It is five years to the month that the siege of Nahr El Bared began near Tripoli, and while the guns have gone silent, the potential for renewed conflict involving Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps looms ever as large.
In conversations and interviews since with representatives from the different Palestinian factions in the camps — often in places where Kalashnikovs are stacked indiscreetly in the corner — the topic of Nahr El Bared has inevitably come up. The 2007 battle destroyed the camp, displaced tens of thousands and killed hundreds of Lebanese soldiers and mostly foreign Fatah Al Islam militants; it also represents for many Palestinians both their precarious position in Lebanon and the country’s careless disregard for their suffering.
To the south, in Lebanon’s largest refugee camp, Ain Al Helweh, the precarious security conditions that resulted in the Nahr El Bared fighting are mirrored in many ways. In Ain Al Helweh, the absence of proper governance, or even a single dominant armed faction or alliance, has allowed space for militant Jihadist organizations such as Usbat Al Ansar, Jund Al Sham and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades to establish themselves. Like Fatah Al Islam, such organizations operate with little regard for camp residents, the stability of the country or the few observed “rules of the game” that exist in relations between the Lebanese and mainstream Palestinian factions.
The potential security threat these groups pose came up again in March when an Abdullah Azzam Brigades cell was discovered within the Lebanese army. For the Lebanese government, trying to move security forces into the camp and arrest wanted extremists like Abdullah Azzam Brigades leader Tawfik Taha could risk another Nahr El Bared-type conflict. And yet, if nothing is done, the government facilitates the perpetuation of such groups and risks the increased likelihood of future confrontation. For mainstream Palestinian factions, who may not see eye-to-eye with the Lebanese government in general but also reject these fringe groups, moving against an organization such as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades risks sparking intra-Palestinian fighting within the camp. There are no easy solutions.
The Lebanese government has not, however, made any effective attempt to repair relations with mainstream Palestinians groups since the Nahr El Bared conflict. With the reconstruction still incomplete, mired in the contentions of politics and security and assailed by accusations of corruption, many Palestinians, already skeptical of the Lebanese state, have become even more suspicious of its intentions towards them. Relying primarily on donor funding for the rebuilding of the camp, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, tasked with managing the reconstruction, seems hobbled by mismanagement, ineffectiveness and underfunding: it is still more than $180 million short of the funds it says it needs for the project, but with little headway made on the reconstruction, donors have been hesitant to pump more money in.
Declared a closed military zone, there is also a fear that Lebanese security forces will also attempt to maintain a presence in Nahr El Bared if the camp is ever rebuilt — a move that would be an unwelcomed precedent in Lebanon’s other camps.
If the intent of the heavy-handed destruction at Nahr El Bared was meant to teach a lesson to the more mainstream Palestinian factions that hold sway in most of the camps and encourage them to disarm, it largely failed. Having lost another of their camps, many Palestinians see arms as the only way to guarantee their safety from the government or militant groups, and today the camps remain one of the few places in the country where weapons are openly flaunted and military positions are occupied during times of peace.
With the eyes of Lebanon following potential crises that seem to present a more immediate danger — such as the specter of a return to political assassinations and the possibility of the Syrian conflict spilling across the border — the problems brewing in the camps are allowed to fester unseen on the other side of Army checkpoints. To ignore and leave unaddressed the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon’s refugee camps, however, is to leave burning a fire which could easily flare out of control, yet again.