Palestinian mediators bring hope of ceasefire to Lebanon

Fatah al-Islam and Lebanese enter negotiations as Palestinian refugees prepare to return.

The end may be in sight for "Lebanon's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war."

Reuters reports that Palestinian mediators are "hopeful" they can negotiate a truce between the Al Qaeda-linked militant group Fatah al-Islam and Lebanese forces. Thus far, all attempts to broker a peace deal have failed, and 40,000 refugees have fled the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli.

The plan entails a ceasefire after which the militants would retreat to within the camp's official boundaries. Mainstream Palestinian factions would deploy a 150-strong force in Nahr al-Bared and Fatah al-Islam would announce its disbandment.

Islamic Jihad, one of the mainstream Palestinian groups, said results would emerge in hours.

"There is clear responsiveness from Fatah al-Islam," Islamic Jihad representative Abu Emad al-Refaie told al-Manar television [a pro-Hizbullah station in Beirut]. "I think what has been reached now opens important and positive horizons to end this crisis."

The Associated Press reports that the possibility of compromise is a major reversal for both sides that has "opened the doors for a solution."

Until now, the [Lebanese] army had said its decision to eliminate Fatah al-Islam was "final and irreversible," and the militants had pledged to fight to death rather than comply by the army's request that they surrender.

Although the Lebanese Army alleges to have "destroyed one of the group's main positions," Al Jazeera reports that throughout the offensive Lebanese forces have been careful to honor the 1969 agreement that prohibits them from entering any of the country's 12 Palestinian refugee camps.

The army has slowly encroached on the area controlled by Fatah al-Islam, without entering the camp's official boundaries.

Given Lebanon's history of civil war and violence, many observers worry that country may descend into an Iraq-like spiral, reports the Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who arrived in Lebanon Tuesday with Saudi, Egyptian, and Tunisian officials, downplayed this concern, but warned of a possible "imminent regional flare-up."

"We have to protect Lebanon from these dangerous winds," he said.

Mr. Moussa said he would convey to all parties in Lebanon a unanimous Arab position on the situation and developments in Lebanon.

"We hope, God willing, to achieve progress," he said. "We have come to express a position, I am optimistic on moving forward and we would ask of everyone to help us achieve this progress."

As concerns mount about a fractured Lebanon, many locals have found the Lebanese Army to be a "rare source of unity." The New York Times reports that everyone from Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun made painstaking efforts to support the military despite political differences.

"The army is the only national institution left in the country," said Timor Goksel, a former spokesman for the United Nations force in Lebanon and now a lecturer at the American University in Beirut. "They have credibility and respect in the country. If this is lost, who will be able to take over?"

Political forces from all over the country have rallied around the army, seeking to preserve its independence and ensure that its ranks survive its most significant challenge since it was united at the end of the civil war in 1990.

As an apparent end to the fighting draws nearer, Palestinian refugees displaced by the fighting have begun planning to return to their homes in the camps. The Agence France-Presse interviewed displaced Palestinians in Beddawi, another refugee camp in Lebanon, and found that they had little expectation of assistance from other Arab states. They also questioned Hizbullah's willingness to offer social assistance, as the organization has a reputation for doing.

The Nahr al-Bared refugees in Beddawi all point to the example of the Shiite Hezbollah group, which handed out envelopes containing a crisp 10,000 dollars to each family whose home was destroyed in last year's summer war with Israel.

"The Shiites in the south got aid from (Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan) Nasrallah" but "nothing from the government," sighed public works driver Ahmed Mohammed Hussein, 41.

"They had Hezbollah. What do we have? UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency]. We had to flee in such a hurry that all we've got now is the clothes we stand up in. My whole working life was in the house I left behind."

It's not only Lebanon's displaced people who face a difficult road ahead. The tourism sector, an invaluable piece of the tiny nation's economy, has once again been ruined by another summer conflict, reports Middle East Online.

"We are in free-fall," tourism ministry director general Nada Sardouk said. "The assassinations, the bombings, the fighting in Nahr al-Bared and the continued political crisis have badly affected tourism.

"In May 2006, the number of arrivals to Lebanon was 109,441 while in May 2007 it was only 72,676. So we are down 33 percent," she said, adding that the summer season "will most probably be very difficult."

"Tourism is vital to Lebanon, and without it the economy simply atrophies," said Beirut-based Middle East analyst Ed Blanche.

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