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Lebanon: Faultlines

Refugees crowded in room.

An estimated 30,000 Palestinians were left homeless following the destruction of their refugee camp during militant fighting.

Editor's Note:Always precarious, Lebanon's peace and its fragile democracy are once again under assault with the latest car bomb assassination of a Christian member of parliament in a Beirut suburb. Lebanon's leaders blamed Syria, which denies involvement. The bombing comes on the eve of a special parliamentary session to choose a new president. "The Security Council condemns this new bombing as an attempt to destabilize Lebanon in this very crucial period," warned France's U.N. ambassador.

The legislature -- deeply divided between a Sunni/Christian majority and a Hezbollah-led opposition -- has from September 25 until November 24 to elect a president. If they fail to agree on a consensus candidate, many in Lebanon fear that two rival governments will emerge, threatening a revival of the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. The government only recently ended a fierce battle with militants who took over a Palestinian refugee camp. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora proclaimed victory, but FRONTLINE/World's Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck reports that the three-month siege exposed Lebanon's continued vulnerability to radical insurgents.

The fireworks had been going off for hours; yet, they still made people twitch and duck. "It sounds so much like gunfire," said Fida Sahini, an aid worker who dropped me off near the ritzy outdoor cafes of Beirut's Sassine Square amid a roar of colorful explosions and patriotic songs. But on a recent September night, Lebanon was determined to celebrate. In the most intense fighting since Lebanon's civil war, its army had just defeated Fatah al-Islam, a cell of militants labeled an "imitation al-Qaeda" by the Lebanese government. After 105 days of gruesome fighting, more than 160 soldiers, 38 civilians and 200 militants are dead. Civilians lined the streets throughout the day, and late into the night, they showered tanks with rice. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora proclaimed victory over Fatah al-Islam, a group the defense minister said had been "spreading like a cancer to target each part of the nation."

In the most intense fighting since Lebanon's civil war, its army had just defeated Fatah al-Islam, a cell of militants labeled an "imitation al-Qaeda" by the Lebanese government.

Despite the speeches and festivities, there is a lingering unease in Lebanon that this is not the end of the battle. Encouraged and supplied with weapons by the United States and Saudi Arabia [governments], the Lebanese offensive obliterated not only the core of a terrorist cell but also Nahr el-Bared, Lebanon's most prosperous Palestinian refugee camp, where the militants held out. Now, approximately 31,000 Palestinians are homeless, and government officials and political analysts tell me they fear that this will feed tensions between Palestinians and Lebanese. And, they say, it may encourage the rising tide of Islamist radicalism in the region, especially because it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila by Lebanese Christian militias.

"Fatah al-Islam are extremists, like al Qaeda," Sanaa el-Jack, the government spokeswoman for post-siege reconstruction, tells me. "We had to show we are in control of the situation. But Palestinians are nervous. They remember the camps that were attacked in the 1980s. The situation could endanger the stability of the region because there are other cells like this in other camps, and they could start trouble again against the Christians in the country."

That tension was palpable at a town-hall meeting I attended a few days earlier in Beddawi, a small Palestinian refugee camp near the ancient Lebanese port city of Tripoli and 10 miles from the recent fighting. Built to house 18,000 refugees, the camp has swelled to twice that size, as thousands of refugees from Nahr el-Bared sought shelter. Newcomers sleep on floors in schools and garages and on streets. They wear clothes provided by charities. The first wave of bombings, which destroyed many of their homes at 3 am on May 20, is still on their minds, they tell me.

Palestinians marching.

Government officials fear that unrest in the refugee camps will feed tensions between Palestinians and Lebanese.

Today, about 500 people, mainly men, are packed into a sweltering schoolyard. At first, all is well: Flanked by officials and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) soldiers in camouflage and carrying Kalashnikovs, the amiable head of Lebanon's United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, Richard Cook, vows the camp will be rebuilt. Even Ziad Sayegh, the Lebanese government representative who looks uncomfortable in the heat, even gets applause when he tells the refugees, "There are people who want to start a fight between Lebanon and the Palestinian people. This will not come to pass. It will not come to pass."

But it is when the floor opens to questions that emotions rise.

"We have lost the university certificates of our sons and daughters. We have lost the photos of our fathers and mothers," shouts a middle-aged man. "Would you have bombed Lebanese citizens like this if Fatah al-Islam had been in Tripoli?" Voices grow loud, someone tries to grab the microphone from the man, the crowd heaves and the PLO soldiers start moving. Within seconds, Cook, Sayegh and other official-looking types are rushed out of the schoolyard. As I glide through the crowd, I see one man put his fist in the air and shout, "Fatah al-Islam."

Then I find myself in the U.N. office, an air-conditioned metal box, whose bulletproof shutters are slamming shut. "Everybody sit down and stay calm," a camp official says, as the sound of the departing motorcade subsides.

Landowners who allowed refugees onto their land temporarily 58 years ago are eyeing the camp's lucrative location on the edge of the Mediterranean.

Later in the day, in the calm of a Tripoli office, Cook tells me that the refugees' frustration may grow. It will take weeks to de-mine the camp and months to clear the rubble. No one really knows what to do with the estimated 500,000 cubic meters of rubble that could fill the Sydney Opera House 20 times. Besides, the camp may not be completely rebuilt, as it has seeped outside official boundaries over the years. When it does get rebuilt, the warren of alleyways are likely to be replaced by a neat grid with streets that Lebanese tanks can patrol. This could mark the first time a camp has come under Lebanese control since a 1969 deal left the camps to govern themselves.

Beyond the physical issues, Lebanese resentment against Palestinians, whom they hold responsible for the months of bombings, is on the rise, says Nadim Shehadi, a Chatham House Middle East expert currently advising Lebanon on the reconstruction. Regional authorities want the Nahr el-Bared camp moved elsewhere. Landowners who allowed refugees onto their land temporarily 58 years ago are eyeing the camp's lucrative location on the edge of the Mediterranean and along the trade route to Syria.

Townhall meeting.

A tense town-hall meeting in Beddawi, a small Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, where many refugees from the destroyed camp have sought shelter.

The question for many in the region is how to stop radicals in other Palestinian camps from gaining power and further destabilizing this tiny country, which is crucial in the war-and-peace balance of the Middle East. The government has warned that despite the combined efforts of Lebanese and Palestinian forces, radicals are gaining power in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest camp, where a group named Jund al-Sham launched attacks on the Lebanese army during the Nahr el-Bared siege. Jund al-Sham is believed to have been created in 1999 in Afghanistan by Palestinians and Syrians linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Yet if Fatah al-Islam is to serve as a blueprint, setting up a cell in a Palestinian refugee camp does not seem difficult to do. Residents of Nahr el-Bared told me how the group established itself in their camp last November. Hamas had thrown them out of Beddawi when they tried to settle there -- they had been very noticeable in their foreign clothes, a local leader of Hamas' youth movement told me. In Nahr el-Bared, there were no rivals to speak of, and Fatah al-Islam's members arrived with bulging wallets, marrying local women and starting families. They acquired an arms arsenal and a training compound from Fatah al-Intifada, the group from which they originated. They also kept good relations with residents.

"We all knew they were terrorists, but some young people got money from them. They'd get $200 to let one of them into the upper floor of their house to shoot at the army," says Nael Abusiam, a 40-year-old electrical engineer who fled the camp and now works for an aid organization in Beddawi.

The latest outrage in Lebanon is the car bombing in a Christian neighborhood of yet another politician critical of Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs.

By the time hooded and masked Fatah al-Islam men climbed onto Nahr el-Bared's highest rooftops in February, holding guns and proclaiming their control of the camp, residents regarded them as just another of the many militias that had controlled the camp over the years. The group disseminated propaganda pictures during the siege, with their slogan, "Movement of the Weak People of the Earth.

"People are willing to listen to this. They don't usually support al-Qaeda, but they are not sad when al-Qaeda strikes," says Beddawi Hamas youth leader, Mohammad Daoud.

In Beirut, the tension is evident, too. The government is nearly paralyzed by internal disputes, and on the streets, there is a growing fear of suicide attacks. New roadblocks appear almost daily. The latest outrage is the car bombing in a Christian neighborhood of yet another politician critical of Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. Six people were killed and 56 injured in a massive explosion that assassinated Antoine Ghanem, a member of parliament. This attack follows a bloody pattern that began in 2005 with the car bombing of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, whose death is widely blamed on Syria.

Meanwhile, in Beddawi, families settle into cramped emergency shelters, and men play card games and smoke sheeshas late into the night. Refugees tell me they have dreamless nights, and that they are used to upheaval. But psychologists warn of mass trauma. And as I walk home one night, I hear the terrible sound of a man weeping out of control.

Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Independent, BusinessWeek, Dow Jones Newswires and the Associated Press, covering international trade, terrorism and politics. She lives in Brussels.

REACTIONS

(anonymous)
Really impressive - excellent sourcing under what must have been very trying conditions, and the kind of incisive and involved background that is so often lacking from most coverage. Well done, look forward to the next.

Stephen Gabbert - West Tanfield, N. Yorkshire, UK
An excellent and well written piece that gets inside the emotional warp and woof of Palestinian camp residents as they cope with extremism and violence. Matters will only worsen in the absence of a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, the real solution to turmoil in refugee camps throughout the region. Without a peace agreement, Palestinian camps will provide ever-growing pools of eager recruits for extremist groups.

Beirut, Lebanon
A very good article but I am surprised that there is seemingly no mention of Israel at all nor of the 'integration' of Palestinians in Syria and Jordan via repressive rule. Furthermore, not mentioning that the Palestinians have largely not been made citizens because of the delicate religious balance in Lebanon leaves out a crucial fact. The Palestinians in Lebanon should undoubtedly be treated better but one cannot overlook that as a group they HAVE used Lebanon to seek to reach their own goals of winning back Palestinian territory. All this said, thank you for writing such an involved piece.