Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, January 16th, 2008
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 �mile 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…. [Read the entire Al Qaeda in Lebanon]
Thousands of non-ID Palestinians to receive legal status
Lebanese government strikes quiet deal with Palestinian leaders
By William Wheeler
Special to The Daily Star
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
BEIRUT: The Lebanese government and Palestinian leaders have struck a quiet deal that would grant a new legal status to at least 3,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon without any identity documents, The Daily Star has learned. The plan was approved at a meeting last Friday that included representatives from the Interior Ministry, General Security, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) and the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO consul in Lebanon Mahmoud al-Asabi said.
General Security officials are working out the details of the new status, such as the rights and the type of identity documents those affected – known as non-ID Palestinians – will receive, Ambassador Khalil Makkawi, head of the Dialogue Committee, told The Daily Star on Tuesday. Palestinian advocacy groups have pushed for the new legal standing to allow those concerned to work and travel like other Palestinians.
"UNRWA welcomes any initiative to legalize the status of these people and improve their conditions," said UNRWA Lebanon chief Richard Cook.
Those involved with the process have not yet made public the coming change, as the official status of Lebanon's roughly 300,000 Palestinians remains one of the nation's most volatile political issues.
"We are trying to tackle this problem at a low key," said Makkawi, adding that authorities wanted to avoid any potential influx of non-ID Palestinians seeking the new standing. Makkawi's LPDC was established in 2005 during a renewed push by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to establish diplomatic ties with the PLO and to address the glaring lack of rights among Lebanon's Palestinians.
The change in status will affect between 3,000 and 5,000 Palestinians, a number which includes a large percentage of single men who came to Lebanon in the wake of 1970's Black September clashes with the Jordanian Army or to fight for the Palestinian cause during the 1975-90 Civil War. Lebanese officials want to verify the names of the non-ID Palestinians with authorities in Egypt and Jordan, Makkawi said.
Many of these Palestinians received support from the PLO during the Civil War and did not need assistance until the PLO's ouster from Lebanon in 1982 and when the state started to reassert itself as the war drew to a close. The category of non-ID Palestinians also consists of the children born to fathers without proper documentation, because Lebanese law mandates that children born here inherit the legal status of their fathers.
The people in this group face obstacles in traveling within and outside Lebanon, owning property, graduating from school, marrying or gaining access to adequate health and social services, said a 2007 report from the Danish Refugee Council.
"In practice, most non-ID children attend UNRWA schools; however, due to their lack of identification, they can not be granted official diplomas," the report said.
The plight of this class gained attention following the 2001 shooting death of a young Palestinian man who fled from soldiers at a military checkpoint near the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon because he had false identification papers.