In the last several days world attention has been drawn to the Nahr al Bared UNRWA refugee camp in northern Lebanon, where Lebanese Armed Forces have entered and are doing battle in order to drive out a militant Sunni group associated with al-Qaida, called Fatah al-Islam. The group, which has Syrian support, is led by a Palestinian, Shaker Abssi, and consists, according to reports, mostly of Palestinians, but includes others such as Syrians and Jordanians.
The Lebanese army has encountered stiff resistance in the camp – where they were fired upon by machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. That a militant group would headquarter in a Palestinian refugee camp, and that violence would ensue, should not come as a surprise.
There are presently close to 400,000 Palestinian Arabs in Lebanon who are registered with UNRWA as refugees. Of these, some 225,000 live in the 12 official UNRWA refugee camps that currently exist in Lebanon – all but one of these camps (the exception being one adjacent to Ba’albek) are situated near the Mediterranean coast. The remainder of the registered refugee population lives in close proximity to the camps.
The situation of the Palestinian refugees inside of Lebanon is – by any one of a number of measures – worse than that of Palestinian Arab refugees living in other areas in which UNRWA functions: Jordan, Syria, Gaza, and Judea and Samaria. They endure greater poverty, a higher infant mortality rate, and poorer housing. Lebanon affords the Palestinians little in the way of social and civil rights and actually prevents them from working in dozens of professions. In a word, the Lebanese are hostile to the Palestinians and have no intention of making life easy for them or integrating them.
There have been UNRWA refugees camps in Lebanon since 1950, and the Palestinians situated there were never welcomed or integrated. But current Lebanese hostility to the Palestinians was generated in good part by historical events of thirty years ago. When the PLO was thrown out of Jordan in 1970, Arafat moved his cadres to south Lebanon, and took over the refugee camps there, establishing a political, economic and military presence so considerable that it was referred to as a “state within a state.”
Ultimately the Lebanese paid an enormous price for this situation. The PLO financial empire, called SAMED, established farming and manufacturing industries and, utilizing cheap Palestinian refugee labor, became one of Lebanon’s largest employers; they harvested poppies in the Bekaa Valley for an extensive drug trade, as well. The balance of Lebanon’s fragile multi-factional society was upset in part by the presence of the Palestinians, who numbered some 300,000 by 1975 and had developed into a primary military force in Southern Lebanon. They established a law unto themselves that undermined Lebanese sovereignty, and they played a role in Lebanon’s civil war.
Perhaps bitterest of all to the Lebanese was the PLO use of Lebanese soil as the base for attacks into northern Israel. This provoked Israeli bombardment of Palestinian targets in south Lebanon, and then, in 1982, Israeli military movement into southern Lebanon to drive out the Palestinians.
The PLO infrastructure was driven out and moved to Tunis. The Palestinian presence in the camps remained, however. To a considerable degree the residents of the camps continued to be a law unto themselves: By long standing agreement – dating from the time of the PLO – the Lebanese army has no authority to enter the camps, which are controlled by armed Palestinian militias. The entrance now of the Lebanese army into this camp marks a departure from what has been the norm. Lebanese from the area of Tripoli, near Nahr al Bared, cheered as the LAF entered.
The Palestinian residents of the UNRWA refugee camps in Lebanon, as described above, are seen as a beleaguered population – and there is clearly a way in which this is so. But they are also a radicalized population, often working against the best interests of a stable, independent Lebanon. In 2005, after the withdrawal from Lebanon of Syrian forces, both Syrian weapons and agents were moved into the Palestinian camps. Last summer, during the Lebanese War, the Palestinians in the UNRWA camps provided support for Hezbollah and a secure hiding place for some of its weaponry.
At present close to one-half of the 30,000 residents of Nahr al Bared have fled, many to the UNRWA camp at Beddawi or to Tripoli. Meanwhile, Richard Cook, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Lebanon, is expressing outrage that a UNRWA relief convoy that entered the camp on Tuesday was fired upon.
UNRWA officials now concede that they knew months ago about the presence of a heavily armed Fatah al-Islam group in the camp in Lebanon but were helpless to do anything about it. “Somebody hasn’t been doing their job,” said Commissioner-General Karen AbuZayd, referring to the Palestinian militias who patrol the camps. According to her the Palestinians refugees in the camp are unhappy about the presence of Fatah al-Islam.
AbuZayd’s statement opens the door to many questions:
In early 1998, Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the UN, stated in a report that, “Refugee camps and settlements must be kept free of any military presence or equipment, including arms and ammunition…the neutrality and humanitarian character of the camps and settlements must be scrupulously maintained.”
The Security Council, reflecting the spirit of Annan’s words, subsequently adopted Resolution 1208, acknowledging that “the maintenance of the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements is an integral part of the national, regional and international response to refugee situations, and underlining “the unacceptability of using refugees and other persons in refugee camps and settlements to achieve military purposes.”
In light of this, how is it that armed Palestinian militias have been permitted to continue to control the UNRWA camps in Lebanon? Further how is it that UNRWA officials kept quiet for months when in possession of the knowledge that a heavily armed Fatah al-Islam group was in an UNRWA camp? The inability of UNRWA officials to “do anything” about the situation directly – because UNRWA possess no armed forces – does not absolve them of responsibility to call the situation to the attention of the Security Council or the international community more broadly.
Lastly, AbuZayd’s statement regarding the fact that the Palestinian militias in the camp “weren’t doing their job” shines a spotlight on the very serious matter of possible complicity of Palestinians in the camps with the radical Islamic group.
Arlene Kushner, an American-Israeli journalist working in Jerusalem, has prepared four major reports on UNRWA for the Center for Near East Policy Research. Additionally she has written articles about UNRWA that have appeared in such publications as Azure Magazine and The Jerusalem Post. Arlene Kushner is Senior Research Associate, Center for Near East Policy Research
© A. Kushner 2007