Unfinished victory in Lebanon

Despite divided leadership and tense elections, Lebanon can't afford to ignore its problem of rogue militants.

A summer-long battle ended in the Middle East two weeks ago, when Lebanon's Army finished up its combat with Islamic militants in a large Palestinian camp. Bravo for Lebanon, but now the volatile aftermath – a 40,000-strong refugee crisis and lingering threats – needs fixing.

Lebanon's politicians, however, are focused on presidential elections that formally begin next week. After yet another political assassination, in a Sept. 19 bombing, the process is expected to be turbulent.

Meanwhile this small and democratic country is still vulnerable to rogue armed groups. It took the Army three months to flush Fatah al-Islam militants out of Nahr el-Bared, one of 12 Palestinian refugee camps scattered throughout Lebanon. And it's an open secret that similar militant groups are still hiding in other camps, which altogether house about 200,000 Palestinians. Because the Army hasn't entered them for decades, these camps are havens for all sorts of foreign jihadis, criminals, and even, conceivably, assassins.

Unwilling to absorb its Palestinian population, the government has talked about improving and regulating the camps for years, but never had the political strength to make it happen. Now, with the loss of hundreds of soldiers and civilians in the fighting and many more displaced, political leaders have a chance to start from scratch in one camp and move toward that goal.

That's why, despite a tense election, the government must commit to rebuilding Nahr el-Bared. A newly redesigned camp could give the government more oversight and, with a restoration of camp neighborhoods to preserve social ties, it could motivate residents to resist militants' regrouping there, lest the Army destroys it again.

Also needing improvement are the living conditions in other camps, where Nahr el-Bared refugees are crowding already squeezed families and occupying schools, which need to reopen.

Such steps are clearly in the government's interest, yet it remains diverted by the slow reconstruction for the 1 million Lebanese displaced by last year's war between Israel and Hizbullah fighters – and by the election.

Lebanon's political leaders have been deadlocked for more than two years between a US-backed coalition and a Hizbullah-led opposition; both sides are preoccupied with winning the presidency, a power struggle that could last two months. Neither side will waste time, energy, or political capital to help Palestinians. Many Lebanese fought against them during the country's infamous civil war or blame them for triggering it. To this day most have little sympathy for the Palestinians in Lebanon – even Hizbullah, with its rhetoric of Palestinian solidarity, didn't oppose the Army razing Nahr el-Bared.

This is where international organizations come in. The UN Relief and Works Agency, created in 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees, can lead this effort, aided by local relief workers already canvassing the displaced families' needs. For foreign donors who want to see a stable Lebanon, Nahr el-Bared reconstruction is a wise investment. The government should at least facilitate these outside parties' work.

Otherwise, though the tanks, bombs, and guns have stopped, the task of dealing with Nahr el-Bared remains undone.

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