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Scapegoats in an Unwelcoming Land

By Nir Rosen
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Last Wednesday, a car-bomb blast on a crowded Beirut street killed Brig. Gen. Francois Hajj, one of Lebanon's top generals. The capital began buzzing with speculation that Hajj had been assassinated in retaliation for his role as the operational commander of the army's bloody three-month battle with an armed Islamic group last summer. In May, Fatah al-Islam -- a foreign jihadist group inspired by al-Qaeda, led by veterans of the struggle in Iraq and made up mostly of Saudis, Syrians and even some Lebanese -- ensconced itself on the outskirts of Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, and massacred Lebanese troops at an army checkpoint. Hajj's forces responded by indiscriminately bombarding the camp in the name of the war on terror, and the Lebanese public rallied 'round.

Palestinians had once again become Lebanon's scapegoats, victims of a land in which they have long faced slaughter and discrimination. Attacking them may be personally risky, but it's also often good politics; the assassinated general's boss, army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman, is poised to become Lebanon's next president. Suleiman isn't the first army commander to punish the Palestinians, and he won't be the first president to do so, either. Between 1958 and 1964, President Fuad Shehab created an elaborate, ruthless secret-service network to monitor the Palestinian camps. During his 1970-76 reign, President Suleiman Franjieh clashed militarily with Palestinian factions, even using the air force to bomb a neighborhood thought to be pro-Palestinian. I've heard followers of assassinated president-elect Bashir Gemayel, whose Maronite Christian militia massacred Palestinians in 1976, brag that he was stopped at a checkpoint in the early years of the country's 1975-90 civil war with a trunk full of the skulls of dead Palestinians. Even today, the Lebanese opposition's preferred candidate for president is Michel Aoun, a Christian retired general who also participated in the 1976 killings.

The rights of the Palestinian refugees have been ignored for six decades by a world that has wished them away. But the Middle East will never know peace or stability until they are granted justice. In 1948-49, around the conflict that Israelis refer to as their War of Independence and that Palestinians call the Catastrophe, some 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed to make way for the creation of the Jewish state. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, 400,000 Palestinians were expelled by the Israeli military, according to Amnesty International.

A series of subsequent peace processes has ignored the refugees, offered no compensation for their suffering and lost property, or refused to recognize their right to return to their homes in their homeland. It's not just the Israelis who have brutalized them; Palestinian refugees have been massacred in Jordan and Lebanon. Small numbers have become so radicalized that they have gone on to fight the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In Lebanon -- a small, weak state with a delicate sectarian balance and turbulent political system where, according to Refugees International, about 382,000 Palestinians have registered with a U.N. refugee-relief agency -- the refugee problem has never really left center stage.

Last summer, I witnessed yet another chapter in the book of the refugees' misery. By late June, most of the Palestinians from Nahr al-Bared had fled to Badawi, another refugee camp nearby. In a schoolyard there, I was stopped by a man named Abu Hadi, born in Haifa in 1946. "I am a person without an address," he told me. "I wish I was a donkey or a horse so I would have doctors and lawyers for my rights." He showed me a plastic bag with a sponge and a towel. "My bathroom is in my hand," he said.

The term "refugee camp" summons up images of tents and squalor, but Nahr al-Bared, like many of its counterparts elsewhere in Lebanon, had been a thoroughly urban camp, with low-slung apartment buildings. It even had soothing views of the Mediterranean. The 40,000 Palestinians of Nahr al-Bared wound up housed in schools in the Badawi refugee camp and Tripoli, watching from afar as their homes were obliterated. According to aid workers and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, at least 42 Palestinian civilians had been killed by Sept. 2, when the Lebanese army and media declared that Gen. Suleiman's forces had won a great victory.

Only in October did the army finally begin to allow a trickle of Palestinians back to their homes, and then only in the so-called new camp, a small area on the outskirts of the original camp that had housed 2,000 families and been safely under Lebanese army control throughout the clash.

When about 1,000 families finally passed through the checkpoints, to the jeers of soldiers and demonstrators, they found only destruction. Every single home, building, apartment and shop that I saw had been destroyed. Most buildings had been burned from the inside; the signs of the flammable liquids that the soldiers had used were scorched on the walls, and empty fuel canisters were strewn on the floors. Ceilings and walls were riddled with bullets, shot from inside, seemingly for sport. Most homes that I saw had been emptied of furniture, appliances, sinks, toilets, televisions and refrigerators. Most shockingly, soldiers had defecated in kitchens and bedrooms, on plates, bowls, pots and mattresses; they had urinated into olive-oil jars.

The media were not permitted in, and most Lebanese outlets ignored or denied the outrages. When I managed to slip inside, I was shocked by the scope of the damage. The buildings were crumpled, windows broken, electrical wiring yanked out, water pumps destroyed, generators stolen or shot up. All the gold jewelry had been stolen, as had been the cash that so many Palestinians had stored in their bedrooms. Insulting graffiti were scrawled on the charred walls, as were threats, signed by various Lebanese army units. Every car in the camp that I saw had been burned, shot or crushed by tanks or bulldozers. The ruination had been strikingly personal; I saw photo albums that had been torn to shreds. Palestinians told me that they had seen their belongings on sale in the main outdoor market in Tripoli.

Like all institutions in Lebanon, the army is sectarian, a fact that helps explain the devastation. Most of the soldiers fighting in Nahr al-Bared had been Sunnis from northern Lebanon; the Sunnis had once seen Palestinian militias as friendly, but now they blamed the Palestinians for the outsiders of Fatah al-Islam and unleashed their fury on the camp. By contrast, refugees told me, Shiite soldiers from the south had been far kinder and more supportive after the fighting.

The camp had once been woven into the area's economy and culture. Now the Palestinians were again unwanted and rejected. "It is our destiny," one man said emotionlessly in his blackened home in Nahr al-Bared, standing near feces that Lebanese soldiers had left on his kitchen floor.

I saw Palestinian children's art from this period that depicted the Lebanese soldiers and tanks that destroyed the camp as Israelis, equating their suffering at the hands of the Lebanese with the suffering of their brethren at the hands of the Israelis. I saw videos filmed by Lebanese soldiers on the Internet, showing army medical staff abusing corpses and beating prisoners. Hundreds of Palestinians had been abused or tortured in Lebanese detention, according to human rights groups, and refugees told me that some had died from medical neglect of treatable wounds.

The refugees still faced harassment and the occasional beating by Lebanese soldiers. Nobody is helping them, but rather than giving up, hundreds of Palestinians were at work emptying their homes of debris and trying to get on with their lives. One woman stood on her balcony, throwing rubble from inside her home out onto the broken street. She was lucky; most of the Palestinians still couldn't get to their homes and could only wonder what awaited them. On the roof of one of the taller buildings in the new camp, I found Farhan Said Mansur, a sanitation worker, standing with his wife. They were gazing silently across to their distant home, whose broken roof they could just make out, as if they were looking over the border toward Palestine, where he was born. "It is a calamity to all Palestinians," he said.

nirrosen@yahoo.com

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq."

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