x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Roman ruins put Nahr al Bared camp rebuild at risk

A lawsuit filed by the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon threatens the rebuilding of a Palestinian refugee camp.

Renovation of the Nahr al Bared camp began earlier this year. This work is now subject to a legal challenge.
Renovation of the Nahr al Bared camp began earlier this year. This work is now subject to a legal challenge.

BEIRUT // The seemingly endless struggle by Lebanon's political factions to form a national unity government appears to have spilt over the efforts to rebuild a Palestinian refugee camp destroyed in 2007, as a major political party has filed a lawsuit to halt reconstruction. A lawsuit filed by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), led by the former general, Michel Aoun, demanded that the rebuilding of the Nahr al Bared camp be halted in order to protect Roman ruins that were discovered during the clean up of the 2007 siege, much to the anger of the camp's 20,000 former residents who are still displaced since the fighting.

The three-month assault on Nahr al Bared in the country's north saw the Lebanese Army raze the camp in order to root out Islamic militants from Fatah al Islam, an al Qa'eda-inspired group, resulting in the death of nearly 400 people. Gen Aoun, a prominent Christian politician aligned with the Hizbollah-led opposition, has been embroiled in a series of bitter disputes with the alliance led by prime minister-designate Saad Hariri that won June's parliamentary elections, leaving many Palestinians convinced that the lawsuit is merely part of a broader fight in which their homes have become collateral damage.

Upon the announcement that a Lebanese court had halted the reconstruction project last week, Palestinian factions took to the narrow streets of Lebanon's 13 refugee camps to strongly protest against the action, which they claim puts broken pottery and Gen Aoun's personal ambitions above their right to return to their homes after two years of living in deplorable conditions. "The Lebanese politicians are insisting on making Nahr al Bared a field to battle over their differences," said Ziad Hemo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "We Palestinians are just trying to stay away from this political game. We just want our camp back."

Numerous Palestinian representatives directly accused Gen Aoun of filing the lawsuit to damage the credibility of Mr Hariri, who, like most of the Palestinian refugees, is a Sunni Muslim. But even as they insist that the only motivation for Gen Aoun to pursue a lawsuit to keep tens of thousands of refugees homeless would be his political fight, they were at a loss to fully explain why he would support such a move.

"We were shocked to learn that the FPM lawsuit did not insist on only protecting the parts of the camp that might contain ruins, but that it demanded the entire reconstruction stop," Mr Hemo said. "He wants to keep children homeless to protect some broken pottery? There are far more important Roman ruins all over Lebanon but no one cares about these, only the ones directly beneath our children's feet."

After the lawsuit succeeded last week, Khalil Mekawi of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee held an urgent meeting with prime minister Fouad Siniora and warned the prime minister that this decision might cause outrage among Lebanon's estimated 250,000 Palestinian camp residents that could spill out across the country, leading to, in his words, "chaos". Rather than respond to the substance of the claim that Gen Aoun was putting politics and broken pottery above the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes, May Akl, a spokeswoman for the FPM, in response accused Mr Mekawi of demanding that Lebanon discard the ruins or face a civil war.

"What about my right to have a home over the rights of some Roman ruins?" asked Abu Ahmed, a resident of the camp, who has been living with relatives in the neighbouring Bedaawi camp for two years. "Is Aoun saying he prefers a civil war over not protecting some bricks buried underground?" Another Palestinian official said the ongoing burdens faced by the camp residents, including stringent security checks, harassment of civilians by the police and army and the imposition of a Lebanese army base in the centre of the camp itself, have already alienated residents from the Lebanese government. But this new development, in light of Lebanon's poor record of protecting archaeological sites around the country in the past, have left them beyond furious.

"The case caused a total freeze of the whole reconstruction plan of the camp," said Abdullah al Baraki, of the camp's support committee. "We refuse to have our camp as a mailbox for the Lebanese politicians so they can deliver messages to each other. We are not undermining the value of the ruins discovered, but we are asking how valuable are these ruins? Knowing that many ruins in Lebanon are being neglected, why these ones now?"

"It's not acceptable to humiliate each and every resident of the camp by the Lebanese army check points each time on the way in and on the way out of the camp," Mr Baraki added. "We need a solid and honest answer from the Lebanese politicians. Who has the decision [to rebuild]? We are being trapped and confused between the reconstruction, ruins, and the siege." mprothero@thenational.ae