The fight between Lebanese soldiers and Al Qaeda-inspired fighters just outside Tripoli is quieting. But as that battle ends, Lebanese officials are now accusing pro-Syrian Palestinian factions of stocking up on weapons and fresh fighters, possibly representing the next big challenge for the over-stretched and under-equipped Lebanese Army.
Both Lebanon and United Nations say that the 16 militant outposts held by pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, which lie outside the 12 established Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, are being reinforced with personnel and weapons smuggled in from Syria with the aim of sowing further instability.
Indeed, some of the very Fatah al-Islam militants that the Lebanese forces have been battling in the seven-week confrontation in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp are believed to have received training at the Palestinian bases in the Bekaa Valley before deploying to north Lebanon.
"In recent weeks these camps have been reinforced with munitions, arms, and fighters," Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said recently. "Everyone knows that these groups are supported and armed by Syria."
These small military bases consist of a few huts, training grounds, and tunnels that are sunk into rocky hillsides. They have been largely ignored by Lebanese governments for more than three decades.
But Lebanon's anti-Syrian politicians now say Damascus is using local allies, such as the Palestinian factions, to stir more trouble for the American-backed government, which is already struggling to cope with a political crisis, a spate of deadly bombings, and the recent battles outside Tripoli.
The factions that look to Syria for support include the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), Fatah Intifada, which broke from the mainstream Fatah movement in 1983, and As-Saiqa. All of the groups have headquarters in Damascus.
"After the Army lost nearly 100 soldiers against Fatah al-Islam, it cannot allow bases like Naameh to continue to exist where they can host another terrorist group. It would be a fatal mistake to allow them to stay," says a senior Lebanese Army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Palestinian fighters on edge
At one outpost manned by the PFLP-GC just outside Naameh, tensions are running high.
The entrance to the compound, which consists of tunnels dug into the hillside beneath a war-damaged and long-abandoned factory, has been reinforced with new barricades and additional fighters. The approach is guarded by 15 heavily armed gunmen, some with faces hidden by checkered head scarves.
The gray-haired commander, Abu Amine, wears an old US Army uniform in desert camouflage and flip-flops. He says that the PFLP-GC and other allied groups need to protect themselves against the US and Israel. "The Americans and Zionists want us as slaves for their projects and to destroy our jihadist vision of defeating the Zionists," he says.
Abu Amine, who says he has fought with Palestinian groups since 1965, adds that the PFLP-GC's weapons are for defending Palestinians in the refugee camps. "The minute the Lebanese government gives us our rights to live an honest and honorable life in this country, we will hand over our weapons to the Lebanese Army," he says.
Outposts like this have existed since the early 1970s under Syrian protection until Damascus disengaged from its tiny neighbor in April 2005. Most of the bases are linked to Syria by a maze of unguarded trails that snake across the mountains.
Eighteen months ago, the Lebanese Army tightened its grip around the bases – five belonging to the PFLP-GC, 10 to Fatah Intifada, and one to As-Saiqa – setting up checkpoints and new positions to monitor movement.
The hilly area between Yanta and Deir al-Ashayer villages in southeast Lebanon – home to several Fatah Intifada outposts – has been declared a military zone by the Lebanese Army and cut off to all but local residents. Lebanon's daily Al-Mustaqbal reported last week that Syrian troops had penetrated two miles into Lebanon near Halwa, an area where the joint border is disputed, and were building fortifications, adding to the tensions in the area.
UN report claims militants are rearming
At the end of June, a UN report on the resolution that ended last summer's Hizbullah-Israel war found that the PFLP-GC and Fatah Intifada had reinforced their positions in the Bekaa Valley after fighting broke out between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam in mid-May. Citing a detailed intelligence report compiled by the Lebanese Army, the UN said weapons including rockets, mortars, and antitank guns had been deployed in the bases.
At a PFLP-GC base on a 3,000-foot plateau over-looking the village of Qussaya in the eastern Bekaa, the group has installed multi-barreled rocket launchers and pointed them at the nearby Lebanese Army base at Rayak airport, the UN report said.
"It is widely believed in Lebanon, including by the government, that the strengthening of Fatah Intifada and PFLP-GC outposts could not have taken place without the tacit knowledge and support of the Syrian government," the report added.
Syria has denounced the claims as "lies" and insists that it is doing all it can to prevent the smuggling of arms into Lebanon.
Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, a veteran security official with Fatah Intifada, says his group's weapons "will never be used against the Lebanese."
The proud member of the pro-Syrian faction insists that the group was created "to die for the Palestinian cause, not fight in Lebanon." At his office in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, a poster proclaims the "martyrdom" of a fighter who blew himself up in Iraq in December 2003. It hangs next to pictures of Che Guevara and Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.