Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Innocent Syrians pay the price for Aounists' bigotry

[Originally posted at NOW]

“I personally made the plan to encircle Tel az-Zaatar and liberate it […] The siege lasted 52 days, I think, and the Palestinians weren’t leaving […] Eventually, it was getting boring and irritating so they removed the camp. There might have been some transgressions […]”

That was General Michel Aoun’s casual description, as recounted to Al Jazeera, of his role in the famous 1976 siege of the Tel az-Zaatar refugee camp, the end result of which, David Hirst writes in Beware of Small States, was some 3,500 Palestinian men, women and children killed; “between 1,000 and 2,000 of them after the camp had fallen, crushed under bulldozers, shot and hacked to death, or finished off by militiamen.”

It’s the kind of anecdote that casts a perpetually ironic shadow over Aoun’s 2006 Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah, and is always worth recalling when you hear the MoU described as some kind of enlightened breakthrough for communal harmony – a “remarkable” example of “Christian[s] and Muslims working together for a united Lebanon,” as a hopelessly hoodwinked Terry Waite put it not long ago.

Indeed, while it’s by no means straightforward to identify Lebanon’s most sectarian Christian party – recall that the dreadful Orthodox Gathering electoral law proposal had enthusiastic, bipartisan Christian support – the Aounists have certainly contended harder than most for the title in recent years (as even the likes of Asaad AbuKhalil are beginning to notice).

As if to seal the deal, on Sunday former telecoms minister Nicolas Sehnaoui and his comrade Ziad Abs – both of whom are often touted even by March 14ers as exemplifying the polished, respectable face of the Free Patriotic Movement – took to the mic to declare the era of playing nice with the Syrian refugees over for good.

Picking up where their colleague, the new Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil last left off (“Syrians already in Lebanon should be deported […] What is happening [is a plot] to change the demography of the country”), Sehnaoui and Abs explained that the refugees’ already-alarming designs on Lebanon had overstepped the final frontier of tolerability. From the “barracks” of their sodden tents, the job-stealing, gun-toting invaders have at last arrived, with their veiled wives and daughters, to – quelle horreur! – the doorsteps of Ashrafieh itself. His proposed solution, reports as-Safir, involves sealing the border, enforcing an 8pm curfew for all Syrians in the area, and creating a nightly security patrol force, “especially in the places Syrians gather."

It’s obviously pointless to note that no evidence exists linking the refugee influx with higher crime, or that the only major act of violence to have occurred in Ashrafieh since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis was the car bombing of the March 14 ally, Wissam al-Hassan – a brazen murder of a senior policemen for which Sehnaoui held no indignant press conference at the time.

Indeed, the tragic thing about this kind of crude incitement is it really works with the constituents (don’t be surprised if, feeling the squeeze, a March 14 Christian tries to one-up Sehnaoui’s act next weekend). But it ought to go without saying it’s also abhorrently inhumane. It isn’t just that sealing the border would be, as rights groups are often forced to repeat, a violation of international law. Innocent Syrians in Lebanon have already suffered far too many unprovoked physical assaults, fuelled by precisely the bigotry and misinformation peddled by Sehnaoui and Abs on Sunday. (Recall, for example, the torching of a camp in December after false allegations of rape, or the secret beatings in October 2012 of Syrian labourers by the army in Ashrafieh itself, as I witnessed with my own eyes while crouching next to NOW’s Raphael Thelen, who first broke the story.) It’s only a matter of time before more xenophobic violence occurs, and when it does, Sehnaoui and his friends will bear a part of the responsibility.

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