Conflict in refugee camp threatens to spread
Transport planes carrying US military "aid" for the Lebanon’s army is reported to have arrived at Beirut airport, on 25 May, following an "appeal" from the Lebanese government. Lebanese troops spent the last several days fighting Islamist forces in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Thousands of people fled the camp, as aid workers struggle to bring food and medicine to thousands still inside. Around 50 soldiers and Islamists fighters are reportedly killed, so far, and the civilian death toll is unknown although estimated to be in the hundreds.
The conflict was reportedly triggered, last weekend, when Lebanese forces raided a building in nearby Tripoli after a bank robbery. Fatah al-Islam forces attacked army posts near the Nahr al Bared camp. The Lebanese army then bombarded the refugee camp.
Lebanon has been in deep political crisis for two years. Current Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, and the ‘14th March Forces’ that formed after the assassination of ex-prime minister Hariri, two years ago, cling to power with Western backing, while Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement supporters demand the Siniora government’s removal.
The following report from CWI member, Aysha Zaki, in Beirut, looks at the reasons for the new conflict and the way out of the deepening crisis for the working class.
US military "aid" sent to Lebanon army
Intense fighting between the Lebanese Army and the Al-Qaeda-type network, Fatah El Islam, led to a death toll of nearly 100 and 100’s injured. Many innocent Palestinian women, children and old people are caught in the crossfire.
The Sunni Islamic terrorist group launches attacks on the Lebanese army from inside the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp, outside Tripoli. It is claimed it is using Palestinian residents as ‘human shields’. The army is reinforcing its positions around the camp, with heavier equipment, and stepping up its shelling of buildings, where members of the Fatah al-Islam group were believed to have taken refuge. Brief truces have been agreed after talks between Palestinian officials and Prime Minister Siniora in Beirut, to allow humanitarian organizations a secure corridor to evacuate the wounded.
It is not a coincidence that this Sunni Islamic group is finding refuge in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, which is situated in the Sunni-dominated Tripoli city and which has some of the worst economic and social conditions in Lebanon. Palestinians in Lebanon, the majority of who are second and third generation refugees are still without any basic rights, like the right to work or to hold property ownership. They are forced to live in segregated and overcrowded run-down camps.
The Nahr al-Bared camp is home to an estimated 40,000 refugees. From this population, 1,000s of Palestinians fled their homes since fighting started. Protesters in the other camps call for an immediate ceasefire and for humanitarian assistance as water and power supplies have been cut off since fighting began on Sunday. Reports say that residents near Nahr al-Bared took up arms and joined the battle alongside the army while several followers of the Future Movement living near the camp expressed willingness to assist the army.
Fatah al-Islam, which has been hitting back with machine guns and grenades, threatened to expand its attacks if the army continues to bomb the camp, claiming the battle will spread to outside Tripoli, and Beirut will be in flames. This group is thought to have 200 members in Nahr al-Bared but to have links with other groups in other refugee camps. One of the militants killed in fighting, last Sunday, was Saddam Hajj Dib, a suspect in a plot to blow up trains in Germany, last July. A second dead fighter was identified as Abu Yazan, accused of responsibility for the 13 February 2007 bus bombings in Ain Alaq, in which three died and 20 were wounded. Fath Al Islam said they have members who have fought in Iraq against the US troops, and have former soldiers from the Jordanian and Syrian armies.
Anger in camps
People’s main concern is that Nahr al-Bared clashes will trigger reaction in the other Palestinian camps. Members of the Jund al-Sham group, in Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh camp, demonstrated their armed strength to the Lebanese Army a few days ago. Jund al-Sham militants clashed with Fatah members, on 7 May, and killed two of their members.
Representatives of the main Palestinian factions are offering their help in fighting Islamic militants but have expressed concern over lives of innocent civilians being put at risk. The Lebanese government is debating whether to send the army into the Nahr al-Bared camp, where Fatah al-Islam is headquartered. Several reports raise the possibility of the army entering the camp.
The Palestinian refugee issue has re-emerged, with criticism over the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which bans Lebanese security forces from entering the camps and which allowed the arming of Palestinian groups. Commentators say similar clashes in 1975 developed into a 15-year long civil war. A representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, called on "ordinary" Palestinians not to be drawn into the matter "because they, as much as the Lebanese, consider Fatah al-Islam a dangerous terrorist group that threatens their safety."
Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, which is the main force with Hizbollah in the Opposition, holds the Siniora government responsible for the fighting. They said this conflict could spread to other parts of Lebanon and terrorist attacks could increase, targeting Lebanese civilians. Aoun accused the government of "blatant neglect" and of "pure incompetence." Aoun said the army is not to be blamed but rather the government. This criticism was echoed by opposition supporters, who blamed the Siniora government for previously ignoring the arming and funding of the Islamic Sunni groups, while calling for the Shiite resistance group, Hezbollah, to disarm. This is to serve the interest of the US’s plan for the Middle East and leads to divisions and sectarian conflicts.
The ’Iraqisation’ of Lebanon is now a well worn term used here in Lebanon, particularly after recent bombings in Beirut. The deepening crisis and chaos is used on both sides of the political divide to gain advantage. On the one hand, the Siniora government blames Syria for allowing Sunni Islamist armed groups to cross the border. Some government spokespeople go as far as to accuse Syrian officials of funding and arming these groups, while, at the same time, pro-Syria Hezbollah refuses to disarm and is encouraged by Syria. On the other hand, some of the opposition accuses the Sunni-led government of being behind such armed Islamist groups, to serve US interests. There is also speculation that the Lebanese army will use the crisis to make a coup bid.
What is clear is that the situation is spiraling fast out of control, and that both government and opposition are trying to exploit it. Of course, workers and the poor across the country, innocent Palestinians and Lebanese, are paying the highest price for the conflict. While this is going on, Israeli warplanes hover in our skies.
Workers need united movement
We need a united workers’ movement to oppose the conflict, and to pull together working people of all confessional backgrounds. Socialists oppose the indiscriminate and brutal army attacks on Nahr al-Bared camp, which are slaughtering many civilians. We demand an end to imperialist meddling in Lebanon and the region, and also oppose the intervention of the oppressive Syrian regime.
Socialists also oppose the policies and methods of Fatah al-Islam and other like groups. Political Islam and terrorism, which divides the working class, is no solution for the impoverished Palestinians or the Lebanese working class.
Working people in Lebanon need their own powerful voice in opposition to the governing parties. Hezbollah emerged from last year’s war with Israel with huge support for its resistance, but it is clear this movement cannot unite workers and poor from all confessional backgrounds and neither does it stand for a fundamental break from capitalism.
The current crisis makes a difficult situation for the working class. But there is strong opposition to the corrupt, pro-capitalist parties and their neo-liberal policies. The working class must oppose the slide towards sectarian and confessional conflict. Workers’ democratically elected committees, in the workplaces and in communities, can develop independent organized working class organizations. This class opposition is needed to oppose the corrupt elite and to abolish the conditions which breed confessional and sectarian divisions and terrorism.