Hamas flag goes up in Lebanon camps

Fatah still has a strong following of Palestinians refugees in Lebanon who were supportive of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. In Burj al-Barajne refugee camp outside Beirut a Fatah poster with Arafat’s picture is faded and torn over time, September 2007. (Matthew Cassel)

BADDAWI CAMP, Lebanon, 5 September (IPS) - There is a new look to the entrance of the Palestinian refugee camp Baddawi in northern Lebanon. Hanging above the armed man who guards the entrance are posters of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the slain spiritual leader of Hamas, and other fighters from the Palestinian guerrilla group. Nearby, a huge Hamas banner covers the side of a house, and down the road Hamas flags flutter in the wind.

Just months ago, such banners and posters would have been torn down by supporters of the rival Fatah party. But many residents here say that they have grown disillusioned with Fatah (known in Lebanon as Fatah Abu Ammar) after its defeat in Gaza in June and its handling of the crisis at the nearby refugee camp Nahr al-Bared.

When Islamic militants opened fire on Lebanese security forces in late May, the Lebanese army entered Nahr al-Bared despite a long-standing agreement that allows Palestinian groups to police the camps. The ensuing battle between the army and the militants completely destroyed the camp and displaced thousands of Palestinians.

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials in Lebanon, led by members of the Fatah party, sided with the army, despite what many here perceive as indiscriminate shelling of Nahr al-Bared.

On Sunday, the Lebanese army declared victory, after more than three months of fighting, and everywhere Lebanese are waving flags and honking horns in support. But instead of rejoicing, many Palestinians here are angry with Fatah and the PLO for failing to protect civilians.

“These politicians allowed the Lebanese army to destroy the whole camp,” said former Nahr al-Bared resident Abdel Salaam Khader, who lost a brother in the fighting. “We have been exposed many, many times to Israeli bombs, but even the Israelis destroyed certain places and not a whole camp.”

He added, “They could have dealt with the fighters in a different way, not in a military way. The Palestinian leaders made an agreement with the government that caused us to lose our homes and possessions.”

When fighting began and the first wave of displaced Palestinians arrived at the Baddawi camp, Fatah leaders promised funds for reconstruction, compensation for victims of violence, and talks with the army to ensure that the camp would not be destroyed. But according to many of the displaced, the Palestinian leadership has not delivered on any of these promises. Locals also accuse Fatah and other PLO leaders of not preventing the army from arbitrarily detaining and torturing Palestinians fleeing the violence.

“Fatah Abu Ammar did not protect civilians, and on the contrary they gave the Lebanese army and government all the help they needed,” said a former Nahr al-Bared resident who asked not to be named. “Until now we don’t have a clear timetable about the future, about the rebuilding of our camp, the date of our return, or what will happen to Nahr al-Bared. Fatah Abu Ammar didn’t give us any help; they only went on TV and made grand promises. They only give money to those who belong to them. But Fatah Abu Ammar has given us nothing.”

Samer Diad, another local resident, added, “While Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat) was alive, we called them Fatah Abu Ammar. Now we call them Fatah of the Thieves.”

Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps are home to over 400,000 Palestinians and a variety of political groupings. Many of the factions are grouped under the PLO, which includes Fatah as a leading party. The leadership of Fatah and other PLO factions came to Lebanon in the early seventies. By the end of that decade, Fatah became a powerful force in Lebanese politics and in the lives of Palestinians.

Palestinian refugees looked to Fatah for social services, jobs, protection, and as the leading force in the fight against Israel. After the Israeli army invaded Lebanon and expelled the PLO leadership in 1982, a steady decline of the PLO began, and with the onset of the first Intifada in 1987, the front lines of Palestinian struggle moved to the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Despite the PLO’s decline, however, it always had a strong base in Lebanon. But with the ascendancy of Hamas in the Occupied Territories, Fatah’s negotiations with Washington and Tel Aviv and the siege of Nahr al-Bared, many analysts contend that Fatah’s support in the camps of Lebanon is at an all-time low.

Ashraf Ibrahim, analyst and community leader at the Njaz Community Centre in Baddawi, insisted that many people looked to Fatah to represent the Palestinian people in Gaza and in Nahr al-Bared, but in both cases Fatah failed.

“Fatah Abu Ammar wants to be the unique force in all of the camps,” he said. “They want to crush the other groups and become the unique representation for the refugees. Therefore they have good relations with the government, but they don’t talk about Palestinian rights.”

The PLO recently reorganized its command structure in Lebanon. According to some local reports, the PLO is moving to strengthen its position in Lebanon in an effort to counteract the rising popularity of Hamas and other groups.

Dr. Kassim Subiyeh, a Fatah representative in Lebanon, said that “I feel that people’s response to Nahr al-Bared is temporary. They expected more and did not get what they expected. Other movements and factions are using this against Fatah. But I am sure with a little time people will start using their mind and not their affections.”

Leading PLO representative in Lebanon and Fatah commander Munir Maqdah told IPS that “[Nahr al-Bared] is not the fault of Fatah. People are coming to trust Fatah more and more. Fatah is a movement for all Palestinians. It comes from the womb of the Palestinian nation, so no one can remove it.”

However, many Palestinians here in former Fatah strongholds are turning to Hamas. “Hamas is gaining influence here,” Ashraf said, “because from the beginning they took the right position. They said we are against the military aggression of the army. They said we will pressure the politicians to help our displaced and work until everyone is returned to their home.”

Moreover, Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in June and its insistence on demanding the right of return of refugees to the Occupied Territories has only increased its standing in the eyes of many in the camps. When asked about the issue of right of return, Fatah representative Subiyeh told IPS: “Leave it for hundreds of years.”

For the Palestinians of Baddawi and Nahr al-Bared, many twice displaced and living eight to a room, this may be a hard pill to swallow.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

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