The fighting which broke out recently between Islamist militants and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Barid had been widely predicted. This is not the first fighting to take place between militants from the Palestinian camps and the LAF, but rather just the latest and bloodiest round of fighting since the establishment of the refugee camps in the aftermath of Israel’s independence in 1948. The fighting this week, however, is exacerbated by three phenomena that were in place at the time of the camps’ establishment.
First, since 1969, the Palestinian camps have been more or less off-limits to the Lebanese authorities as a result of agreements between Lebanon and other Arab states. The Palestinians in the camp, in other words, are trusted to govern themselves. In exchange, they are accorded few of the political rights enjoyed by others living in Lebanon—the Lebanese themselves included. This precedent, however, has established a situation in which—in the decades prior to the September 11 attacks—the Palestinian refugee camps became a safe haven for both criminals fleeing the Lebanese authorities as well as Islamist militants on their way to jihad or to Lebanon to train. Bernard Rougier, the French academic, chronicled the rise of Islamist radicalism in one of these camps, the bleak Ain al-Helweh camp near Sidon, in his book Everyday Jihad. Rougier relates encountering Algerians, Syrians, Egyptians and any number of other nationalities in the camp while he spent time there conducting research. In the same way, many of those that the LAF has been fighting this week are not, in fact, either Palestinian or Lebanese, but Saudi or of other Arab origin (New TV report, May 21; Reuters, May 23).
Second, the return of jihadis who fought in Iraq since 2003 has exacerbated the spread of violent radicalism in the camps. The jihadis who have returned, whether Lebanese, Palestinian or from elsewhere, come with stories from Iraq and also a militarism that had been largely missing in the heavily Sunni Muslim community of Lebanon prior to 2003.
Third, the fighting that has taken place during the past two weeks is also related to the internal domestic strife in Lebanon. In their efforts to counter the massive popular mobilization of the Hezbollah-led Shiite community, the Sunni leaders of the Saad Hariri-led March 14 coalition have not been above stoking the sectarian fires of Lebanon’s Sunni community. Indeed, at a recent rally to mark the anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the largely Sunni crowd broke out into chants of “Wahad, itnayn! Wahad, itnayn! Rafiq al-Hariri wa Saddam Hussein!” (“One, two! One, two! Rafiq al-Hariri and Saddam Hussein!”). In the largely Sunni port cities of Tripoli and Sidon, tributes to what they consider the Sunni martyr Saddam Hussein—executed by the “Shiite government” in Baghdad—are disturbingly common (al-Akhbar, February 15).
Of course, there are other factors in play. Syria certainly benefits from the instability of its western neighbor and former colony. The large explosions that rocked chic neighborhoods in both Christian East Beirut and Sunni West Beirut are suspected to have been planted either by or with the knowledge of Syria and its allies. In the same way, it is not unreasonable to wonder why Syria released the dangerous leader of Fatah al-Islam, Shaker al-Absi, from a Syrian jail even after he was convicted of plotting to destroy assorted targets in Syria (Associated Press, May 24). For their part and quite predictably, Lebanon’s March 14 coalition leaders have been quick to blame the Syrian regime (Daily Star, May 24; al-Akhbar, May 24).
What is clear, however, is that the problem of Islamist militants in Lebanon’s refugee camps is not going to disappear anytime soon. The two biggest worries for all parties in Lebanon are that, one, increasing civilian distress and casualties in Nahr al-Barid will cause the other camps to rise up against the LAF in a show of solidarity, and, two, one or two of these Sunni extremists are now thinking that it is a wise course of action to walk into a Shiite mosque on a Friday afternoon or Christian church on a Sunday with a suicide belt. Unlike Fatah or Hamas in Palestine, extremist groups such as Fatah al-Islam do not have natural constituencies in the camps and thus do not fear retribution or any “red lines.” The situation in Lebanon could get far worse in the coming weeks and months to come.