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A Palestinian boy looks out at buildings destroyed during the 105-day siege of the Nahr al Bared refugee camp.
A Palestinian boy looks out at buildings destroyed during the 105-day siege of the Nahr al Bared refugee camp.

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World As the rebuilding of Nahr al Bared slowly begins, is Lebanon preparing to bring Palestinian refugees in from the fringes?

As the rebuilding of Nahr al Bared slowly begins, is Lebanon preparing to bring Palestinian refugees in from the fringes? Marc Perelman reports "This is Lebanon's Guantanamo." Ismail Abu Aman does not mince his words. With his thick black beard, his white skullcap and his grey flowing robe, the young imam of the Al Quds mosque spills out his feelings in a booming voice, his hands cutting the air. He points angrily at the five military checkpoints ringing the "new camp" of Nahr al Bared - a sparsely inhabited area whose population has swelled with the arrival of some 3,100 Palestinian families whose homes in the adjoining "old camp" were razed two years ago during a fierce battle between the Lebanese army and Islamist militants.

Quickly, a small group forms around the imam, nodding as he describes the suffering inflicted by the military lockdown, the appalling living conditions and the common belief that no one cares about the Palestinians who live in Nahr al Bared. He gently taps on the shoulder of the pudgy Lebanese military intelligence official tagging along with this reporter. "Why do we have so much mukhabarat around here?" he asks, before adding defiantly: "We are not afraid to express our opinions. We only fear God."

For decades Lebanon's Palestinians have lived in poverty and faced pervasive discrimination. Lebanon's own constitution states there should be no tawtin (permanent settlement) for the Palestinians. The official rationale is the preservation of the Palestinian right of return, but the widespread insistence that Palestinians not be given citizenship or the right to vote also reflects continued resentment over the Palestinian role in Lebanon's civil war. Unlike Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Syria, Lebanon's Palestinians remain outsiders decades after their arrival.

Now the ruling March 14 coalition has promised to usher in a new era based on mutual respect - which is supposed to begin with the reconstruction of Nahr al Bared. But two years after over 500 were killed in the gruesome 105-day siege, the old camp is still a pile of rubble, Lebanon remains consumed by political infighting, Palestinians are increasingly divided and the international community is focused on Wall Street and Pakistan.

Ghassan Abdallah, a Palestinian human rights activist, is adamant: "Now is the real test of the Palestinian question in Lebanon. All eyes are on Nahr al Bared." Nestled on a cliff overlooking the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, Nahr al Bared is located 16km away from Tripoli, the main city in northern Lebanon. The "new camp" - where impoverished Lebanese families who could not afford to live in Tripoli moved over the years, building modest homes and opening small shops - has an eerie feeling: the streets are mostly sandy and deserted, and several buildings have been mostly destroyed, while others still bear the pockmarks of gunfire. Near vacant lots, rows of prefab apartments and houses have sprouted. It is a far cry from other Palestinian camps in Lebanon, where bustling market stalls crowd the streets, narrow alleys are strewn with garbage, walls are pasted with the ubiquitous posters of Palestinian leaders and martyrs, and electrical wires splay in every direction overhead from decrepit homes - and where law and order is in the hands of dozens of tough-looking men wearing flak jackets, AK-47s flung over their shoulders.

The old camp, which crammed 30,000 residents into 0.2 km sq, used to be like that. But there is nothing left of it. Behind rows of barbed wire and under tight surveillance from army guards, dozens of houses are torn asunder, twisted in odd directions, amid piles of rubble where over 6,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance were found, according to the United Nations. In June 2008, donors at a conference in Vienna were asked to contribute $450 million to rebuild the old camp and repair damage to the new camp. Two years later, only $100 million has been pledged (the United States gave $25 million only last week), the reconstruction has barely begun, and Palestinians doubt they will ever return to their homes. They know their history: none of the three refugee camps destroyed in Lebanon have been rebuilt. And new reasons for doubt continue to emerge: a few months ago, the Navy briefly considered setting up a base here. More recently, Roman-era marble stones were discovered amid the rubble, reinforcing the Palestinians' belief that an alibi will eventually be found to maintain them in their current predicament.

Andrew Higgins spends his days trying to convince them that such pessimism is not warranted. He is the head of the Nahr al Bared reconstruction project, which is supervised by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a chronically overstretched and underfunded institution created in 1949 to cater to Palestinian refugees. Using Google satellite imagery and interviews with camp residents, the planners have mapped the old camp, which they want to reproduce with improved housing, decent basic services and more outdoor space. "These people used to live near their families and the villagers from their original homes in Palestine and we need to recreate this social fabric," says Higgins.

A master plan has been approved and the rubble-removal phase has been completed. A foundation stone ceremony was held in March, but the actual work only began, gingerly, in June. Only a third of the planned reconstruction is currently funded. In the meantime, UNRWA pays roughly $500,000 each month to house and feed the 30,000 Nahr al Bared refugees, a "major drain" for the perennially cash-strapped agency, Higgins says.

A little more than half of the 5,000 families who lived in the old camp have returned to live in the newer areas adjacent to the rubble; the remainder live in the nearby Beddawi camp or around Tripoli. In the "new camp", serious challenges remain - lack of housing, overcrowded schools and erratic water and electricity. The residents' biggest source of income - Lebanese customers who came to shop for cheap goods - has been cut off, since no outsider can enter the military zone without a permit.

To improve living conditions, UNRWA has built three schools and 300 prefab apartments in a series of boxy two-storey metal buildings. Adnan Awad, his wife and their 14-old boy are among the lucky ones who moved into one those units, which feature a 18.5m sq single room, a kitchenette and a small bathroom. In the old camp, Adnan owned a three-bedroom flat and a grocery shop. He is now a street vendor. His son Abdallah "talks all the time about our old house, asking where his toys are. I tell him we will go back. But I am afraid I will be here for a long time," he sighed. "The international community is not committed to rebuilding."

Near an overcrowded UNRWA school, a row of larger prefab buildings was recently erected with funding from Japan. Each has two rooms and a separate kitchen. One of them houses a family of five who lived in the Beddawi camp for over a year in a single room shared by two families. "We had no privacy at all", said the wife, who declined to be identified. That day, one of her sisters, Ikram Hussein, was visiting. Wearing a white headscarf and a long black robe, Ikram plaintively explained that the oldest of her 10 children was shot by a sniper during the fighting while trying to fetch some food. "No one can compensate the loss of my son," she said, sitting on the floor, her eyes misty, as she rocked one of her nieces to sleep.

Her son is one of the 47 civilians who was killed, alongside 169 soldiers and 287 jihadist combatants during the battle of Nahr al Bared in the spring and summer of 2007 - a violent outburst whose origins remain shrouded in mystery. What is known is that in late 2006, a group of foreign jihadist militants found refuge in the camp with the support of Fatah al Intifada, a pro-Syrian Palestinian faction. Led by Shakr al Absi, a Jordanian Palestinian Islamist who was jailed in Syria between 2002 and 2004, and then supposedly went to Iraq before making his way to Lebanon, the militants dubbed themselves Fatah al Islam and vowed to pursue a jihadist agenda. They aimed to establish Islamist rule inside the camp and to use it as a base to overthrow the Lebanese government. In May 2007, after a group of Fatah al Islam fighters robbed a bank in Tripoli, security forces raided an apartment building in the city where they had taken refuge. Militants inside Nahr al Bared responded by attacking an army post near the camp, killing 27 soldiers. The army retaliated by launching a full-fledged assault on Nahr al Bared. The fighting, which included tank and artillery shelling and helicopter raids on the camp, dragged on until early September, when the army finally took control of the old camp, which was eventually razed after the army ransacked the Palestinian homes still standing.

Accounts of the fighting in Nahr al Bared were divided in line with Lebanon's polarised politics. The pro-Western camp headed by Saad Hariri accuses Syria of attempting to destabilise Lebanon, pointing to Shakr al Absi's time in Damascus. Syria and its allies counter that Hariri, who has close ties with Sunni Islamist factions in northern Lebanon, empowered the radicals in the camp as part of an effort - backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States - to bolster Sunni militants as a counterweight to Hizbollah.

While the March 14 coalition wants to establish the state's authority over all armed factions - first and foremost Hizbollah - their adversaries, who support Hizbollah's maintenance of its own weapons, rarely raised the issue of militias in the Palestinian camps. But the battle of Nahr al Bared has upended the status quo, and now all Lebanon's major political parties, along with the official Palestinian leadership, agree that the relationship between the state and the Palestinians must be revised - at least with regard to security.

In order to prevent the camps from becoming safe havens for Islamist radicals, the Lebanese government has announced that a police station will be installed inside Nahr al Bared, a model it would like to replicate in all the camps. This is anathema to most of Lebanon's 300,000 Palestinians, 60 per cent of whom live in the country's 12 refugee camps. For the past 40 years, those camps have been off limits to Lebanese authorities.

Between 1948 and 1967, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were kept under tight control by the internal security services of the Maronite Christian-dominated government. After the Six Day War, they rallied around Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat, which began launching attacks against Israel and took control of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO'S growing military and political clout in Lebanon led to the signing in 1969 of the so-called Cairo accords, whereby Lebanon granted Palestinians political autonomy and the right to bear arms. During Black September, Jordan's brutal crackdown against the PLO in 1970, its leadership fled to Lebanon, where the Palestinians established a state within the state and played a central role in the civil war that began in 1975, first and foremost engaging in vicious fighting with Christian militias.

In the wake of the Israeli invasion in 1982 - when Israel and its Christian allies launched a frontal assault against the Palestinians, culminating in the infamous massacre at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in 1983 - Arafat and the PLO's leaders were forced out of Lebanon. Although the Cairo agreement was officially cancelled in 1987, no new rules were enforced and the Palestinian camps remained off-limits to the government, though they were tightly controlled by the Syrians.

Palestinians in Lebanon have suffered discrimination for decades: they are barred, for instance, from working in 22 professions, including medicine and law; their right to own and inherit property is limited by law. They cannot obtain citizenship, vote, hold public office or work for the government. After Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon following the slaying of prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, the government of Fouad Siniora took a series of unprecedented steps to reach out to the Palestinians. It established a Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee within the Prime Minister's office tasked with restoring diplomatic relations with the PLO, improving humanitarian conditions in the camps and tackling the issue of weapons held by Palestinians. In March 2006, five Lebanese ministers visited a Palestinian camp for the first time. Two months later, a Palestinian embassy opened its doors in Beirut. However, the 2006 war with Israel - and the Nahr al Bared battle - "diverted all attention", according to Khalil Makkawi, the head of the dialogue committee.

In response, the PLO issued an official declaration in January 2008, in which it apologised for its actions during the civil war, called for the advent of a new era and for Palestinian weapons to be controlled by the Lebanese authorities. Moreover, Fatah and its allies are cooperating with Lebanese security forces to try to weed out radical Islamist militants from Palestinian camps. But the ill feelings between both sides remain - nowhere more evident than in discussions of tawtin.

Both Palestinians and Lebanese agree that there should be no permanent settlement of refugees in Lebanon. But the Palestinians have come to resent the Lebanese commitment to this position as evidence of the country's eagerness to get rid of them and, in the meantime, treat them as second-class residents. The issue of tawtin takes on added significance in light of Lebanon's contested demographics; it has become part of the tense face-off between the Western-backed March 14 bloc formed by Hariri, the Druze and several Christian parties, and the March 8 coalition, composed of the Shiite Hizbollah and Amal parties and Michel Aoun, the Christian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. Aoun has vocally warned against tawtin, arguing that the Sunnis want to enforce it as part of a bid to take control of Lebanon and tip the demographic balance against the Maronites.

Ibrahim Gemayel, a consultant close to the pro-government camp, fears that "if the fight between March 14 and March 8 becomes more radicalised, Palestinians will be involved. And if there is blood, this is where it all could start." Those Lebanese fault lines have indeed seeped into the Palestinian polity. Fatah and its secular allies side with March 14, while Hamas leans towards March 8. Moreover, while Fatah and Hamas have vowed not to import their open conflict into Lebanon, tensions between them have led to the collapse of several efforts to coordinate security in the camps. Fatah itself has been riven by internal frictions: between the various chieftains in the camps, and between the leaders in Ramallah and those in Lebanon. Many believe that these disagreements led to the assassination of the PLO's deputy leader in Lebanon, Kamal Naji (also known as Kamal Medhat), who was killed by a roadside bomb in March.

But even if the Palestinian factions manage to avoid a fratricidal clash in Lebanon, a larger danger is looming. "We are at critical juncture," warns Makkawi, the head of the Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue committee. "We promised the Palestinians to rebuild a better and more secure camp and we need to deliver. But we can't do this alone. We need the support of the international community. If it wants stability in Lebanon, it should help us solve the Palestinian question."

Standing before his small mosque alongside a row of prefab homes in Nahr al Bared's new camp, Imam Abu Aman puts it in his blunt way, well within earshot of the mukhabarat officer. "Either you allow us to live in dignity or you get out. We want a right to education, to health, to work." If not, he concludes: "I fear we'll see violence because we have lots of young people who have heard many false promises, many lies and had enough sand thrown in their eyes."

Marc Perelman, a reporter based in Paris, writes for French and English publications including Le Monde, Marianne, Time and The Nation.

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