The Palestinian gunman, his face screwed up with rage, ran towards us, raising his AK-47 and yelled, “Get your hands up! Get your hands up!”
It was June 2007 and in the north of Lebanon, the Lebanese army and Fatah Al-Islam were in the early stages of a bloody battle at the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp — a confrontation that would last 106 days and leave 168 soldiers, over 200 militants and dozens of civilians dead.
The fighting in the north clearly had unnerved the Palestinian gunman. He was a guard at the entrance of a small military base at Ain Al-Bayda, near Kfar Zabad village in the Bekaa Valley, manned by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a Damascus-backed radical faction. The PFLP-GC runs five small bases in Lebanon: Ain Al-Bayda, Wadi Heshmesh just north of the Bekaa village of Qussaya, Jabal Al-Maaysara on a lofty mountain plateau east of Qussaya, Sultan Yaacoub in the western Bekaa, and another at Naameh, 15 kilometers south of Beirut.
The PFLP-GC and Fatah Intifada, another Syrian-supported Palestinian group that also operates small camps north of Rashaya in the western Bekaa, were on high alert during the fighting in Nahr Al-Bared.
My two colleagues and I were forced to sit on the ground, our hands on our heads, for five minutes until the arrival of the guard’s boss, incongruously dressed in a purple shell suit. Calm and polite, he told us: “We are guests in this country and we are here in these bases only to help liberate Palestine.”
That incident occurred more than a year after the National Dialogue, the round-table forum grouping Lebanon’s top leaders, had agreed to shut down the Palestinian bases and ban arms carried by Palestinian militants outside the 12 established refugee camps. Nearly four years after that decision was reached, it has yet to be implemented. The Palestinian bases still exist, surrounded by Lebanese troops who prevent civilians and journalists from accessing them.
The issue of the Palestinian bases may well become salient again in the coming months, given the easing of tensions between Lebanon and Syria since the formation of the new government in Beirut in November, and the visit to Damascus by Prime Minister Saad Hariri in December, 2009.
Although both countries have undertaken the historic step of exchanging formal diplomatic relations with the opening of embassies in Beirut and Damascus, the pace of rapprochement will depend greatly on how Syria reacts to Lebanese requests for assistance in some key — but solvable — areas. The first is the fate of the PFLP-GC and Fatah Intifada bases, the second is a decision to begin the long-neglected delineation and demarcation of the border between the two countries.
It is evident that following the Nahr Al-Bared experience, the army has no taste for forcibly dismantling the Palestinian bases, even though in military terms it would be a much simpler task to shut the isolated rural outposts than weeding out Fatah Al-Islam’s die-hards from the cramped interior of a Palestinian refugee camp.
Furthermore, the PFLP-GC, in particular, is an ally of Hezbollah — these days serving almost as the Lebanese party’s private militia force, which adds an awkward political component to closing the bases.
In January, Abu Musa, the leader of Fatah Intifada, declared that he rejected the disarming of Palestinians outside the refugee camps and that the fate of their weapons was a matter to be decided among Palestinians.
Abu Musa’s rare press conference appears to have been an effort to hinder attempts to close the bases before they had even begun. Importantly, however, Abu Musa would not have made such a bold declaration without the knowledge of his hosts in Damascus. Syria has said that because the bases lie on Lebanese soil, it has no jurisdiction to have them closed. In reality, if Syria instructed the PFLP-GC and Fatah Intifada to dismantle their outposts and return to the refugee camps in Damascus or Beirut, they would do so quickly and with a minimum of fuss.
Damascus bridles against international pressure and tends to dig in its heels when lectured by the West. Whether Syria will show goodwill over the Palestinian bases, remains to be seen. But if it does it would win international praise at almost no tactical cost to itself.
There are indications that the United States will soon develop a more nuanced approach toward Lebanon, beyond the repeated calls for the implementation of Resolution 1701. The new track will focus on the border between Lebanon and Israel, probably in terms of seeking to extend the current calm along the Blue Line. But there will be other indirectly related issues the Americans will likely pursue, such as encouraging Lebanon and Syria to begin mapping and formalizing their joint border and closing down the Palestinian military bases.
How Syria responds to such calls will provide early indicators as to how the Lebanon-Syria relationship will unfold in the months ahead.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based
correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor
and The Times of London