More on Nahr al-Bared

Last week I posted an article I’d had published on Qantara about the destruction of Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp and the broader issue of the Palestinians in Lebanon. Originally I had written a piece which talked only about the camp but which went into more detail. Qantara wanted something with a little more context.

Here is the original piece:

More than two years after the oldest and most densely populated section of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp was destroyed its residents, living in terrible conditions are growing increasingly angry with the fact that reconstruction is yet begin in earnest.

When fighting broke out between the mostly foreign members of the Salafist group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army in Nahr al Bared, the camps approximately 30,000 residents were quick to flee. According to Amr Saeddine, an urban planner working on the camps reconstruction committee, getting out of the way like this was “a clear sign” that the population was taking the army’s side against Fatah al-Islam.

It is a move many of them have since come to regret.

The first expression of this discontent was a protest by residents six weeks into the conflict. The demonstration demanding an end to fighting and access to the camp began at the nearby Baddawi refugee camp, where many of those displaced from Nahr al-Bared had taken shelter (and where many of them remain to this day in garages and other improvised accommodations). A few hundred people broke off from the main protest and began marching toward Nahr al-Bared, stopping just short of an army checkpoint. There are competing accounts of exactly what happened next but what is certain is that the army began firing into the crowd. Lebanese civilians in the area then joined the fray attacking the demonstrators with sticks and knives. The violence left two Palestinians dead and at least 28 injured.

The incident, for which no one has yet been prosecuted and into which no investigation has been launched, was a taste of things to come.

When the fighting was over, the Lebanese army went on what seems to have been a deliberate campaign of looting, arson and vandalism that completed the destruction of the camp. The possible motives for this are many. There is the base antipathy towards Palestinians common amongst many Lebanese including those in authority, who harbour grudges for violence committed against them by Palestinian forces during the civil war, which Palestinians are often held responsible for starting. There is also a more specific anger at the camp and its residents for a creating a space in which Fatah al-Islam – who claimed a final total of more than 160 Lebanese scalps before being defeated, -to grow. There is also a strong possibility that the camps destruction was a more carefully calculated move; one that would clear the way for the Lebanese authorities to dictate the terms on which the camp would be rebuilt.

Different branches of the chronically divided Lebanese political elite, however, seem to be pursuing alternate agendas in relation to the camp. Some hope to reconstruct the camp in a way that would allow Lebanese security forces to penetrate it and exert their authority over what was previously an autonomously administered area. This plan, which seems to be the preferred approach of the government, would see an army base, a naval base and two police stations constructed in the camp, and the living spaces shrunk to allow the creation of roads wide enough for Lebanese army vehicles. This would facilitate a new approach to dealing with the camps, which many suspect, if successful, would then be applied to other camps.

Some other forces, however, such as the Free Patriotic Movement headed by General Aoun, whose members have described the camp as “a nucleus of poverty and retardation” seem bent on preventing the camp from being rebuilt at all, or at least on using their ability to obstruct it’s reconstruction as a card to play in Lebanon’s ongoing internal political struggle. General Aoun recently filed a successful request to the Lebanese Legislitive council to halt the reconstruction of the camp, only two days after it had begun, pending a decision regarding the protection of archaeological artefacts dating from the early roman period found under the camp during the process of clearing the rubble. The sincerity of the concerns for antiquity expressed by Aoun, who has in the past styled himself as the “hero of Tel al-Zaatar,” (a Palestinian camp that was destroyed and which had thousands of it’s residents killed by forces under Aoun’s command during the Lebanese civil war) however, is severely doubted by the camps residents who have started, along with their compatriots in other camps around the country, to hold protests about the issue.

Outside the boundaries of the old camp lie the more spread out “adjacent areas”, which are not officially part of the camp but which are occupied primarily by Palestinians of the same stock, along with large numbers of the newly displaced . These areas were not destroyed during or after the fighting, nor were it’s residents prevented from returning as those of the old camp have. The conflict, however, has still changed the lives of their residents irrevocably. The main road of Nahr al bared was once a vibrant market commercial hub, with its low prices and the “buy now pay later” policies of many of the storekeepers drawing customers from the surrounding region. The severe restrictions placed by the army on entry, however, have destroyed this, creating instead what some have called a “security ghetto” and left the once entrepreneurial residents dependent on handouts from UNRWA, which has been forced to make repeated appeals for extra funds to cover the cost of providing (extremely cramped) accommodation and rent assistance to the old camp’s residents and its expanded humanitarian role for both.

Many see the treatment of the camp and its residents as an example of the tendency of the Lebanese state to view the 400,000 plus Palestinian refugees who live within its borders through the “security lens” only. This one eyed approach is also credited with motivating Lebanon’s official policy, enshrined in the constitution, of never offering permanent settlement to the refugees, along with what many say is an unstated but pervasive policy of pushing them to emigrate.

About Austin G. Mackell

I am a freelance journalist who has worked for a variety of corporate and community outlets from my hometown of Sydney and from the Middle East, including from Lebanon during Israels 2006 invasion and from Iran during the tumultuous presidential elections there in 2009. I have recently moved to Cairo to watch the revolutions in Arab world unfold.
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