Lebanese Red Cross workers are ferrying injured civilians from the edge of Nahr al-Bared to nearby hospitals. (Hugh Macleod/IRIN)
Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that the Lebanese army has repeatedly shelled the densely populated Palestinian refugee camp with tanks and mortars. Lebanese officials charged that the militants are using the camp’s residents to shield themselves.
The Lebanese army’s assault on Nahr al-Bared began Sunday after armed militants from Fatah al-Islam killed 27 soldiers in ambushes and clashes. From inside the camp, Fatah al-Islam militants fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at army posts on the camp perimeter.
“The indiscriminate shelling of a densely populated refugee camp can result in a bloodbath,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Lebanese authorities need to restore order in a way that minimizes civilian casualties.”
The number of civilians killed in the fighting remains unknown, as the Lebanese authorities are restricting access due to the ongoing fighting. Health personnel who have gained access to the camp have focused on evacuating the wounded. A Lebanese Red Cross official told Human Rights Watch that the organization transferred at least 57 wounded from the camp to hospitals in the last 48 hours of fighting, including 40 on Tuesday. According to Reuters, at least 27 civilians have been killed since Sunday, as well as 22 militants and 32 soldiers.
Wounded civilians evacuated from the camp told Human Rights Watch that the Lebanese army’s tank and artillery shells were falling indiscriminately on certain neighborhoods in the camp, killing and injuring civilians and damaging houses, water tanks, health dispensaries and mosques. Several other civilians told Human Rights Watch that they were injured by unidentified sniper fire often coming from areas outside the camp.
Under principles of international humanitarian law, warring parties are prohibited from using means and methods of attack that cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants, including indiscriminate shelling. Nor may they carry out attacks that are expected to cause loss of civilian life that is disproportionate to expected military gain.
Marwan Hamadeh, the Lebanese minister of telecommunications, accused Fatah al-Islam of using the camp’s population as hostages. Using civilians to shield one’s own forces from attack is a serious violation of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said. Placing forces or weapons in the vicinity of heavily populated areas can also result in violations of international humanitarian law.
“Fatah al-Islam militants must not hide among civilians, and the Lebanese army must take better precautions to prevent needless civilian deaths,” said Stork.
The clashes have led to a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis inside the camp. According to evacuated camp residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the army shelling destroyed two of the camp’s main water containers, as well as electrical generators and health dispensaries. Food, medical and water supplies are running low, despite efforts by the Lebanese Red Cross, Palestinian Red Crescent, International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations to bring in supplies.
On Tuesday afternoon, a convoy carrying humanitarian supplies from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was shelled as it tried to enter the camp during a short-lived ceasefire. An UNRWA staff member participating in the convoy told Human Rights Watch that he saw three mortar shells hit the six-vehicle convoy, damaging three of them. UNRWA has reported two civilian casualties, while an eyewitness estimated that the number may be higher.
On Tuesday night, the Associated Press reported that thousands of refugees began leaving the camp following a lull in the fighting.
“The Lebanese army and the Fatah al-Islam fighters should establish a safe passage to allow the civilians to leave the camp and let humanitarian supplies for civilians in,” Stork said.
Humanitarian law also requires that whenever circumstances permit, warring parties must without delay take all measures to collect and evacuate the dead.
The fighting erupted in the early hours of Sunday, May 20, after Lebanese security forces raided a building in the coastal city of Tripoli to arrest suspects in a bank robbery. Fighters of Fatah al-Islam then allegedly attacked army posts at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, situated 15 kilometers north of Tripoli.
Nahr al-Bared is the second-largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, with more than 30,000 people living in densely laid-out structures. Fatah al-Islam, an Islamist group, uses the camp as its main base. The withdrawal of Syrian intelligence and security agents in 2005, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, left a security vacuum that Fatah al-Islam has exploited.
Fatah al-Islam, a Sunni Muslim Palestinian group, emerged in 2006 after it split from Fatah al-Intifada, a pro-Syrian Palestinian faction that split from Yasser Arafat’s organization, Fatah. Lebanese authorities accused the group of bombing two minibuses in the Christian town of Ain ‘Alaq in February 2006, killing three people. They also hold Fatah al-Islam members responsible for at least three bank robberies, most recently on May 19 in the coastal town of Amioun south of Tripoli.
Under a 1969 agreement between the government and the Palestine Liberation Organization, brokered by the Arab League, Lebanon’s army may not enter the refugee camps, which are supposed to be “self-policing.” In Nahr al-Bared and other northern areas, Syrian intelligence and military forces held sway until they were forced to withdraw following the Hariri assassination.