Nahr al-Bared treated outside of the law

A view of the destroyed Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, December 2007. (Matthew Cassel)

Many actors play a role in alleviating the plight of the Nahr al-Bared displaced Palestinian refugees. The most important actor has been the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. In spite of its slowness, as some interviewees complain, it has done a great job. Donors [1] and international and local nongovernmental organizations [2] have provided financial support and have assisted the population and ensured the basic needs of the displaced population and the returnees. In addition to these institutions, the Saudi Arabia paid seed money ($1200) to each family through the Lebanese government, and some Lebanese political parties, especially the Future Movement, provided food for the families.

The actors’ competition

Grassroots organizations were quickly established to help the Palestinians with their struggle. For instance, an American University of Beirut (AUB)-based initiative composed of AUB students and faculty has helped the displaced people. However, what has been extremely helpful is the establishment of the committee for the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared. The idea came from some people from Nahr al-Bared camp and a group that has already helped several cities in south Lebanon (such as Bint Jbeil and Aita al-Shaab) in their reconstruction. The significance of this group is that its members understand the importance of empowering populations by organizing them. They established along with the Palestinian population the Committee for the Reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared Camp. This committee has surprised UNRWA with the large amount of work completed through consulting the population of Nahr al-Bared about probable reconstruction options and preliminary indispensable work for future design.

Nevertheless, the matter at hand is not to which extent there is solidarity and aid for these 33,000 displaced people but in fact it is the lack of coordination, and this again cannot be understood without referring to the vacuum of power in the refugee camps and the fact that these camps are under both the state of void and the state of exception.

The Nahr al-Bared crisis has shown the weakness of all the Palestinian political factions in managing the crisis. We can distinguish this at two different levels: the relationship with the Lebanese state and society and the level of dealing with the displaced people. Concerning the first level, the PLO has played a very careful and wise role with a clear position of unconditional support to the Lebanese army against Fatah al-Islam. [3] Hamas has taken a very intriguing stand: either a stand of the “empty chair” or the non-stand. Calling for a political solution, Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders refused to clearly denounce Fatah al-Islam. While other organizations like the Popular Front or the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine have criticized Fatah al-Islam, they have also given preference to a political solution, if possible. In the beginning, the Palestinian factions, led by Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), were ready to offer 200 guerrilla men to support the Lebanese army. Unfortunately, Lebanese authorities and some European and American diplomats seemed to refuse this initiative. For them, the Nahr al-Bared camp battle should not give any credit to the Palestinian armed forces. This option has proven to be not only a disaster from a human point of view (more than 150 Lebanese soldiers were killed) but also because the long battle ended by the total destruction of the old Nahr al-Bared refugee camp and partial destruction of the new one. But what is truly quite tragic is that all authorities did not take into account the importance of reinforcing the PLO’s legitimacy in the camp towards the camp’s population, not realizing the importance of establishing a legitimized body in the camps.

At the second level of crisis management, the situation is at the verge of chaos. The constant competition between the PLO factions and the pro-Syrian factions inside the camps has even impeded the possibility to take technical decisions on the ground. Let us take the case of the displaced people settled in the schools of nearby Baddawi camp. Until the end of November, the Palestinian factions were incapable of taking a unified position in favor of evacuating the schools. In one school around 20 displaced families has de facto prohibited the schooling of 1,000 pupils. The consequences of the lack of leadership are also extremely serious on social peace: tension has risen between the Baddawi camp population and the displaced people. The Palestinian factions and several NGOs are criticizing UNRWA and its bureaucratic apparatus for not being able to solve the problem of the remaining displaced people living in many institutions and UNRWA schools. For the first time, Palestinians who used to consider themselves as victims found themselves both in competition and confrontation with other victims. Certain displaced people deployed a heavy political slogan in a sit-in they conducted during which they stated “From Baddawi to Nahr al-Bared,” alluding that they will not leave the Baddawi camp except if it is directly to Nahr al-Bared camp and nowhere else, no matter how long this will take; the “sacredness” of such a slogan coming from its resemblance to another slogan important to refugees: “From the camp to Palestine.” The absurdity of this situation is not due to the situational ephemeral anger but more to the organized character as there are some political factions who join the sit-in. Can we actually talk about egoistic victims, victims who hinder pupils to join their schools two months after the opening of the academic year? Victimhood has been since long constructed by humanitarian organizations which provide temporarily solutions instead of political ones.

A quarter of century has passed since the exit of PLO from Lebanon. These years have proved to be years of complete vacuum of legitimate authority in the camps. Camps are self-governed by their old and new notables to resolve different kinds of conflict, but the major problems are unsolved. Many witnesses confirmed that mosque imams, who have been given the role of new notables, “normalized” the presence of Fatah al-Islam in the camp by their Friday sermons. I am not suggesting a complicity but at least the ignorance or simplicity of many Islamic organizations who are fascinated by the devotion of these “pious” people. After two clashes between the population and Fatah al-Islam fighters, at least two imams in this camp were asking the population not to harm them as they are “pious faithful people,” as many interviewees reported. Their presence had almost not been noticed as the camp has grown full of men with long beards since dozens of years, even if they don’t have the same Islamist jihadist ideology as Fatah al-Islam. The camp dwellers have moved between fascination and apathy because they are hopeless. They are unemployed people feeling the weight of the discrimination of the Lebanese labor market and the promiscuity of their urban living condition, seeing no ray of hope from the current peace processes and the propagation of American hegemonic projects in the region. While Fatah al-Islam had established itself due to the need of some innocent people, obtaining the help of some Islamist groups in Lebanon (specifically in Tripoli), from one side, and a very favorable regional context (Iraqi crisis, Syrian-Lebanese crisis), from the other side, there is a kind of responsibility that both the camp dwellers and their factions should assume and from this they should both think of how to stop such similar jihadist phenomena in the other camps.

Looting in the space of exception

The destruction of the Nahr al-Bared camp is one main of the consequences of the camps being a space of exception, but after the fighting ceased, there came more. From the official end date of the fighting in early September until 10 October, the camp was placed exclusively under the control of the Lebanese army, not allowing residents of the new camp to return. Later, thousands returned to houses that had been burnt, looted and vandalized. Interviews we conducted as well as those by the Amnesty International Fact Finding Mission attest to what appears to be a systematic pattern of burning and looting. Racist graffiti written in many homes of the camp is accompanied by the names of various Lebanese army commando groups. While the preliminary looting had committed seemingly by Fatah al-Islam and some camp inhabitants, however, who has been doing that if nobody can enter the camp except the Lebanese army?

Not only did Fatah al-Islam perceive the camp as a space of exception and out of law but so did some of the army officers. It can be looted and vandalized, and thus, so far no independent investigation has been carried out, although Amnesty International has written to the Lebanese prime minister and to Ministry of Defense calling for an investigation to be initiated and those responsible to be held accountable.

It is very interesting that there is almost no public debate over such an important issue. As a space of exception, the camp has constituted an emergency zone where witnesses are not allowed: even journalists and human rights organizations are being denied entry to the camp. It is this suspension of laws that facilitates the potentiality of vendettas and looting. The Palestinian population is homo sacer: people whose property is not only destroyed but also looted without allowing the criminals to be prosecuted.

Many refugee camps are at the verge of catastrophe and no security solution can stop this route. It can only be helped by engaging in a serious process based on the following elements: allowing the Palestinian refugees to have full access to the labor market, including liberal professions; allowing the Palestinians the possibility to possess land and property; establishing an elected popular committee in each camp, a quasi-municipality, to be in charge of the camp administration; establishing joint Palestinian-Lebanese police centers in each camp; and, finally, the ending of the space of exception status of the camps by submitting the camps to the full Lebanese laws.

Sari Hanafi is Associate Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut. A version of this essay was originally published by The Daily Star and is republished with the author’s permission.

Related Links

[1] ECHO, Arab governmental donors, German Cooperation Agency, etc.
[2] Among international organizations, we can mention the Palestine Welfare Association, the Norwegian People’s Aid and MPDL (El Movimiento por la Paz) and among local NGOs we can highlight Islamic Relief, Popular Aid for Relief and Development, al-Soumoud, Nabaa, Najdeh, as well as some Islamic organizations.
[3] However, treating the demonstrators of 12 June who wanted to express their anger towards their situation as demagogues and trouble-making gangsters (ghawghaiyyeen) was terribly negative in the eyes of the displaced people. In fact, Human Rights Watch reported many violations committed by the army during the crisis including indiscriminate attacks against civilians at Nahr al-Bared; the maltreatment and abuse of Palestinians at army check points; and the killing of two Palestinians and wounding of 28 others during the July demonstration outside a government school in Tripoli.