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Fight against militants agitates Lebanon's troubled camps

Poverty and hopelessness have helped foster the emergence of radical Islamist groups in Lebanon's 12 Palestinian refugee camps.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 2007


As battles between the Lebanese Army and Islamic militants from Fatah al-Islam entered a third day, dozens of residents of this embattled Palestinian camp seized a chance Tuesday to flee.

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They waved white sheets from cars as snipers still fired at them during a brief cease-fire. "The situation is very miserable," screamed Mouein Safadi as he reached an Army post. "There are many, many people dead under the rubble. We have no water, no food, no electricity."

Ahmad Afif, driving a battered red Renault filled with his family, said the militants "are not Palestinians. They are Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis. What do they want from us?"

The violence that began Sunday – as the Army grew determined to root out an estimated 100 militants with suspected ties to Al Qaeda – is the latest unrest within the country's Palestinian refugee camps, which have a history of spawning both secular and Islamist militants.

And as Palestinians in some of Lebanon's 11 other camps protested the government offensive in Nahr al-Bared, the unrest here threatens to spread to an estimated 210,000 refugees who live in slumlike camps where only hopelessness and poverty seem plentiful. On Tuesday, as fierce fighting continued between the militants and the Army, angry Palestinians in other camps set car tires ablaze.

Outside the camp in Tripoli, the country's second-largest city, a militant blew himself up when confronted by security forces. In all, at least 29 soldiers and 20 militants have been killed in the three-day battle.

If the violence, already the worst internal strife since the 1975-90 civil war, does continue, it will indeed threaten an already vulnerable government that faces a growing domestic challenge from an opposition movement led by Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbullah. The Lebanese government has accused Syria of backing Fatah al-Islam as well, a charge that the Syrians deny.

Most of Lebanon's refugee camps have existed since 1948, when Israel was established and tens of thousands of Palestinians fled to neighboring countries.

The camps were set up generally on the outskirts of towns and cities and initially consisted of little more than canvas tents. Over the years and as their population numbers swelled, the refugees built simple homes from cinder blocks and cement, turning the encampments into small villages that often lacked proper sanitation, electricity, and water. While more than 200,000 Palestinians are believed to live in the camps, the United Nations reports that 424,650 Palestinians live throughout the country.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the camps were the breeding ground for Palestinian militants in Lebanon and Jordan determined to win back their homes in Israel. The Palestinian factions grew increasingly powerful, and their cross-border attacks created problems for their host governments. In 1970, the Jordanian Army clashed with Palestinian militants and thousands were ejected from the country, joining their comrades in Lebanon.

The growing influence of the mainly Sunni Palestinian armed factions upset Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance and was a factor that led to the outbreak of civil war in 1975. Israel invaded Lebanon twice in the next seven years to drive the Palestinian militants out of Lebanon.

Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the Palestinians have been confined to their 12 established refugee camps, which are ringed by Lebanese troops and whose entrances are tightly controlled.