There are growing fears that the Lebanese army’s assault on the refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared near the northern city of Tripoli will become part of a general offensive against Palestinian refugees across Lebanon.
The army has already used an attack on its soldiers as an excuse to launch an assault on Ain el-Hilweh, another Palestinian refugee camp near the southern city of Sidon.
Jund al-Sham, a radical Sunni Islamist organisation that was until recently backed by the Future Movement of Saad Hariri – an ally of the US – attacked an army checkpoint on Sunday night.
The army responded by shelling refugee areas – despite the fact that the Islamist group is based in the Taamir neighbourhood, a shantytown on the outskirts of the Palestinian camp.
Lebanon has a population of around 400,000 Palestinian refugees, descendents of those who fled to the country from Zionist terror gangs when Israel was founded nearly 60 years ago.
Since then they have lived in dire poverty in refugee camps across the country. Palestinians in Lebanon suffer from a range of racist laws against them and are frequently used as scapegoats for the country’s problems.
The Sidon municipality near Ain el-Hilweh – a mainly Sunni Muslim area – has begun preparations to help refugees in case of a new offensive.
This solidarity contrasts with the generally hostile attitudes faced by the Palestinians refugees in Nahr el-Bared.
The difference is that Sidon was a centre of the resistance to Israel’s long running occupation of Lebanon. During this time the Lebanese people built close ties to Palestinian refugee communities.
The Lebanese government hopes that escalating the war of the camps will become a pretext to disarm the Palestinians and Lebanon’s Hizbollah resistance movement.
In 2004 the US and France pushed through United Nations security council resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of these militias.
Across the country Palestinian refugees are now facing daily harassment by the army and police. Security forces have been conducting sweeps, arrests and beatings.
Palestinians have been blocked from leaving their areas and blamed for the fighting – despite the fact that they have no links to the Islamist organisations that have attacked the army.
Sayeed, a teacher in Tripoli, told Socialist Worker by phone that security forces have placed the city under martial law.
“The situation in Tripoli is one of tension and maximum suspicion,” he said.
“Every day someone calls the security services to check out an apartment or someone unfamiliar. The army descends in force if they discover that a Lebanese family is sheltering Palestinians.
“This atmosphere of suspicion is affecting everyone. Two Turkish sailors were arrested five times in one day as they attempted to return to their ship.
“The army chased one suspect along a street in the Zaharia neighbourhood of the city. They wounded him and then fired at least 40 bullets into his already prone body.”
There have been demonstrations in refugee camps across the country and protests organised by Lebanese groups.
“We were on a small demonstration on Thursday of last week at the entrance to Nahr el-Bared,” said Sayeed. “We carried banners demanding that the army allows in relief supplies and the media – who have been banned from the area.
“We were joined by some local Sunni Muslims who were furious at the growing levels of racism against the refugees. This is a small sign that locals are beginning to speak out despite the atmosphere of fear.”
Sayeed is part of a growing network of local groups attempting to get relief into the camp. “Organising relief for the refugees is difficult – but not impossible,” he said.
“The Beddawi camp, where many Nahr el-Bared refugees have fled to, is itself packed with refugees and aid organisations. The camp was home to 16,000 people – it has now swelled to 37,000. There are hardly any places to sleep and many families are crammed into each house.”
An unknown number of people are trapped in Nahr el-Bared by the army’s siege.
According to information passed to Socialist Worker from relief workers inside Nahr el-Bared, over 60 percent of the camp is now in ruins.
The majority of fighting has spread from the new areas to the heart of the old camp, originally set up to house refugees in 1949.
They said that the army is facing severe difficulties, despite the massive assault.
Now the government is accusing civilians in Nahr el-Bared of aiding the Fatah al-Islam militants. The army said that anyone attempting to leave the camp would be arrested on suspicion of “aiding terrorists”.
This has stoked fears that the army will turn its guns on the Beddawi camp after they have finished with Nahr el-Bared.
The US-backed government claims the offensive is aimed at the Islamist group. However many believe that once the camp is destroyed the refugees will not be allowed to return to their homes and be forced into Syria.
“We’re fed and watered – and waiting for slaughter,” one refugee in the Beddawi camp said.