By Aijaz Zaka Syed
Lebanon is no stranger to conflicts. Especially those involving the Palestinians. But as my hero Robert Fisk, offering another ringside view of another war in the Middle East says, there is something really ‘obscene’ about watching the ever suffering Palestinians get caught in another war that is not of their making.
Already, more than 80 people are dead, most of them Palestinians. Even visibly harmless, pregnant women with harassed children in tow negotiating their way out of the check posts that have come up around Nahr Al Bared are not spared. They are in the line of fire both from the Lebanese soldiers and Fatah Al Islam gunmen.
Thousands of Palestinians have escaped with only their clothes on the back. Hundreds of families have been torn apart as they ran for their lives once again in their eventful history.
The fact that most of these families are the survivors of the 1982 Invasion by Israel and the subsequent Sabra and Shatila massacres by Ariel Sharon’s goons only underscores the never-ending tragedy that is the Palestinian existence. How long will the Palestinians have to pay for the crimes that they have not committed?
According to the UN, there are still nearly eight thousand Palestinian refugees trapped inside Nahr Al Bared that was originally home to nearly 40,000 of them, without food and war. Many of the Palestinians fled for safety after an informal ceasefire came into being last week. As I write this, the Lebanese troops have resumed their attack.
Lebanon has blamed ‘Fatah Al Islam terrorists’ for inflicting this latest crisis on the country and endangering the Palestinian civilian population. The Fatah Al Islam of course refuses to surrender. The Arab League too has blasted the group as ‘the terrorists’ offering its full support to the Lebanese government.
I don’t know who the Fatah Al Islam guys are and what really is the agenda of these new ‘defenders’ of Islam. They are said to be the remnants of a Palestinian fringe group. They are accused of being sponsored and manipulated by Damascus and Teheran.
Many others suggest that Fatah Al Islam are mere mercenaries who, unbeknownst to them, could be part of a bigger plot to destablise Lebanon and ensnare the already bedevilled Middle East into another conflict. The fact that the US has lost no time in jumping into the fray by rushing ‘military aid’ to the Fouad Siniora government gives credence to the second opinion.
Whatever the reality of this low-intensity conflict, in the end it is the Palestinians who are the real victims of this campaign.
And the real architects of this conflict, as has been the case with most conflicts in the Middle East over the past half century, are the Israelis.
There are nearly 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon. Goes without saying that they had been driven into Lebanon, just as they had been driven elsewhere, because of the Israeli occupation of their land. And if the Palestinians continue to suffer even today it’s because of the Israeli occupation.
Many in the Lebanese media and establishment accuse the Palestinians of being responsible for all their woes, from the Israeli invasion of 1982 to the long civil war of ‘80s and ‘90s. The Nahr Al Bared crisis is also blamed on the Palestinians and their half a century long presence in the country.
I know it is not easy putting up with the guests who have stayed on for six decades. And the Lebanese people have already paid a huge price by way of their involvement in this conflict.
However, the Palestinians are not there in Lebanon by choice. Just as they are not there in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world of their own accord.
These beaten, bruised and besieged people are wandering all over the Middle East and the world because their own homeland has been occupied and stolen by Israel. And the ever-dignified and proud people that they are, the Palestinians do not enjoy being a burden on any one. Not on Lebanon. Not on any other country, if they can help it.
Six decades on and many generations later, the Palestinians continue to dream of going home one day — back to the country that lives on inside their hearts.
If you have ever seen Palestinian children reverentially holding aloft those ancient keys to the abandoned homes of their parents and grandparents, you would know what I am talking about. It’s a hope and dream that Israeli tanks and its mighty soldiers with their powerful weapons and influential friends can never kill.
The Palestinian refugees do not exactly live in ideal conditions elsewhere in the Middle East. Poverty, unemployment and other problems that go with them are common everywhere, just as they are in the Occupied Territories. They are seen with suspicion and have little freedom of movement or action, wherever they are.
However, Lebanon is easily the worst of them all for the Palestinians. Living in abject poverty and squalid conditions, they are prisoners in their camps for all intents and purposes. This is not my view but the shared opinion of the UN aid agencies and civil society groups working in the region.
The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have no rights, freedom or dignity, to speak of. As some conscientious UN officials and independent journalists have tried to report, the Palestinians have been caught yet again in a dangerous game of big powers. And they are being meted out collective punishment for what they are. The Western media has already condemned them for ‘supporting Al Qaeda elements.’
If Fatah Al Islam snipers are shooting at Palestinian women and children fleeing Nahr Al Bared, the Lebanese tanks are firing deep inside the refugee camp — ostensibly at Fatah Al Islam terrorists. However, they always end up targeting Palestinian civilians. Two mosques in the camp have been severely damaged in indiscriminate mortar assault on the camp. One wonders where the Lebanese army’s awesome fire-power was when Israel attacked Southern Lebanon last year. Interestingly, Fatah Al Islam fighters, condemned as Al Qaeda by Beirut and Washington, are said to have been helped out of jail and moved from Ein Al Helwe refugee camp in Saida, Lebanon by the powers that be — with the acquiescence of the Lebanese army — to the Tripoli area.
Now this group is being attacked, along with Palestinian refugees, by the very entities that created it. And no one has a clue what motivated this political manoeuvring. Whatever it is, it might not have very pleasant implications for an already volatile region.
But that is a side issue and of little significance compared to the bigger issues at stake. And the real issue at the heart of this conflict in Lebanon is not the Palestinian presence or their manipulation by the numerous players and power brokers in the country. At the core of Lebanon’s instability lies the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. If Palestinians are a growing burden on small and politically fragile countries like Lebanon, look no further than next door for causes.
It is the occupation that not only continues to strangulate and radicalise the Palestinians but also is responsible for the continuing instability and chaos across the Arab and Muslim world. If Lebanon is on the brink today, thank the Jewish state. If Iraq is burning and appears all set to disintegrate, the credit should again go to Israel.
After all, it was Israel and its powerful friends in the US establishment who played a key role in persuading Bush to invade Iraq by portraying it as a ‘threat’ to God’s own country.
Again, if the US goes after Iran tomorrow, it will be because of Israel. The Islamist Iran has cleverly been built into a ‘clear and present danger’ to the state of Israel. (But with friends like Ahmadinejad, do you really need enemies like Israel?) I know we have been here before. But if the Muslim world — from Mediterranean to the Far East — remains dangerously agitated and unstable, Israel’s never-ending subjugation and persecution of Palestinians is to blame.
If the gulf between the West and Muslim world continues to widen, it is not because of some pathological hatred of all things Western and Christian in Muslim hearts. It is Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and the West’s connivance of this apartheid regime that make our world a dangerous place to live in.
-Aijaz Zaka Syed writes a weekly column on the Middle East and Muslim world affairs. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org