Socialist Worker

Lebanon crisis: Refugees attacked as right wing militias stalk the streets

by Ghassan Makarem
Issue No. 2053

History repeats itself: (top) Palestinians fleeing the camp at Tel el-Zaatar, Beirut, in 1976 following a siege by Christian militias and the Syrian army. (above) Palestinians fleeing the camp of Nahr el-Bared in 2007, during a siege by the US backed and

History repeats itself: (top) Palestinians fleeing the camp at Tel el-Zaatar, Beirut, in 1976 following a siege by Christian militias and the Syrian army. (above) Palestinians fleeing the camp of Nahr el-Bared in 2007, during a siege by the US backed and


The siege of Nahr el-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon, is in now its second week.

The Lebanese army has surrounded the camp on the pretext of driving out a handful of 'extremists' in the Fatah al-Islam group who are 'using civilians as human shields'.

Yet this group was up until recently funded and supported by the Lebanese government.

According to refugees from Nahr el-Bared, Fatah al-Islam is a mix of Lebanese, Saudis, and Afghans, with only a minority of Palestinians.

Their exact number is unknown, although their ranks have swelled since the pro-US government of Fouad Siniora came to power in 2005.

Before the siege, Fatah al-Islam was one of several Islamist groups thriving in the slums of one of the poorest regions of the country.

Protection

It was protected politically and financially by Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement – one of the parties that makes up the governing coalition. Bahia Hariri, Saad's aunt, funds a similar group in the Ein el-Helweh camp near the city of Saida.

This group, know as Jund al-Sham, has the support of the Mufti of Lebanon – the highest religious authority among Sunni Muslims – and the blessing of Saudi Arabia, one of the key sponsors of the government.

The Mufti of the northern region of Akkar told Al Jazeera news that the Lebanese state was covering up the funding of Fatah al-Islam. This was confirmed by a former leader of the Future Movement in the north.

Seven years ago similar clashes broke out between the Lebanese army and a fundamentalist group called al-Takfir wal Hijra, also based near Tripoli in the north of Lebanon.

Many of the members of this organisation were jailed – but they were released in 2005 because the Lebanese government wanted to secure the votes of Sunni fundamentalists to counterbalance the growing popularity of Hizbollah, which has wide support among the Shia Muslim population.

When Fatah al-Islam first appeared, they declared themselves to be in opposition to the 'Shia Muslim expansion'. From the onset they said they did not want any confrontation with the army and sided with the government over its opposition to Hizbollah and Iran.

However, after encouraging and sponsoring the group, the Future Movement turned its back on them. According to Fatah al-Islam, the current crisis began when the group went to the bank to collect their 'wages'. They were informed that the money had been frozen – so they robbed the bank.

This provided a pretext for the police to raid an apartment in the upmarket area of the city used by the group. After a fierce battle with the police, Fatah al-Islam attacked Lebanese soldiers in their barracks.

The army responded by shelling any location inside the refugee camp without mercy – just as Israel had done to the Lebanese last summer.

'Drunk state'

Civilians were were deliberately targeted. In an interview with a German news agency one soldier said troops were in 'a drunk state where you don't care whether you're shooting at children, the elderly or militants'.

This 'drunk state' has now gripped the whole country. Near the camps, Future Movement gunmen opened fire on those fleeing the siege.

Some Palestinians are being stopped in the streets and humiliated by police, the militias and the army. Stories of random killings of refugees are beginning to trickle in from the north.

At night the streets of the capital Beirut are empty after a series of bombings of commercial centres. The only presence is that of a growing number of armed men in civilian clothes.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the government to ensure the safety of media workers after a series of attacks on reporters sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Walid Jumblatt, a government member and leader of one of the sectarian militias, incited a mob to attack a film crew of the left wing New TV as they tried to report on a car bomb attack.

Activists also report that foreign labourers – mainly Syrian and Sudanese workers – have been arrested and piled into trucks with their hands tied behind their backs.

This atmosphere of fear is spreading to all parts of society. Abdel Rahim al-Awgi, a young theatre actor, was attacked by a gang in his neighbourhood after they discovered he had written an article criticising Hariri.

This chauvinism has spread to Lebanon's 'vibrant civil society'. In meeting after meeting, representatives of so-called 'human rights' organisations refuse to sign statements calling for respect for international conventions concerning the welfare of refugees and civilians.

'We will not doubt the army,' declared the head of the Communist Party's women's group. 'They should use planes to bomb them,' said a leader of the Democratic Left.

Meanwhile planeloads of arms and ammunition have been arriving at Beirut airport from US bases across the region.

Disarming

The government hopes that by entering the camp they could also begin to disarm the Palestinians, who under an agreement signed in 1969 have the right to defend refugees.

In 2004 the US and France sponsored United Nations resolution 1559 that requires the Lebanese government to 'disarm all militias', notably Hizbollah and the Palestinian resistance groups.

The assault on Fatah al-Islam has become a pretext for this offensive. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, warned last week that any such move would be a 'red line'.

The shelling of Nahr el-Bared continues every night. The streets of the country are being taken over by pro-government gangs, and critics are faced with initmidation and murder. Once again Lebanon will be counting the victims of the 'war on terror'.

Ghassan Makarem is a Lebanese socialist activist based in Beirut


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