The fierce clashes between the Lebanese army and the Fatah Al-Islam in and around Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli (north Lebanon) have occasioned myopic observations regarding the causes of this flare-up. The CNN’s of this world focus on the threat and fear of the spread of al-Qaeda to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. But such reports provide no context or historical understanding. Before the start of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 I spoke at a public event at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of my words were later quoted by the “expert” Daniel Pipes. He attributed to me the following words: “1991 produced bin laden, and 2003 will produce many more” albeit “mini bin-ladens.” Pipes then offered a prediction that lacks any semblance of prescience. In his New York Post column of 8 April 2003, he surmised that “the precise opposite will happen: The war in Iraq will lead to a reduction in terrorism.”
Indeed, one of the outcomes of the perpetual “war on terror” is the emergence of many mini bin-ladens, whose perspectives are essentially nihilistic and murderous. Such gangs (Fatah al-Islam) are vehemently opposed by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in Lebanon. But the fighting in northern Lebanon cannot be explained by this factor alone. Rather, we need to explore the context of Palestinian life in Lebanon. Almost 400,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, and a large percentage of this population lives in 12 formal refugee camps scattered throughout the Lebanese landscape.
The Palestinian population did not come to Lebanon gratuitously, rather they are the original victims of the 1948 war which caused their diaspora. Thus, since the establishment of Israel in 1948 Lebanon was pulled into the vortex of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Upon their arrival to Lebanon they were herded into temporary refugee camps, which over time were transformed into permanent slums and shantytowns. Before the re-emergence of the modern Palestinian national movement, Palestinians were under the control of the Lebanese “deuxieme bureau” (internal security). But with the growth of the PLO and the Lebanese secular forces (Lebanese National Movement), Palestinians secured some freedoms and rights. By 1969 the relations between the Lebanese government and the PLO was governed by the “Cairo Agreement,” brokered by President Nasser of Egypt on 3 November 1969. This agreement served to legitimate and control the Palestinian commando presence in Lebanon. After the 1970-71 civil-war in Jordan, the PLO transferred its center of activities to Lebanon.
The presence of the PLO in the 1970s contributed to the growth of the Palestinian and Lebanese national movements. Israeli raids contributed to their mutual ascendance. For example, in April 1973 the Israeli Mossad assassinated three top Fatah leaders in Beirut (less than 200 meters from my apartment). A major demonstration ensued that pit the Lebanese national movement against its would-be Phalangist enemies in the civil war which would start in 1975. Also in 1973, a clash between the Lebanese army and the PLO broke out. My apartment was destroyed in the crossfire; this same neighborhood (Harat Hreik) was pulverized by the Israelis in the summer of 2006. These escalations led to the renegotiation of Lebanese-PLO relations through the adoption of the “Melkart Understanding” (15-17 May 1973), which partly reaffirmed and partly circumscribed the “Cairo Agreement.” These revisions did not prevent the obliteration of Tel el-Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp in 1976 by the combined forces of Syria and the Phalangists. After the forced evacuation of PLO forces in 1982 from Lebanon, these agreements remained in place, but the realities on the ground had changed dramatically, and with chilling effect on the dwellers of Palestinian refugee camps.
From 1969 to 1982 the camps were mostly governed by various PLO factions. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provided a modicum of social, educational, and employment services. But after 1982, the PLO, for all practical purposes, abandoned its responsibilities towards its people in the refugee camps. Left unprotected, the unimaginable took place in what is now known the “Sabra-Shatila” massacres, conducted by Lebanese militiamen under the supervision of Israeli forces (General Sharon lost his job because of this atrocity, but his Lebanese counterparts were later honored by post-war ministerial portfolios). With no one to protect this population, Palestinians have lived fearful of mass expulsions, a refrain that enters Lebanese political discourse periodically.
The camp dwellers have, for the most part, been relatively quiescent since 1982. Their life conditions are even more precarious and tragic than those of their beleaguered compatriots in Gaza. For example, the World Bank issues a quarterly publication: The West Bank and Gaza Update. The IMF and UNESCO issue frequent reports on Palestinian conditions, but no agency seems determined to shed light on the conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. They are truly the forgotten of the earth. According to Lebanese laws, Palestinians are denied work opportunities in most domains of economic activity. If they manage to get out of the country, it is likely that they will be unable to return. Social disintegration has led to rising problems: severe unemployment, insecurity, prostitution and drug-addiction. The Palestinian experience in Lebanon has been aptly captured by Rosemary Sayigh in the title of her book: “too many enemies.” Who is responsible for these refugees? At present, no one. The absence of central authority (as in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Lebanon of yesteryear) is a perfect incubator for the emergence of nihilistic groupings, civil war and disorder.
The solution to the current fighting cannot be undertaken by the Lebanese alone. Since 1948 and the creation of the Palestinian Diaspora, the general wisdom has been that the refugee problem in Lebanon and elsewhere cannot be resolved until a formal Israeli-Palestinian peace is negotiated. This approach is evasive and callous—it reduces Palestinian refugees into a perpetually vulnerable population, and one that is constantly threatened with expulsion. But to where? Where is their homeland?
In the short-run, an immediate cease-fire is needed to rescue the civilian victims. Next, serious talks between the Lebanese government and Palestinian organizations in camp Nahr al-Bared and across Lebanon must start in earnest. But agreement between these parties is impossible without international guarantees and funding. Therefore Palestinian camps can be placed under an international UN Trusteeship, to guarantee their safety from within and without. Palestinian civic organizations will have to step up to create viable systems of governance, under temporary UN supervision. The Lebanese state will demand the respect of its sovereignty, but such respect should not be predicated on the continued oppression of the Palestinian refugees. The international community which contributed to the creation of the modern Palestinian Diaspora as well as wealthy Arab states must step up with serious funding.
The UN must immediately issue a report on the misery of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This must be followed by a UN resolution to establish a Trusteeship over the camps. Failure to do so will result in further tragedy and will produce more mini bin-ladens.
Nubar Hovsepian is Associate Professor of Political Science, Chapman University in Orange. He is editor of: War on Lebanon, (Internlink Publishers, June 2007).