Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A repeat of history at Nahr al-Bared?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon. Co-written with Nadine Elali and Matt Nash]

In another of what is becoming a series of outbreaks of instability to afflict Lebanon in recent months, three Palestinians were killed and several others wounded between Friday and Monday in clashes with the Lebanese army in refugee camps across the country. While Interior Minister Marwan Charbel was quick to describe the events as a “coincidence […] not planned,” suspicions to the contrary have been fuelled by the particular location of the first killing – the northern Nahr al-Bared camp, site of the months-long battle between the army and the Islamist Fatah al-Islam outfit in 2007 – as well as the timing, less than two weeks since deadly gunfights in nearby Tripoli.

Accounts of what exactly triggered the violence on Monday vary. Arkan Bader, a Nahr al-Bared resident and leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in the camp, told NOW Lebanon that some youths were attempting to bury Ahmad Qassim, the young man killed on Friday, on a plot of land belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) but under the control of the Lebanese army. The army’s refusal to allow them to enter the land led to a confrontation, which ultimately ended with two dead and some 20 wounded. While an army statement claimed that soldiers initially used tear gas and rubber bullets against refugees armed with Molotov cocktails, Bader and other camp residents claim the army immediately fired live bullets and that the youths were merely throwing stones.

“This could have been dealt with by other means,” said Hassan Shishniyeh, press spokesman for the Palestinian Embassy in Lebanon. “There are other forms of weapons than live bullets which can be used in civil disobedience cases. Everybody knows that Nahr al-Bared is devoid of arms. We ask the Lebanese army not to use excessive force against Palestinian civilians.”

Several people interviewed by NOW expressed the view that the violence was in some way deliberately engineered, as many perceived the 2007 conflict to be. Riad Kahwaji, founder of the INEGMA think tank, placed the blame on pro-Syrian factions within the camp. “It’s most likely that those who confronted the army were elements loyal to the Syrian regime, such as Fatah al-Intifada and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). According to my sources, the Lebanese army has been watching these groups closely, especially in light of what’s happening in Syria, and fears they may be used to stir up problems as a means of diverting attention from next door. I think this is more or less what we’re seeing right now in the camps,” he said.

“No one enters the camps without the knowledge of the Palestinian factions, including the pro-Syrian ones,” he added. “So if there are ‘infiltrators’—as the government claims—who let them in? Experience shows that Islamist elements in the camps are linked to the Syrian regime.”

For his part, Shishniyeh said that in Nahr al-Bared, “There are some who are trying to drag the camps into a position we don’t want to be in; who are trying to incite the army into a confrontation,” although he did not name any particular group. He did, however, make a point of observing that the army behaved more responsibly in Saida’s Ain al-Hilweh camp, where protests went on Monday in response to the Nahr al-Bared events, than it did in the north. “In Ain al-Hilweh, the army was wise in the way it dealt with protests. It retreated to lessen the anger of the people and only returned when things were calmer.”

Nadim Shehade, associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at London’s Chatham House, argues that either way, the events have been politically exploited. “The event and timing are weird. If the incident is purposefully done, then it is to blow up the situation in the north. But it could also not be purposefully done; it could have happened and then some people took advantage of it to increase the agitation. It is not necessary that there be a conspiracy, but when it happens it might be to some groups’ interests to increase the tension.”

He adds, however, that such an incident was inevitable, given prevailing conditions in the camps. Nahr al-Bared is the only Palestinian camp in Lebanon where entrance and exit are controlled by the Lebanese army; a situation Shehade describes as “unsustainable.” “The whole issue of the Nahr al-Bared camp has been put on the back burner for a long time. There are certainly underlying factors and tensions behind this outburst. Things are extremely bad for the refugees, and there’s a feeling among them that the government is doing nothing about it. There’s no interaction with the refugees themselves; the only interaction is with the factions. And if you ask the people there, they say the factions don’t represent them, and indeed only add to their problems. There is no proper interlocutor between the people and the Lebanese government,” he said.

“Moreover, the state handles Palestinian refugees purely as a security matter [rather than a humanitarian one]. There was a time when they were treated in a more comprehensive manner.”

Shishniyeh agrees, describing the “humiliated” feeling of many residents of Nahr al-Bared. “There are four kinds of passes they have to show at checkpoints in and out of the camp, there are delays in reconstruction, and many of them are still prevented from returning to their homes. There’s a great deal of resentment among them toward the military cordon [enforced by the Lebanese army]. We ask the Lebanese army to end this military state that the civilians are subjected to on a daily basis. Easing these policies will ultimately lead to a more positive mood that will alleviate the current tensions.”

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