Splinter Groups Rise In Refugee Camps

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

JERUSALEM, May 21 -- The decline of traditional political institutions within Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon has allowed the rise of militant splinter groups such as Fatah al-Islam, which fought Lebanese troops outside the Nahr al-Bared camp in northern Lebanon on Sunday and Monday.

The popularity of political Islam has risen in the camps over the past decade as the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has fallen apart, experts said Monday.

The main political organization in Nahr al-Bared for years was Fatah al-Intifada, a spinoff of the mainstream Fatah movement of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But Fatah al-Islam broke with the group last November under the leadership of Shaker al-Abssi, a fugitive Palestinian who once worked closely with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi was killed last year by a U.S. airstrike.

"There are now so many Palestinian factions speaking and debating and doing nothing for the people," said Bernard Rougier, author of "Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam Among Palestinians in Lebanon." "So you find many local groups, with local roots, who cannot fight Israel because of where they are, but are willing to fight."

"The main point is that these camps are no longer part of Palestinian society," said Rougier, a professor at University of Auvergne in Clermont-Ferrand, France. "They are only spaces -- now open to all of the influences running through the Muslim world."

The Red Cross established Nahr al-Bared in 1949 to accommodate refugees from northern Palestine following the creation of Israel. With roughly 35,000 residents, the densely populated camp has been run since 1950 by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Abssi, who is in his 50s, told the Reuters news agency in March that his primary mission was to reform the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon according to Islamic law before confronting Israel. Convicted in absentia for the 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan, Abssi has advocated killing Americans who work in Muslim countries.

Rougier said Abssi has adopted a goal and message that reflect the decline of the Palestinian cause as the chief motivator of aspiring jihadists and their financial supporters in the Muslim world.

"Many consider Palestine a useless fight," he said. "By changing their own identities, to one of a Sunni warrior, they also get money from Saudi Arabia and other private sources throughout the [Palestinian] diaspora. You are inventing a new figure of the fighter, and it is very exciting to young people." That fighter's goal is to end perceived Western domination and promote Islamic rule.

Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, said it is difficult to know the political nature of Fatah al-Islam because it is one of many new groups whose proliferation reflects the institutional weakness of the Palestinian national movement.

"The disintegration in the Middle East in general -- from Iraq all the way to Afghanistan -- is encouraging this splintering into pieces," Jarbawi said. "Look at this group. It is 200 people, but it can make enormous waves because it is operating in an institutional vacuum."

Jarbawi said he did not believe the group was guided by al-Qaeda. He suspected Syrian intelligence instead. Abssi arrived at the camp late last year after his release from prison in Syria, and he quickly established a potent militia at a time when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has resisted efforts by the United Nations to try suspects in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

The U.N. Security Council took up the subject again this week. Many Lebanese suspect Syria's hand in Hariri's killing, which touched off protests that led to Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon two months later. The Syrian government has denied any connection.

"I don't think this is necessarily an Islamic movement," Jarbawi said. "The Palestinian Islamists, when we talk about Hamas in the camps, are not with this group."

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