sanctioned by the 1969 Cairo Accords concluded between Lebanon and the PLO. During the presidency of Amin Gemayel, who was installed after the Israeli invasion of 1982, Lebanon unilaterally abrogated this agreement. But the Cairo Accords were not replaced, either with an alternative administrative arrangement for the camps or with an effective liaison mechanism between the camps’ administration and the Lebanese state. This informal relationship remained unchanged throughout the Syrian “presence” of 1976-2005.
By the late 1990s, when Fatah militants reasserted that party’s dominance in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, there was a de facto division of labor in Lebanon’s camps: Fatah controlled those south of Beirut, while the Syrian security services were the power broker in Beirut and points north. It was this system of bifurcated governance that gave birth to politicians’ descriptions of the camps as “security islands” — no-go zones for Lebanese security men that could be readily blamed for periodic acts of brazen criminality. The term is cynical for a host of reasons.
Contrary to much opinion in Lebanon, the Palestinian refugees there are not by nature criminals. Their legal status in the country has merely criminalized their condition. They share none of the civil liberties of Lebanese citizens, or of Palestinians who fled to Jordan, Syria or other Arab countries after the 1948 and 1967 wars. They are forbidden from building inside the camps, owning property or working in jobs other than the most menial. They must rely on the dwindling resources of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for their children’s schooling and other basic public services. Institutions that once helped to sustain the refugee community have been in steady decline since the removal of the PLO headquarters from Beirut in 1982. The 1993 Oslo agreement, which saw the PLO divert its administrative and financial energies from the diaspora to the parts of the West Bank and Gaza controlled by the new Palestinian Authority, corresponded to deep cuts in UNRWA’s budget. Faced with such obstacles, refugees trying to scrape out the semblance of a living sometimes pay bribes to work for sub-par wages or spend exorbitant sums to emigrate illegally — a practice that has made Lebanon’s the only refugee community in the Arab world that is actually shrinking.
Nahr al-Barid suffers problems endemic to Lebanon’s refugee camps and informal gathering places: a lack of proper water, sewage and electricity infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty and unemployment. The UN estimates that over 25 percent of Nahr al-Barid’s residents live in abject poverty, defined in Lebanon’s 2003 National Millennium Development Goal Report as expenditure of less than $1.30 per day. It is a mark of the Palestinian condition in Lebanon that, before the present crisis, Nahr al-Barid was considered the most economically robust of the country’s camps. Its market bustled with activity — whether because it served as an entrepot for goods smuggled from Syria or because of the low rents that made it a natural conduit for agricultural goods headed from the northern countryside into Tripoli and for cheap manufactures from Tripoli destined for the hinterland. As a result of the army’s siege upon Nahr al-Barid, of course, this modest economic success story has been abruptly curtailed.
The “security islands” rhetoric is also misleading because both the Lebanese and Syrian security apparatuses have worked informally with the Palestinian political organizations in the camps, so that the Lebanese could apprehend people there who were not protected by Lebanese or Syrian interests.
Finally, speaking of the camps as “security islands” reinforces the fiction that the Lebanese state has forever yearned to assert full sovereignty over the entire country. In practice, the decentralized administration of the Palestinian camps has been just one variation on a theme of rule whereby the Lebanese state effectively outsourced its responsibilities and prerogatives. By this system, confessional politicians dispense services like health care and garbage removal to their constituents as patronage. In the period of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, local security was delegated to different political groups on a case-by-case basis depending on their relationship with Damascus. In areas where Damascus’ allies held sway — from Druze lord Walid Jumblatt (before he shifted to the “Syria out!” side in 2005) to Hizballah (Jumblatt’s present bête noire) — groups minded their own turf, with or without the cooperation of the state security apparatus. Where banned “anti-Syrian” groups held sway, Syrian secret police were particularly overbearing. Far from exceptional, then, “security islands” like Nahr al-Barid were, and are, simply part of the archipelago that is post-civil war Lebanon.
Arbitrary in its operation, this fractured system of governance faced profound challenges with the Syrian withdrawal. In the camps, Palestinian organizations tried to fill the political vacuum. In Nahr al-Barid, it was players from Hamas and Fatah who struggled to assert themselves. Spokesmen from left-leaning Palestinian organizations report that the struggle was inconclusive because Hamas is simply too new a presence in the camp to be “number two,” let alone the dominant force.
Another reason for the persistence of the vacuum is Lebanon’s vague administrative relationship with the Palestinian refugee community as a whole. The Siniora government accepted the principle of reopening the PLO office in Beirut in May 2006, but the office’s status has remained ambiguous. “Is the PLO office merely the representative of the Palestinian Authority in Lebanon?” muses Suhayl al-Natour, of the Palestinian Human Development Center, aligned with the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. “Or is it responsible for organizing the Palestinian community in Lebanon?”
This was the uncertain security situation Fatah al-Islam entered in late 2006.
Insofar as Western media are cued to labels, there is a strong inclination to assume that Fatah al-Islam is a group of Islamist terrorists somehow related to the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
The organization’s founder Shakir al-‘Absi is of this lineage, having begun his militant career as a member of Fatah, the secular party that is the largest component of the PLO. Potent a symbol as Palestinian disenfranchisement is, the group ‘Absi purportedly commands appears as representative of Palestinian national interests as Joseph Stalin was of his native Georgia. There are contending stories about who ‘Absi and his band work (or worked) for, which is interesting since so many groups have disavowed him, and ‘Absi them.
‘Absi departed Fatah sometime after Israel’s 1982 defeat of Palestinian fighters in Lebanon and joined the Syrian-aligned Fatah al-Intifada. Syrian authorities arrested him in 2000 and sentenced him to three years in prison on charges of smuggling arms to and from Jordan. Four years later, a Jordanian court condemned him to death in absentia for the shooting of US diplomat Lawrence Foley in October 2002. He was sentenced alongside Jordanian-born al-Qaeda leader Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi.
Shortly after his release from Syrian prison in 2003, it seems ‘Absi went to Iraq to join the resistance to the US invasion, fighting alongside groups loyal to al-Qaeda and becoming acquainted with its leadership there. Upon returning from Iraq, ‘Absi relocated to Lebanon’s western Bekaa Valley, joining Fatah al-Intifada members operating out of the village of Halwa.
‘Absi split with Fatah al-Intifada in late 2006. He appeared on the Lebanese radar in November 2006 as Fatah al-Islam leader after he and his coterie of foreign jihadis had taken control of Fatah al-Intifada’s facilities in Nahr al-Barid. Testimonies from Nahr al-Barid refugees disavow any connection to ‘Absi’s people, a claim that is bolstered by the absence of Palestinians among the slain militants. It remains unclear how he and his followers ensconced themselves in the camp.
Syrian officials and their allies in Lebanon label Fatah al-Islam as al-Qaeda operatives. It is not an imaginative accusation. Though Fatah al-Islam has denied any institutional links to al-Qaeda, the global Sunni militancy ‘Absi advocates echoes that of al-Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam’s statements have appeared on salafi websites. In a Reuters interview in March, ‘Absi said Fatah al-Islam wanted to implement shari‘a law among Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community before confronting Israel.
The Saudi-owned al-‘Arabiyya channel has advanced a theory that ‘Absi is just the front man for an even murkier cabal of multinational Islamist conspirators including one ‘Abd al-Karim al-Saadi, aka “Abu Muhjin.” This fierce-looking Palestinian bogeyman was cast as the mastermind behind the criminal activities of the Lebanese-Palestinian salafi group ‘Usbat al-Ansar before disappearing into the “security island” of ‘Ayn al-Hilwa.
Lebanese government and security spokesmen say Fatah al-Islam are agents of Damascus, claiming that, in the wake of a pair of fatal bus bombings north of Beirut on February 13, police arrested four Syrians who confessed their links to Fatah al-Islam. ‘Absi has denied these accusations, as has Damascus. The Lebanese version casts Fatah al-Islam as characters in the latest installment in a saga of Syrian meddling in Lebanon intended to remind Lebanese — and the international community — of Damascus’ indispensable role in maintaining Lebanese security. This version of events resonates among supporters of the Siniora government because it seems so amply confirmed by Lebanon’s recent history.
Logistically, someone in Syria must have played some role in facilitating the militants’ movement into Lebanon — ‘Absi having been in Syria beforehand and many of his men reportedly having come from Iraq. The debate rests on whether they secured free passage through Syria or were actually paid to stir up trouble in Lebanon. Those who “know” the latter to be true argue less from verifiable fact than from assumptions of the Syrian state’s pervasive malevolence.
Sensitive to their hosts’ custom of blaming others for their troubles, Lebanon’s various Palestinian organizations have all denounced Fatah al-Islam, too. Their spokesmen have pointed out the Lebanese government has its own share of responsibility in this matter. Nahr al-Barid does not exactly straddle the Lebanese-Syrian border, and these militants had to cross Lebanese territory to get to the camp. There are those, however, who would step beyond deriding the Lebanese state’s incompetence in permitting Fatah al-Islam to set up shop, and accuse it of complicity.
SINIORA AND THE “SHIITE CRESCENT”
In March, The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh published an article suggesting that the Siniora government has been a party to Fatah al-Islam’s establishing a toehold in Lebanon. Hersh argues that Fatah al-Islam was one salafi organization among many that received funds from the Hariri family, whether acting on its own account or as an executor of Saudi wishes.
Hersh’s Lebanon-based sources reproduced a scenario that has been applied to the course of Lebanese politics since the start of the summer 2006 war. In one anecdote to emerge since the Nahr al-Barid crisis began, Fatah al-Islam did not go to the Hariri-owned Banque de la Méditerranée on May 19 to rob it, but to cash a check (or checks) made out in their name. The masks and guns came out only when they found someone had stopped payment.
No evidence has been presented to prove Hariri entanglement in the origins of the Nahr al-Barid fighting. Unfortunately, the theory is not entirely baseless, either. It draws upon growing fears among “moderate” Sunni regimes like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt of a resurgent “Shiite crescent” in the Arab east, the Hariri family’s close business and personal ties to the Saudi royal family and the evident community of interests among these regimes and the Siniora government in its ongoing struggle with Hizballah. Hizballah supporters point, for instance, to the initial timidity with which the Siniora government condemned Israel’s summer 2006 bombing campaign.
The Future Movement’s relationship with Sunni Islamism goes back further than the summer war. Since the civil war, Lebanese Sunnis have been regarded as a sect without a militia. Rafiq al-Hariri cultivated this image, distancing Future from organizations like al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya — which, if thuggish, is ideologically closer to the Muslim Brotherhood than the salafis. The realities of Lebanese society, and the clientelist electoral politics that reflects it, made it impossible to ignore these groups, however, and their marginal constituency.
At the start of Lebanon’s 2005 parliamentary elections, Future and al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya declared there would be no electoral alliance between them. Since the first two rounds were virtually uncontested wins for Future and Hizballah, respectively, this was a simple matter. When, a week later, Michel Aoun emerged a victor in the third round and threatened to repeat his performance in the fourth (northern Lebanon), though, Future swung into action. Saad al-Hariri spent lavishly to support the Future list in the north, and, by all accounts, the poor Sunni villagers there turned out in droves. A portion of this largesse certainly went to al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya. Some of it likely ended up with more extreme Islamist groups.
Hariri’s ticket took all of northern Lebanon’s 28 seats and his allies won the majority of seats in Parliament. The new legislature’s first order of business was to keep certain political promises to Hariri’s partners in the “Syria out!” demonstrations following the assassination of his father. The most prominent of these promises was the release of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, serving a life sentence for the murder of then-prime minister Rashid Karami, among others. The parliamentary pardon of Geagea on July 18, 2005 overshadowed another amnesty to a group of Sunni Muslim militants charged with being involved in Islamist cells connected to subversive activities.
In their number were 26 men tried for involvement in the Diniyya insurgency of 1999-2000, which saw more than 40 people killed, including 11 Lebanese soldiers. Another seven detainees, from Majdal Anjar in the Bekaa, had been held since September 2004, accused of plotting to attack Western diplomats, embassies and Lebanese security facilities. The 2005 International Crisis Group report Hersh cites in his article notes that Saad al-Hariri paid $48,000 to bail out the Diniyya Islamists before obtaining parliamentary pardon for them.
More recently, a couple of months before the present crisis developed, salafis associated with Sidon’s Jund al-Sham group were in conflict with their neighbors in a quarter adjacent to ‘Ayn al-Hilwa. Sidon deputy Bahiyya al-Hariri (Saad’s aunt) defused the problem by paying Jund al-Sham members some thousands of dollars to leave the neighborhood. Various Palestinian sources agree several of these militants decamped to join ‘Absi in Nahr al-Barid.
The events of June 3 suggest some Jund al-Sham did remain in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa. When the violence flared up there, the badly taxed Lebanese army fought alongside gunmen loyal to Sultan Abu al-‘Aynayn, the long-time PLO military commander in Lebanon. Since then, a tense calm has returned to the Sidon camp, and a security force has been set up to act as a buffer between Jund al-Sham and the army. It is comprised of Islamists toting M-16s, reportedly from the ‘Usbat al-Ansar, the group from which Jund al-Sham split.
Whether or not the Hariris and their Saudi supporters have a soft spot for salafis is not the point. Rather, it is the culture of cooptation that has marked the Lebanese government’s approach to the challenges confronting the country since the Syrian withdrawal. Rafiq al-Hariri deployed his financial resources to great effect during his political career, but his purchase of loyalties was embedded in the Syrian occupation’s security regime. With the Syrians gone, and with Sunnis set against their Shi‘i countrymen — and with them the specter of Hizballah, the militants who stopped the Israeli army, Lebanese find the line between purchased loyalties and militant outsourcing a fuzzy one.
None are touchier about the issue of outsourcing than the Palestinians themselves. Early in the Nahr al-Barid fighting, the Palestinian political organizations were told they had to take a stand on Fatah al-Islam, despite the fact that its membership is not exclusively Arab, let alone Palestinian. When the crisis was ignited in Tripoli, it was obvious Abu al-‘Aynayn would have liked nothing better than to dispatch Fatah men to Nahr al-Barid to consolidate PLO influence there.
Speaking before the violence in ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, the DFLP’s Suhayl al-Natour expressed grave misgivings about Palestinians being contracted to fight for the Lebanese government. “Who has the authority to use arms in the camps? The Lebanese government has mandated no one. They say, ‘You are like our security elements and you have the capacity to bring these people to justice,’ but it’s not the case. Carrying a gun is a common habit in Lebanon, but any civilian that carries a gun is doing so to protect his family and his house if he’s attacked. To ask him to [assume a policing role] is to ask him to assume the responsibilities of the state.”
For Palestinians who survived the repeated destruction and siege of their camps during the civil war, the Nahr al-Barid crisis brings back many bad memories. Some of those who fled the Tripoli camp after hostilities began say they have already been displaced five times in their lives. Natour is wary of the scapegoating of Palestinians made likely by the overall political climate, where concern for the thousands of refugees rendered homeless once more is completely drowned out by paeans to the Lebanese army, whose symbolic power as the repository of pined-for national unity has long been greater than its combat effectiveness. Called upon to actually fight, the army has sustained serious losses — as of mid-June, 69 soldiers had lost their lives. “I think a lot of Lebanese will say, ‘Fucking Palestinians killed our sons and brothers in the army,’” says Natour, “even if they know it wasn’t Palestinians who did the killing and that many Palestinians were killed because of them.”
Indeed, some Lebanese politicians have already spoken in similar terms. Former President and Lebanese Forces leader Amin Gemayel explicitly wed the camps to al-Qaeda, suggesting the presence of “evil terrorist forces” necessitated the “cleansing of the camps.” “No matter how much the Palestinians may deny their relationship with these destructive elements,” the Maronite elder statesman continued, “the certain truth is that they have found themselves a place inside the camps without Palestinian opposition.” Such remarks raise questions in Palestinian circles about the means Lebanon and its Western allies might employ to implement the disarmament of “non-Lebanese militias” called for in UNSC 1559. Upon leaving Nahr al-Barid, one displaced Palestinian refugee reported a Lebanese soldier promising that the army would soon clean out all the camps in exactly this manner.
Natour expresses the fear that the Palestinian condition in Lebanon as a whole will wind up as collateral damage of the Lebanese state’s forcible assertion of sovereignty in Nahr al-Barid. “It’s a disaster. Another disaster. You have to pay the price for no reason, without any possible gain in the future. When you fight the Israelis, you may make national demands, but with the Lebanese it’s only a matter of human rights. You can’t win human rights through military action.”
Jim Quilty is Beirut-based journalist