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Jan 1, 2008
53 Min read time
The Iraq War Spreads.
Just before 4:30 one afternoon last July, calls to prayer echoed from all the mosques in Ayn al Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp in the city of Sidon, south of Beirut. First built in 1948 for refugees from northern Palestine, the camp has grown into a ramshackle ghetto. Concrete and cinderblock line tight alleys with cobwebs of low-hung electrical cables. On the walls are layers of faded political posters—some for Hamas, some for Fatah, and still others for Saddam and even Hezbollah leader Seyid Hassan Nasrallah—marking the divisions among Palestinian resistance factions.
At the Shuhada, or martyrs’ mosque, a dozen men stood in paramilitary uniforms with walkie talkies, M4 Carbines, AK-47s, scopes, pistols, combat boots, long beards, and sunglasses. Unlike the hundreds of familiar, unkempt militiamen slinging old weapons in the camp, these men were professionals. They joined about two hundred others on the mosque’s second floor for a special prayer. They were burying Daghagh Rifai, a comrade in Usbat al Ansar, shot that morning by members of their rival faction, Fatah, after a string of attacks and retaliations. The men lined up with the others in orderly rows, placing their weapons on the floor between their legs. Some wore the salwar kameez typical in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a jihadist fashion statement. Following the prayer they gathered to gaze briefly at the corpse, wrapped in the green flag of Islam, not the Palestinian flag.
His comrades carried Daghagh’s body on an olive-colored military gurney; a procession of hundreds followed them around the corner and up an incline as camp residents watched from their doors or windows. When the silent marchers approached Lebanese soldiers at the camp’s gate on the way to the cemetery, the armed men stayed behind. They let relatives carry the body.
The new men in the camps were largely foreign jihadists, with the same weapons, tactics, and sectarian goals of Iraqi resistance fighters.
Ayn al Hilweh, the largest refugee camp in Lebanon, houses up to 75,000 people in 1.5 square kilometers of squalor. The camp is dominated by two main factions, the older, nationalist, and more secular Fatah, and Usbat al Ansar, which emerged in the 1990s. A balance of power keeps large-scale fighting from breaking out. But in the past decade the camps have seen a slow transformation: the waning of Yasser Arafat–style Palestinian nationalism represented by Fatah and other leftist nationalist groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the rise of Islamist groups like Usbat al Ansar, mobilized around religious, not national, identity, influenced by global jihad, and, some believe, with direct links to al Qaeda.
The balance of power among these groups is fragile, and in a camp to the north it has tipped. As Daghagh was being buried, another group, Fatah al Islam, joined by members of Jund al Sham, an offshoot of Usbat al Ansar, was fighting the Lebanese army from the refugee camp of Nahr al Barid. Unlike Usbat al Ansar members, though, most of the fighters were not homegrown and not focused on liberating Palestine. They were largely foreign jihadists, with the same weapons, tactics, and sectarian goals of Iraqi resistance fighters, and were perhaps the first sign that the war in Iraq is spilling into the region.
The battle last summer at Narh al Barid lasted for three months and left 163 Lebanese soldiers, 42 civilians, and up to 222 alleged militants dead. When it was over on September 4, the Lebanese army had destroyed a refugee camp housing 40,000 people in the name of the war on terror. How did Lebanon’s refugee camps become the new front?
Lebanon’s twelve Palestinian camps form an archipelago both inside and outside the state. Inside the camps Palestinian identity is shaped and maintained, and the main employers are the United Nations and resistance factions who compete and occasionally clash with one another. Outside the camp Lebanese factions and even neighboring countries have always used Palestinians to further their sectarian or political interests. Approximately 400,000 Palestinians are registered in Lebanon, survivors or descendants of the 800,000 souls forcibly moved from their land to make way for the Jewish state. Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, and Lebanese Sunnis used Palestinians as their militia during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). During that time Palestinians were victims of massacres by both Christian and Shia militias. In 1976 the Tel al Zaatar camp in Beirut was besieged by several Christian militias, with thousands massacred; the camp itself was eventually wiped out. In 1982 the Christian Falangist militia massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla. Beginning in 1985 and 1986 the Shia Amal militia besieged Palestinian camps, leaving thousands dead.
In recent years Lebanese leadership has consistently blocked Palestinian political integration and has indeed been unwilling to extend any rights at all. (The small minority of Christian Palestinians were granted citizenship long ago.) Lebanon has a Christian minority, but its political system, divided by an unwritten agreement, gives the presidency to a Maronite Catholic. During his three terms (1998-2007), President Émile Lahoud repeatedly invoked the threat of tawtin, or the granting of citizenship to the Palestinians, to frighten Christians into backing the Syrian presence. Tawtin was an existential threat, Lahoud warned, because it would boost the number of Muslims in Lebanon.
Lahoud’s cynical policy impeded all efforts to alleviate poverty in the camps, and Palestinian clerics reacted quickly. They believed that Christians—not Syria—were responsible for Palestinian suffering. And if they were rejected in Lebanon because they were Sunnis, then, they argued, they should fight as Sunnis. Palestinian clerics began to mobilize support around Sunni identity, downplaying the Palestinian nationalism that had for years mobilized support for the PLO, and then Fatah and other leftist groups.
Radical Sunni groups in Lebanon benefited from this weakened Palestinian identity. Chief among the beneficiaries were Salafis, adherents of an anti-hierarchical Sunni movement which allows its members to do away with tradition, establish their own authority, and condemn those with other interpretations. Salafis seek the return to what they believe was Islam’s purest state, during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the close companions who succeeded him (the salaf). Salafism is a muscular discourse and in its most extreme form sounds like anti-Shia racism. Most Salafis spread their message through theology and preaching, and refrain from political or military action. But a small minority believes that violence is necessary to achieve an Islamic state.
In Lebanon there are two groups of Salafis. The traditional group is nonviolent and fully integrated into the political game; the jihadists, in contrast, rely on networks that are not nation-based but have become de-territorialized over the past decade. Their ranks, according to Bernard Rougier, are filled by underprivileged Sunnis from the north, many of whom had not fought in Lebanon since 1985 when some battled the Syrian presence in Northern Lebanon with the Islamic Unification Movement and needed a new cause. When the Shia resistance movement, Hezbollah, took control over parts of Lebanon neglected by the state, the Sunnis felt even more vulnerable: Shias had their independent zones but Sunnis had none, even in the face of similar state neglect.
Lebanese jihadists, influenced and inspired by al Qaeda, found colleagues in the Palestinian camps. Palestinians, unable to liberate their homeland and legally and physically separated from the Lebanese state, were losing touch with Palestinian nationalism—even the Islamist nationalism championed by Hamas, which emerged in 1987. Instead they were undergoing a process of globalization, identifying with mujahideen in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where some of them have now gone to fight.
As Palestinian Salafist preachers’ influence increased, their followers began to train in and out of the camps and new factions started to appear inside the camps. Usbat al Ansar is the largest and oldest of these jihadist groups in Ayn a Hiweh. Rougier calls them “a travel agency and YMCA for jihad.” “They are a jihadi group, they must act,” he explains, “so the way of solving the contradiction of being in Lebanon but not fighting Israel or anybody else is by sending jihadists to Iraq and secretly helping groups like Fatah al Islam.” More radical elements split off from Usbat al Ansar to create Jund al Sham, to which Daghagh may have belonged.
One of those paying their respects at his funeral that afternoon in Ayn al Hilweh was Abu Anas, who led me through a maze of dark alleys up to his unlit apartment where we were joined by his friends, Abu Salih and Abu Ghassan, wiry men with taut faces and long beards. When the power came back on, so did the television, tuned to Al Manar, Hezbollah’s station. Abu Anas’s wife and children had left the camp to go to the nearby beach, and he was enjoying the quiet, he said, as he served us melons.
“Fatah has a bad reputation here,” they said. “Fatah was good in the 1970s. They had principles, now they are dealing drugs, they run Internet places with pornography, they just want money and power.” Fatah had also thrown grenades at a mosque, they told me. Like many Palestinians, they worried that Fatah intended to abandon the Palestinian refugees who lived outside the occupied territories. The men claimed not to belong to any of the factions. “We have some differences with Jund al Sham,” they told me, “they are a little ignorant. They think with their hearts and not their minds. You need principles not emotion.”
Abu Anas was originally from the Bedawi camp in northern Lebanon and had grown up in a conservative family. He belonged to al Tawhid al Islami, or the Islamic Unification Movement, the main Islamist militia that fought the Syrian presence in northern Lebanon in the 1980s. More than fifty Palestinians had fought with Tawhid, he told me. Many had gone on to other Islamist movements, including Fatah al Islam.
He fled to Ayn al Hilweh from the north in 2000, after participating in clashes with the Lebanese army. On December 31, 1999, Islamist radicals battled the Lebanese army in northeastern Lebanon’s Sir al Dinniyeh mountain, led by a Lebanese veteran of the Afghan and Bosnian wars named Basim al Kanj, who had returned to Lebanon and established his own network to continue the jihad against Israel and the West, recruiting in the slums of Tripoli and in Ayn al Hilweh and establishing ties with Usbat al Ansar. With its help he established training camps in Dinniyeh. Al Kanj ordered his men to take over a radio station near the camps that had belonged to Lebanon’s leading Salafi cleric, Sheikh Dai al Islam al Shahal. Al Shahal and other Sunni clerics, as well as local officials, tried to mediate between the army and the militants. But when an army patrol passed by, negotiations were suspended. Fighting broke out and fifteen of the Islamists died along with eleven soldiers and five civilians. The Dinniyeh group was small, but dozens of Salafis were arrested in Tripoli and radicalized by their treatment in prison. (In 2005 Ahmad Fatfat, then interior minister, had struggled to release the Dinniyeh prisoners in order to gain the support of northern Sunnis and Salafis.) The Dinniyeh incident, along with an attack on the Russian embassy and similar strikes, were the first signs that Salafi jihadism was establishing a presence in Lebanon.
Abu Anas had been part of the Dinniyeh group. He explained that al Kanj, who was his friend, had returned to Lebanon because “there is no Islamic Sunni group to fight Israel. He came with friends from Afghanistan. Each brought their friends.” However, Kanj had not sought the confrontation, Abu Anas claimed. He blamed the Lebanese army: “They wanted Hezbollah to control the conflict with Israel,” he said. “The Lebanese army ambushed them and during the negotiations they surrounded them and attacked them.”
I asked the men what they thought about Hezbollah, since they supported groups in Iraq that targeted Shias. “We differ in our beliefs but we agree on fighting Israel,” Anas said. “Israel is the enemy. We can settle our differences later.” Many Lebanese Sunnis had resented Hezbollah for provoking the last war. “Sunnis who disapprove of Hezbollah’s war do so because they are allied with America,” they told me. They reminded me that a group of Palestinians from the camp who had fought with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq launched missiles at Israel and that, in his final statement, the slain leader of al Qaeda in Iraq had declared that “we fight in Iraq but our eyes are on our home in Jerusalem.”
Abu Salih, whose tattoos suggested that he had not always been devout, had fought in Fallujah in the fall of 2004, staying for about fifty days with between 250 and 300 other fighters of different backgrounds. He said he met Zarqawi there one dark night in Fallujah’s Askari neighborhood. Zarqawi had been very nice to “the brothers” and had cooked for them. “The earth was burned,” he said. “Planes were bombing, but we had cold water, appetizers, grilled chicken.” I asked why he went to Iraq and had not tried to liberate Palestine. “It’s impossible to go fight in Palestine, the Arabs closed the borders, Jordan, Syria,” he said. “Here, if they open the way to fight Israel, many people would go fight.”
Abu Ghassan was 31 years old and quick to smile, but, like Abu Salih, always reverted to a hard suspicious gaze when I didn’t look into his eyes. He had a nine-millimeter Glock pistol on his belt. It made its way to Lebanon when some “brothers” returned from Iraq with large quantities of weapons, and its price in the camp was two thousand dollars. I had seen the Glock pistols that Americans had given the Iraqi police used by Shia militias in Iraq and sold on the black market in Baghdad. An August 2007 report from the Government Accountability Office estimated that 190,000 weapons Americans had given Iraqis were unaccounted for. Here was one of them. Abu Ghassan also had a new Toshiba laptop and an Internet hookup. He told me he worked in a café in the camp. “You must have sold a lot of coffee to pay for the pistol and laptop,” I said. He grinned and agreed.
He was first trained outside the camp by Fatah before the civil war had ended in 1991. In 1995 he came under the sway of Islamic movements, influenced by religious leaders and Usbat al Ansar. He listened to mosque sermons and attended lessons held after prayer. Some of the mosques, such as Shuhada, also offered clubs for physical training. The Oslo Accords had been signed, and many Palestinian refugees felt abandoned, worried that the PLO was surrendering. Meanwhile, wars were being fought in Bosnia and Chechnya. The first generation of mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan was seeking new battlegrounds and a new generation was galvanized. “I saw Muslims around the world oppressed by secularists,” he told me.
Abu Ghassan first tried to go to Iraq when Zarqawi renamed his organization al Qaeda, in December 2004. He attempted to sneak through Syria to fight in Iraq six times; each time the Syrians were patrolling the border. “I wanted to go to Iraq to liberate Muslim lands,” he said, “to fight with the Sunnis. The road was open to Iraq. Palestine was closed.” Abu Ghassan had requested to go as a suicide bomber. “Practically speaking,” he said, “suicide operations are the best method to kill enemy. In principle you try as hard as you can to avoid civilians but sometimes you have to.” He did not believe that Sunnis were targeting civilians, and instead blamed Iran, the Mahdi Army, and Israel. “Zarqawi asked Muqtada to fight the occupier and Muqtada refused,” he said, “The Mahdi Army kills mujahideen and lets the Americans arrest them. Shias are not apostates, their leaders are. We target the Shias in the government and the militias. The Shia clerics are infidels, the people are deviants.”
He resented Hezbollah for controlling the border with Israel and preventing other groups from conducting attacks. “After Hezbollah liberated the south they became a buffer,” he said. “They say they want to liberate Palestine but on the ground they do nothing, they just wait for orders from Syria or Iran.” Unlike Lebanese Sunnis, he did not feel threatened by Hezbollah. “As Palestinians we feel threatened by America and Israel,” he said.
When I returned to visit Abu Ghassan in his home, Abu Anas was also there. They were looking at Google Earth on the laptop and listening to a CD of Salafi chanting, Commanders of the Jihad. They showed me another CD, a tribute to Salih Ablawi, also known as Abu Jaafar, who had died with Zarqawi in Iraq. He was from Ayn al Hilweh too, and Abu Ghassan had a collection of his speeches and pictures from Iraq on his laptop. Abu Ghassan’s infant daughter was sleeping in a baby seat.
I asked them about the fighting between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army, which was raging at the time. Most of the soldiers battling Fatah al Islam in the north were also Sunnis. Abu Ghassan blamed the United States. “The Lebanese army, not Sunnis, is shelling the camp. The Lebanese army answers to the government and the orders come from America. They are not fighting as Sunnis but as soldiers getting orders, and they think Fatah al Islam are terrorists.” I asked him what he thought. “I think Fatah al Islam are good people,” he said.
* * *
The origins of Fatah al Islam are nebulous, but based on meetings with Palestinian-faction leaders and security officials, as well as documents obtained from their interrogations of Fatah al Islam members, it is now possible to piece together the group’s history. When Zarqawi died in June 2006, some of the Syrians—including Palestinian Syrians—who had fought with him in Iraq and become radicalized there came to Lebanon. Some jihadist Salafis were diverted to Beirut’s Burj al Barajneh camp to serve as a bulwark against the Shia suburbs of Beirut known as Dahyeh. Over two hundred such men had left Damascus’s Yarmuk refugee camp to go fight in Iraq with Zarqawi, even though that camp was dominated by the far more moderate Hamas movement. Abu Midyan, a foreign fighter who left Iraq discouraged about the state of the Jihad there, led other comrades from Iraq to the Yarmuk camp. The Syrians pressured them to leave, so they moved to Lebanon’s camps where they began to recruit from the poor.
In the summer of 2006 new faces appeared in Shatilla and Burj al Barajneh, the Palestinian camps of Beirut, and in Bedawi and Nahr al Barid, the camps in Tripoli. The men were clearly religious, and on the basis of their long beards they were assumed to be Salafis. Some even wore the Afghan salwar kameez. Some were also clearly foreign. They claimed to belong to Fatah al Intifada, a splinter group that had broken off from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah over disputes between Abu Musa, the new group’s leader, and Arafat. Other Palestinians who were disillusioned with Arafat soon joined the new and more leftist group. But Fatah al Intifada soon fell under Syrian control.
When camp security men inquired about the newcomers they were told they belonged to Fatah al Intifada’s “Western Section,” which was preparing fighters to go to Palestine. Others claimed they were “from the inside,” meaning from Palestine itself. During the July 2006 war with Israel more Salafi fighters arrived in the camps (at the time a Fatah al Intifada camp in eastern Lebanon near the Syrian border was evacuated).
The next month Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second-ranking leader warned that al Qaeda would not stand by while Israel shelled Lebanon. Unlike al Qaeda in Iraq and its founder, Zarqawi, who had declared war against Shias, Zawahiri sought to establish a common front with the Shia resistance movement Hezbollah, who were successfully standing up to the Israelis (though Hezbollah disdained al Qaeda). Al Qaeda was concerned that the battle against Israel, along with the glory, was being monopolized by Hezbollah, and it hoped to establish itself in this crucial front. Zawahiri’s words were taken seriously by some. Islamist websites and Internet forums carried demands to establish a Sunni jihadist front in Lebanon. Other jihadists fled Iraq due to disgust with the sectarian fighting or pressure from the American-backed Sunni militias in Anbar Province. Hunted in Jordan and Syria, they found Lebanon—with its failed state, lawless refugee camps, and sectarian strife—the only safe haven.
The newcomers began to arrive in the camps under the name of Fatah al Intifada during the July 2006 war. They were led by Shaker al Absi, an officer of Fatah al Intifada who was trained as a pilot in Libya and served as one in North Yemen, in addition to fighting in Nicaragua. Al Absi was in his 50s. A Palestinian born in Jordan, he had spent most of his life in Syrian and Lebanese camps. He was said to have been very religious for a long time. In 2002 he was arrested by the Syrians with fifteen others for trying to infiltrate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. He spent two and a half years in jail and, upon his release, was said to have gone to Iraq, eventually making his way to the Helweh camp in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border. There, he and his followers trained tough men from the slums of Tripoli to fight in Iraq. Gulf Arabs who flew in to Beirut to go to Iraq also gathered there. They were segregated from the rest of the camp and better financed, eating better food, such as lamb.
Abu Yasser, the Fatah al Intifada leader for northern Lebanon, was surprised because the newcomers were bearded, prayed five times a day, and abstained from smoking. He was also surprised by the presence of foreigners among them. And while Fatah al Intifada was known to pay low salaries, some of the newcomers had laptops and went around on motorcycles. He asked the Syrian-based Abu Khaled al Omla, deputy commander of Fatah al Intifada, who the newcomers were. “We have new fighters,” Abu Khalid said. “We must learn from Hezbollah’s military and discipline. They are destined for Gaza.” Abu Khalid was using his organization to reorient the networks sending fighters to Iraq and sending them to Lebanon instead.
“Their commanders were Palestinians but they were independent of us,” Abu Yasser said. When other factions asked Fatah al Intifada who the new men were they were told that it was an internal matter.” Shaker al Absi was the third-ranking official in Fatah al Intifada, higher than Abu Yasser. “I received Shaker, but didn’t control him,” said Abu Yasser. Abu Musa, the founder and commander of Fatah al Intifada in Syria, began to complain that he did not know what was happening in his own organization.
The popular committee for security in Bedawi was tasked with investigating all outsiders, especially single men, who rented apartments in that camp. Members monitored how much food was being brought into the apartments daily to estimate how many people might be inside. In November a new group of outsiders came to Bedawi, and camp residents felt that they were not part of any Palestinian faction. Residents spoke of strange men carrying many bags but with no families, who were entering twelve apartments in the camp. One night at 11 p.m., armed members of the resistance confronted five of the strangers entering the camp and asked them what they were carrying. The men ran away, and suspicion and surveillance increased. Some of the men were discovered to be foreigners, including Saudis, Yemenis, Algerians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and an Omani. Fourteen lived together in one apartment. When the security committee members first tried to gain access, the Omani, named Ahmad, shut the door in their faces and refused to open it.
On November 23 an armed patrol of different faction members was sent to the apartment. They found two Kalashnikovs, along with ammunition and grenades, and asked the fourteen men to come with them. When the men walked by a Fatah al Intifada office where Salafi comrades were staying, they erupted in shouts of “God is great! Come to jihad!” and ran inside, throwing a grenade at the security men. An exchange of fire followed, killing one guard. The men escaped to the Nahr al Barid camp. The security committee raided the other apartments, but the suspects had already communicated by radio and the others escaped. One Saudi was shot in the leg. When an armed Syrian comrade on a motorcycle attempted to rescue him, he too was shot and both were taken to a camp hospital. The Syrian had documents signed by Shaker al Absi. During interrogations by Palestinian security officials, the two admitted to being members of al Qaeda in Iraq who had come to Lebanon during the July war for training, recruitment, and jihad. Up to eighty men like them had entered Lebanon via Fatah al Intifada. They claimed to have come not to fight Israel but to assassinate seventeen Lebanese officials, including members of parliament, sheikhs, and members of the security forces.
A Fatah al Intifada commander handed the two men to the Lebanese army. Camp officials also found cameras, four computers, and scanners used to make fake identification documents. They found CDs with footage of training and members swearing oaths of loyalty to Osama bin Laden. “Wherever Muslims are oppressed we will help them,” said one of the men in the films. Other material included maps of the region, books with instructions on bomb making, and copies of the Qu’ran. Abu Muataz, a Palestinian Salafi, contacted Abu Yasser and warned him that the computers should be left alone because they were very important. The Omani’s phone was confiscated by security officials. He had received up to 150 calls from outside the country. “Your parents are very angry at you,” said one caller. “God willing, you went to jihad,” said another.
Representatives from the resistance groups in the camp turned over the material to the Lebanese army. They learned that some of the apartments had been rented by Kanan Naji, a leader of the Jund Allah, or soldiers of Allah militia, which had fought the Syrians in the ’80s and then gone underground, only to have recently re-emerged. Naji was a liaison between the Future Movement—the ruling Sunni party and American proxy in Lebanon, led by Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister—and the jihadists and Salafis who were smuggled into the camps in the name of Fatah al Intifada. Naji was also part of the Independent Islamic Gathering, a group that included prominent clerics in Tripoli. The Gathering tried to instrumentalize jihadist Salafis, such as Fatah al Islam, to further Sunni sectarian goals. Among these goals were fighting the perceived threat from Hezbollah, and, since Saddam’s fall, the imagined Shia crescent.
Abu Yasser claims that he was deceived by Abu Khaled al Omla, who told him the men were sent to fight Israel. “He tricked the organization,” he says. “Abu Khalid was a dictator and he is a secular man in every meaning of the word. He was preparing groups to fight the Americans in Lebanon and maybe he was making a connection with al Qaeda. The Syrians didn’t know the details of Abu Khalid’s plan, but they knew in general about the ideology of the fighters and that they were coming to Lebanon to fight America.” Abu Khalid was expelled from the organization and jailed by the Syrians, but because he is 75 years old and has a heart condition he was placed under house arrest.
Following the clash, Abu Yasser sent a message to Abu Khaled al Omla in Damascus that he had put camp security in danger. The camp factions prepared to rid themselves of the remaining jihadists, but they absconded to Nahr al Barid. On November 26 they declared themselves Fatah al Islam, with Shaker al Absi as its leader, urging supporters from other camps to join them there and calling for the death of Abu Yasser for his role in turning over two of their men to the Lebanese army. Abu Fadi, the commander of Fatah al Intifada for all of Lebanon, had used Salafis as bodyguards. He was expelled from the group and fled to the United Arab Emirates.
The camp’s security committee began to investigate Fatah al Islam and its associates. One Syrian suspect, who had entered Lebanon that March of 2007, had come to Bedawi from Ayn al Hilweh where he joined Fatah al Islam. But he was released because some camp officials worried about upsetting the Islamists in the camp. Another suspect confessed that he too belonged to Fatah al Islam. When the raid took place he heard about it from a member of Jund Allah via walkie talkie and was spirited away to Tripoli, to an apartment belonging to Kanaan Naji. Another prisoner, a 21-one-year-old Syrian, had been in touch with Fatah al Islam via the Internet. He was told to go to an address near a mosque in Bedawi. He took money from his father, telling him it was to cover the cost of his university tuition, but he instead went to Lebanon, hoping Fatah al Islam would help him get to Iraq “to resist the Americans, because the Americans are the enemies of Islam.”
The same month, in Taamir, an area between Sidon and Ayn al Hilweh, a banner appeared calling for the defeat of America in Iraq, and it was signed by the “commander of the warriors,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Jihadist Salafis took control of the neighborhood, imposing Islamic law. Many of the Lebanese families who lived there left, fearing for their lives. A statement signed by the “al Qaeda Organization in Lebanon,” allegedly based in Nahr al Barid, threatened the Lebanese government. It announced that al Qaeda had arrived in Lebanon and would work to destroy the government, which was commanded by the Americans. It promised to fight the enemies of God until victory or martyrdom. Prominent Lebanese Sunni politicians paid the Salafis to leave the area and some joined Fatah al Islam in the north.
In Nahr al Barid, Fatah al Islam found a welcoming environment. Located sixteen kilometers north of Tripoli, it was the most conservative and religious camp. When the Syrians pulled their troops out of Lebanon in 2005 and lost direct control of the camps, mosques filled the vacuum and gained influence as the leftist resistance groups weakened for lack of funding or outside support. Money from the Gulf flowed in to the Islamists, some of whom were seen driving Mercedeses. Even before the July war inhabitants of Nahr al Barid began to notice religious men, with foreign dialects and veiled wives, moving into the camp. Up to seventy more of them arrived during the war, as they did in other camps. Although Usbat al Ansar never publicly endorsed Fatah al Islam, it did dispatch fighters to join the group in the north.
The Fatah al Islam men rented apartments in Nahr al Barid. Some brought their families, others married local women. Only a minority of them were Palestinians. Most were Lebanese, Saudis, Yemenis, Syrians, and even Iraqis. Many came openly, in vans. Palestinian and Lebanese men from Ayn al Hilweh and Taamir, who were wanted by the law, made their way to Nahr al Barid as well, despite the many checkpoints along the way, leading camp officials to suspect tacit support by Sunni members of the government or security forces who may have hoped to develop an anti-Hezbollah force.
* * *
While Fatah al Islam’s original goals may have been to liberate Palestine, more radical jihadists influenced its leaders, shifting their focus toward global jihad. Al Absi had linked up with a powerful local arms dealer and military commander of Fatah al Islam, Nasser Ismail, to improve his power base in the camp. Ismail helped recruit members, including the more radical Abu Hureira, a Lebanese member of Jund al Sham who had joined them from Ayn al Hilweh. Abu Hureira helped push Fatah al Islam toward a more extremist position, and he brought many other Lebanese Salafi jihadists with him. While Shaker al Absi did not share the views of these radicals, he needed their military support and could not afford to break with them. A Saudi cleric linked to al Qaeda, Abu al Hareth, took over the shura council, which exercised religious jurisprudence. He helped bring more foreign fighters to the camp and created cells outside of it. Some of them spoke of creating an Islamic state in northern Lebanon. Tensions in leadership emerged. Abu Laith, the son-in-law of Shaker al Absi, became frustrated with the group. He left for Iraq but was killed by Syrian security forces. Other members also disagreed with the more extreme elements. Abu Midyan, who was said to have been behind the March 2006 bus bombings north of Beirut that killed three Christians and injured twenty, refused to fight the Lebanese army because his enemy was Israel.
The radicals also began to alienate residents of Nahr al Barid. Once entrenched in the camp, Fatah al Islam took over the offices and weapons depots that had belonged to Fatah al Intifada. They took down the Palestinian flags and put up Islamic flags. “When they took down Palestinian flags we knew they had no Palestinian agenda,” said Abu Yasser. New weapons arrived, American M16s and M4s, and even missiles, unlike the Kalashnikovs that the Palestinian factions were accustomed to. They grew in number. Their headquarters had a yard for military training. Above it flew a black flag with an Islamic slogan. Some walked around camp with scarves concealing their faces. Shaker al Absi insisted that they were independent of al Qaeda, even if they had a similar ideology, and that they had no ties to Lebanese or Syrian officials. He explained that “Muslims” were funding his organization. The secular approach to the struggle had failed to achieve its goals and they had now rallied under the flag of Islam. He explained that his organization’s main goal was to liberate Jerusalem and that they were opposed to the U.S. project in the Middle East. He refused to be involved in internal Lebanese affairs. Fatah al Islam’s main criticism of Hezbollah was not that it was a Shia party but that it denied other groups the same right to resist Israel. Importantly, al Absi denied being a takfiri, or one who anathematizes other Muslims who stray from the Salafi interpretation of Islam. Takfiris typically single out Shia, as did Zarqawi in Iraq, and sometimes call for their deaths. Al Absi did not deny that Shias were Muslim, however. And the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, who sent Saudis and other fighters to Nahr al Barid, warned them not to provoke Lebanese Shias.
“The Fatah al Islam picture got more and more clear,” said Abu Jaber. “In their first announcement their goal was to liberate Palestine and correct the errors of Fatah al Intifada. Then after a while their speech changed. They said they came to fight Israel in the name of Sunnis. They said ‘we won’t fight those who fought Israel’ (meaning Hezbollah) ‘but we have differences with them.’”
As the camp factions became more alarmed, they had a meeting in which Fatah al Intifada insisted that, whereas before they had just been suspicious of the newcomers, now they knew they were dangerous--that Nahr al Barid had been hijacked by Fatah al Islam--and agreed that they should be expelled. Other groups told Fatah al Intifada that they brought them in, so they should solve the problem themselves. Fatah al Intifada warned all would bear responsibility for what would happen.
“When Fatah al Islam took down the Palestinian flag and vandalized posters of Hassan Nasrallah, they started getting a lot of money,” said Abu Yasser. “Their main goal was to be the Sunni military force in Lebanon. The north has a rich history of Salafis and they wanted to declare it their emirate. Those who empowered them were not Palestinians. We let them enter as a baby chicken and they became an elephant. How did they get these advanced weapons? When they were part of Fatah al Intifada they were only seventy. They became five hundred. With us they were very poor. We gave them spare clothes. How did they get so much money? And how did they buy all the grilled chicken in Nahr al Barid?” According to Abu Jaber of the PFLP, the financial situation of the Fatah al Islam members suddenly improved and more foreign faces appeared. “They bought apartments, rented land, buying very advanced weapons, spending a lot of money.” People in the camp grew worried and some refused to rent them homes. Some said that they were Muslims who were not bothering anybody, while others said that they did not belong in Palestinian society. Fatah al Islam began to spread throughout the camp, and it seemed to many that they were preparing for something. It was also clear that their people could go in and out of the camp (and even bring in two vans full of weapons in broad daylight without harassment by Lebanese security officials).
Abu Jaber admitted that initially there had been poor communication among the Palestinian factions and many disagreements, but when suspicions first arose about the Salafist newcomers, the other camp factions could not interfere in the internal affairs of Fatah al Intifada. “By the time they had declared themselves Fatah al Islam they were stronger, situated, stable. They had brought families. A committee of the factions spoke to them and told them to leave the camp, but these people were very strong,” said Abu Jaber. He explained that following the Oslo Accords, the camp’s factions grew weaker. There was no powerful Palestinian regime in place to dislodge the 400 well-armed Salafis, even as popular demonstrations were staged against their presence.
* * *
In December a committee of the Palestinian factions told Shaker al Absi that his new faction was not wanted, and that he had to return the Fatah al Intifada offices, disband his organization, and stop making announcements to the media. Al Absi did not respond. At the same time Abu Khaled al Omla, the deputy commander of Fatah al Intifada based in Syria, was arrested by the Syrians. His boss, Abu Musa, gave a press conference announcing his anger at Abu Khalid, but the notion that the Syrians were completely ignorant of what was happening in a faction they controlled strains credibility. It is unlikely that Abu Khalid would have taken such action independently.
Bernard Rougier suggests that the Syrians wanted to impede the Hariri strategy of controlling and enlarging an Islamist coalition that could be used to fight Hezbollah. To create division in the Hariri ranks, they inserted a Salafi jihadist group who wanted to fight Israel because it would divert Sunni support from Hariri. “Then it took on its own life. It had a magnetic effect on Islamists in the country,” said Rougier. He distinguishes the local agenda, which views the real enemy as Shias, from the jihadist agenda, which “views the real enemy as the West, and Shias are third or lower on the list.” However, Syria’s strategic ally is Hezbollah, and Syria would not introduce anti-Shia and anti-Hezbollah elements into Lebanon. Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon and the prospect of Salafis attacking Israel would be Hezbollah’s worst nightmare because this could drag its powerful guerilla army into a war with Israel at a time and place not of its own choosing.
Many of the Palestinian faction leaders insist that prominent Lebanese Sunnis and members of the Future Movement tried to co-opt Fatah al Islam. Indeed Fatah al Islam’s ranks were bolstered by Lebanese Sunnis reacting to the increasingly aggressive steps taken by Hezbollah supporters, whose actions were viewed by many Sunnis as an attack on Sunni power, an occupation of Beirut, and an attempt to seize control of Lebanon. Clerics in Tripoli reported being asked by followers if they were permitted to join Fatah al Islam. Dai al Islam al Shoal, the founder of Lebanese Salafism, explained that Lebanese Sunnis felt targeted, alienated, and punished, and as a result some were joining Fatah al Islam and others were sympathizing with it. Al Shahal engaged in direct dialogue with Fatah al Islam from its establishment in an attempt to influence its ideology and actions. In interviews with the Arab media Fatah al Islam spokesman Abu Salim Taha denied that his group was working with the Syrians or with the Future Movement. He explained that Fatah al Islam’s goals included liberating Jerusalem, raising the banner of Islam in Palestine, and protecting Sunnis who could not protect themselves. He would later say that his group had been pressured to take sides in internal Lebanese conflicts, but they had refused to do so and were targeted.
“What is for sure is that all sides tried to benefit from them but no one can control them,” a Hamas official from Nahr al Barid told me. “The Syrians tried to use them and Future tried to use them in their war against Hezbollah. They made many promises, but in the end they did their own program.”
In March, following accusations by the Lebanese minister of interior that the Syrians were backing Fatah al Islam, the Syrian minister of interior responded that Fatah al Islam was an al Qaeda organization that was also targeting Syria. They had discovered it in August of 2002 when several of its members were arrested, including Shaker al Absi. He added that al Absi had coordinated with Zarqawi in Iraq to conduct terrorist attacks. The Future Movement still insisted that Fatah al Islam was a Syrian tool, and the movement’s leader, Saad al Hariri, described the organization as “the gang of Asef Shawkat,” head of Syrian military intelligence and the brother-in-law of the Syrian president. Others in the opposition claimed it was a creation and tool of the Future Movement. Both were wrong.
That same month Lebanese Internal Security Forces arrested suspects behind the February 13 bus bombings. Twelve men, including four Syrians and four Saudis who were accused of belonging to Fatah al Islam, had confessed. The four Saudis claimed to have been deceived by Fatah al Islam. They said they were expecting to go to Iraq and instead were told to remain in Lebanon. Fatah al Islam representatives denied involvement in the attacks and denied that the detained men belonged to their group. As it turned out, the bus bombers had not actually belonged to Fatah al Islam but had spent one night in Nahr al Bardi before the attack, and following it they were said to have called the Fatah al Islam leadership. But the heat on the group increased, and Abu Salim Taha warned that if they had to, Fatah al Islam would respond militarily. Abu Jaber worried that if military steps were taken to deal with Fatah al Islam the results would be catastrophic and bloody.
The Lebanese army increased its presence around the camp, surrounding it and establishing checkpoints at the entrances. The security measures put the camp’s economy in a stranglehold. The army’s car searches and checkpoints caused traffic jams and discouraged visitors from going to the market. Nahr al Barid had been one of the main markets in northern Lebanon.
Fatah al Islam’s men refused to heed calls for their removal or disbandment. They were Muslims, they said, on Muslim land, and they recognized no borders. Their persecution was a necessary result of their ideology and akin to the persecution the Prophet Muhammad faced when he began preaching. Al Absi warned that he had more than two hundred men and they were observing the army’s movements around the camp. If Fatah al Islam felt under attack, their response would be violent and would not stop. On March 13, following a bank robbery in Sidon, the Lebanese minister of interior gave a press conference reporting that Fatah al Islam was self-funded.
In April Saudis and other foreign Arabs were arrested in Tripoli, along with at least seventy residents, most from the Abu Samra district, an important neighborhood for Salafis where Al Absi had become very popular. The suspects were accused of belonging to al Qaeda and being linked to a man arrested in Saudi Arabia who was trying to collect money to fund militias in Lebanon. Anger increased among the Salafis of Tripoli at what they felt was their persecution by government forces. Others resented what they perceived to be a double standard: allowing Hezbollah members to have arms but denying Sunnis the same privilege. That month Hamas held commemorations in honor of Ahmad Yassin and Rantisi, two leaders assassinated by the Israelis. They played religious and nationalist songs. Fatah al Islam members complained about the music, which they considered un-Islamic. Fatah al Islam also accused Hamas of following Anwar Sadat’s path of negotiation with Israel.
Abu Yasser claims that forty Saudis flew into the airport in Beirut and were picked up in vans and taken to Nahr al Barid, where they were kept for months until the tensions with the army began. One of the Saudis called his family back home and they arranged for his surrender to Lebanese authorities. Many Salafi clerics and state religious officials came to visit Fatah al Islam, their vehicle license plates indicating that they were from Dar al Ifta, or the Sunni Endowment, a state body. In May eyewitnesses claimed that large deliveries of new weapons were brought into the camp for Fatah al Islam.
Recriminations flew over the next few months about who was responsible for Fatah al Islam, with some even speculating that Saudi Arabia and the United States were collaborating with Hariri’s Saudi-backed Future Movement to sponsor jihadists to confront Shias. New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh first raised the possibility of links between Fatah al Islam, Lebanese politicians, and Saudi officials last March. After handing Iraq to Shias and frustrating America’s allies in the Sunni Arab world, he suggested, the Bush administration was now switching sides and backing Sunnis. To counterbalance an empowered Iran, the administration started looking to undermine those allied with Iran—the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. In Syria, Hersh said, the Americans saw the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood as a tool. I have learned that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney indeed ordered the State Department to fund training of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Hersh also suggested that in Lebanon the Americans were financially backing the ruling Sunni politicians, and that some of that money was making its way to al Qaeda–like groups to develop a force that could threaten Hezbollah.
On the latter point, Robert Grenier, former head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center, is skeptical. “Support for them would enhance the terrorist threat from them. I think we’re making a lot of mistakes right now, but I don’t think we would do that.” But he agreed that there was widespread fear of Shias among the so-called moderate Arab states. “The Saudis, King Abdullah of Jordan, have an inordinate fear of Shias. It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s not based on a rational view of the situation based on any threat.”
American-backed factions in Lebanon, led by the Future Movement, accused the Syrians of backing Fatah al Islam and similar groups, and on August 20 Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman would make similar accusations, stating that “the road to victory now requires cutting off al Qaeda’s road to Iraq through Damascus.” He claimed that the majority of al Qaeda’s foreign fighters made their way into Iraq by first flying into Damascus International Airport and called for an international boycott of that airport.
These accusations were laughable, according to Syria’s ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha. He blamed U.S. policy in Iraq for the spread of these groups. “When the U.S. changed Iraq into this lawless state, Iraq became fertile ground for every extreme organization. At an early stage we told the U.S., if terrorists go and fight in Iraq they will continue their holy war against other regimes. Al Qaeda is not one single organization that has headquarters in Afghanistan. It has inspired groups all over the Islamic world.” He explained that every few weeks Syrian intelligence gave him a copy of a list of those individuals rejected at Syrian entry points for security reasons. He showed them to me. Over four months almost 2,500 people were denied entry. “In Damascus Airport any young man who arrives alone, especially from Saudi Arabia, we don’t let them in. And they are very upset about this and we receive many complaints. This is a very burdensome task and it needs lots of cooperation.”
Speculation would continue, but the group was entrenched.
* * *
On May 19 a bank belonging to the Hariri dynasty was robbed southeast of Tripoli, apparently by men from Fatah al Islam. Credible sources from the Palestinian factions and Hezbollah and its supporters maintain that Fatah al Islam received monthly payments through this bank that were suddenly halted. Al Absi told Muhamad al Haj, the Hamas negotiator, that they had come to receive their monthly transfer of about $100,000, but problems had arisen and they did what they had to do to get the money.
Early the next morning Lebanese security forces raided apartments in an affluent district of Tripoli belonging to Fatah al Islam members, some of whom were foreigners. The apartments were expensive and the conduit for renting them was said to have been the mufti of Tripoli. One of the militants called Sheikh Dai al Islam and asked him to tell the authorities not to arrest them. The security forces said that they would not negotiate and were going to finish them off. The militants threatened to attack the army. Muhammad al Haj, who is also head of the council of Palestinian clerics, claims to have been surprised when the clashes started, because “before the bank robbery there had been an agreement between Fatah al Islam and the authorities that Fatah al Islam would not be involved in Lebanese politics or harm peace and stability.” Despite the Internal Security Force base’s close proximity to and the Lebanese army base, and the fact that the army was surrounding the camp, the ISF did not notify the army about the raids in Tripoli. They did, however, notify two Lebanese television stations.
The following day fighters led by Abu Hureira attacked a Lebanese army location and slaughtered the soldiers. Humiliated and angry, the army struck back. Shaker al Absi apparently did not know about the attack in advance and was frustrated that things were spiraling out of control; he had been forced into a battle against his will. Rumors throughout the country that the soldiers had been mutilated provoked a wave of hatred against Palestinians in general, despite the fact that Fatah al Islam was composed mostly of non-Palestinians and all the Palestinian factions condemned it. Other jihadist groups were silent on the issue. On May 20 and 21 bombs exploded in a Christian and Muslim neighborhood in Beirut, igniting fears that the fighting might spread.
In the chaos of the first day, said Muhamad al Haj, it was not possible to establish a dialogue. But once negotiations led to a ceasefire, armed Sunni civilians from the area descended upon the camp, in support of the army, and attacked the Palestinians. Al Haj blames these civilians for reigniting the battle. Al Haj was shot by Fatah in a failed assassination attempt after they grew concerned about his success in mediating between the army and Fatah al Islam and what it meant for their role in the camp. “They thought that what was being achieved through negotiations would prevent Fatah from forming its security committee to control the camps,” he told me.
When Future Movement leader Saad al Hariri called for support for the Lebanese army and security forces, hundreds of armed Sunnis from the region attacked the camp. Under artillery and sniper fire from both the army and Sunni militiamen from the north, it became very difficult for civilians to leave. Fatah al Islam took advantage of the armaments of the PFLP General Command and the Fatah Revolutionary Council. Members of the General Command and Revolutionary Council were helping Fatah al Islam out of solidarity on the local level, but not on orders from their officers. The Salafi leaders in the camp who had initially welcomed Fatah al Islam disavowed them now. Dai al Islam al Shahal maintained contact between Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese authorities in the hopes of a negotiation. Syria closed two border points in the north.
Over the next three months the Lebanese army regularly announced that it had won the battle and vanquished Fatah al Islam, but the fighting continued, the camp was destroyed, and Lebanese soldiers continued to die. Although al Absi was not seeking a confrontation with the Lebanese army, he might have hoped that other supporters and Salafis would rise up throughout Lebanon and its camps when the fighting started. But they did not.
In early June Jund al Sham clashed with the army in Ayn al Hilweh. There were fears that the fighting in Nahr al Barid would spread south. Usbat al Ansar, which was already part of the camp’s executive committee, played a key role in securing the camp, placing its men between the army checkpoints and the camp. The Lebanese government gave Usbat al Ansar a new status by recognizing it as a power broker in the camp and a partner it could deal with. This negotiated solution allowed the Palestinians to police themselves. It stood in stark contrast to the military solution offered in Nahr al Barid.
In July, after Fatah al Islam began firing missiles outside the camp, Abu Salim Taha explained that their target was the army and some of the rockets had reached Lebanese towns due to miscalculation. He asked the Sunnis to accept his apology. Lebanon’s many Salafi jihadist groups remained silent about Fatah al Islam, and though al Qaeda issued statements on other subjects it was studiously silent about the Nahr al Barid fighting. The Lebanese and Palestinian jihadist groups were focused on fighting Israel, and none of them wanted to jeopardize their position in Lebanon by provoking the authorities.
During the fighting most of the Palestinian refugees from Nahr al Barid had fled to the nearby Bedawi refugee camp. In a schoolyard there I was stopped by Abu Hadi, born in Haifa in 1946. “I am a person without an address,” he told me. “I wish I was a donkey or a horse so I would have doctors and lawyers for my rights.” He pulled out a notebook. “My office is my pocket,” he said. He showed me a plastic bag with a sponge and a towel. “My bathroom is in my hand,” he said.
In late June a peaceful demonstration of hundreds of civilians, including women and children, marched from Bedawi toward their former homes in Nahr al Barid, asking for the right to return. Lebanese soldiers opened fire at close range, killing two demonstrators and wounding at least twenty. As the demonstrators fled they were attacked by Sunni civilians from the region, who beat and stabbed them. Meanwhile, Palestinian families seeking to recover the corpses of relatives killed by the army’s indiscriminate shelling were told to sign statements that their dead men were either with Fatah al Islam or killed by Fatah al Islam. Videos filmed by Lebanese soldiers circulated on the Internet, showing medical staff from the civil defense brigade abusing corpses and beating prisoners. Hundreds of Palestinians had been abused or tortured in Lebanese detention, and some had died from medical neglect of treatable wounds. At the Qibba base of the interior ministry near Nahr al Barid, where many Palestinians were interrogated, at least one of the officers had graduated from an American military program in interrogation described as “debriefing, interviewing and elicitation.” Numerous Palestinian men reported being detained and tortured for many days. Palestinians throughout Lebanon were beaten at checkpoints.
* * *
On September 2 the Army and media declared a great victory, and some even called it a victory over Nahr al Barid, rather than Fatah al Islam. But only on October 10 did the Lebanese army finally begin to allow a trickle of Palestinians back into their homes, and only in the so-called new camp, a small area that had housed two thousand families on the outskirts of the original camp. About one thousand families obtained permits from the Lebanese army and passed through the checkpoints, where soldiers and Lebanese demonstrators heckled them.
Inside they found only destruction. Every single building, apartment, and shop was destroyed. Most were also burned from the inside; empty fuel canisters were left behind on the floors. Ceilings and walls were riddled with bullets shot from inside for sport. Lebanese soldiers had defecated in kitchens—on plates and in bowls and pots—and on mattresses. They had urinated into olive oil jars. Most homes had been emptied of all their belongings—furniture, appliances, sinks, toilets, and televisions were all stolen. The charred walls were covered with insulting graffiti and threats, signed by various Lebanese army units. The Lebanese media was not permitted in and, with few exceptions, not only glossed over the plight of camp residents but appeared to revel in it.
The army’s behavior confused observers: while it seemed to ignore Fatah al Islam targets, it systematically destroyed other parts of the camp, ravaged the infrastructure, and made it impossible for the Palestinians to return. Every window was broken, electrical wiring was pulled out, copper wires were stolen for resale or reuse, water pumps were removed or destroyed, generators were stolen or shot up. Cement columns, typically used in the camp to support homes, had been turned to rubble and the rebars exposed. The few computers that were not stolen had been picked apart, and the RAM and hard drives were all missing. Photo albums had been torn to shreds and all the gold jewelry had been stolen, as had the cash so many Palestinians stored in their bedrooms. Every car in the camp was burned, shot up, or crushed by tanks or bulldozers. Much of the looting and destruction took place after all fighting had ceased, and even in areas where fighting had never occurred at all. Palestinians reported seeing their belongings on sale in the main outdoor market in Tripoli.
The camp had once been integrated into the local economy and culture. Now the Palestinians were unwanted and rejected. For some it was the third time they had been made refugees. In 1976 many had arrived from Tel al Zaatar, a camp near Beirut, after Lebanese Christian militias had besieged it and massacred many of the inhabitants. They then leveled the camp to prevent the Palestinians’ return. “It is our destiny,” one man said without emotion in his blackened home in Nahr al Barid, standing next to excrement the Lebanese soldiers had left behind on the kitchen floor.
In November, the last time I visited, hundreds of Palestinians, though still facing harassment and the occasional beating by Lebanese soldiers, were at work emptying their homes of rubble. One woman stood on her balcony throwing rubble from inside her home onto piles on the side of the broken street. Most were still unable to access their homes and could only wonder what they would find. On the roof of a taller building in the new camp I found Farhan Sa’id Mansur, a sanitation officer, and his wife gazing silently toward their home, whose broken roof they could just make out. “It is a calamity to all Palestinians.”
That month the influential, American-allied Lebanese leader Walid Junblat threatened that the Burj al Barajneh camp in Beirut would be the next Nahr al Barid. The Palestinian community felt even more vulnerable. That month the Lebanese cabinet warned that Islamist militants were infiltrating other Palestinian camps. Ghazi al Aridi, the minister of information, vowed that it would be dealt with the same way as Nahr al Barid. Nobody in government mentioned addressing the actual condition of Palestinians in the camps.
As the Lebanese army celebrated its “victory” over Fatah al Islam, its commander, Michel Suleiman, seemed poised to become the next president. Today posters and banners in Lebanon declare him the “savior.” He would not be the first president to have punished the Palestinians. Between 1958 and 1964, President Fuad Shehab created an elaborate, ruthless secret-service network to monitor the Palestinian camps. During his 1970-76 reign, President Suleiman Franjieh clashed militarily with Palestinian factions, even using the air force to bomb a neighborhood thought to be pro-Palestinian. I have heard followers of assassinated president-elect Bashir Gemayel, whose Maronite Christian militia massacred Palestinians in 1976, brag that he was stopped at a checkpoint in the early years of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war with a trunk full of the skulls of dead Palestinians. Even today, the Lebanese opposition’s preferred candidate for president is Michel Aoun, a Christian retired general who also participated in the 1976 killings.
The Palestinians have been used once again by sectarian interests, and they have suffered the most. The situation will not change, says Rougier, unless refugees are allowed to work in Lebanese society and able to live under new and different influences rather than socialized only by religious clerics. He believes, though, that nothing should be done to naturalize them, because it could upset the Lebanese balance of power and leave Palestinian refugees, once again, caught in Lebanon’s inner contradictions. (Such naturalization would also dissolve negotiations about the right of return.) “So what needs to be done is to distinguish between the issues, between what is social (the right to work), what is political (and should be discussed at the regional level), and what is linked to the legal situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon,” says Rougier. “In order to do that, Lebanese parties would have to stop frightening the Lebanese society about the risk of tawtin.”
Until that happens, Palestinians and all of Lebanon are at great risk. As Iraq becomes a less hospitable place for jihadists and foreign fighters, and as there are fewer American targets to go after, these veterans, experienced at fighting the most advanced army in the world, will look for new battles. Andrew Exum, a former U.S. army officer who led a platoon of light infantry in Afghanistan in 2002 and Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been studying militant Islamist groups. “The fighting in Nahr al Barid is, unfortunately, just the first round in what I fear will be a series of battles fought in the aftermath of the Iraq War,” he says. “On Internet chat rooms, we’re seeing militants turn away volunteers to go fight in Iraq and promising the next fight will be in Lebanon and the Gulf. Lebanon, especially, is a magnet for Sunni extremists,” he says. “You not only have a haven for these groups in the Palestinian camps, with security services from rival Arab states competing for their loyalty and attention, you also have two tempting targets: both the pro-Western ruling coalition in Beirut, as well as the opposition, led by a powerful block of Shia parties. How can we not expect these Sunni militants, who have spent the past four years waging war on the Shia of Iraq, to try and carry that fight on to the large, politically active Shia population in Lebanon? Or on to the pro-Western regime that precariously hangs onto power?”
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