By Franklin Lamb in Tripoli, Lebanon
Wearing a beat-up ratty UNCHR tee-shirt left over from Bint Jbeil and the Israeli-Hezbollah July probably helped. As did, I suspect, the Red Cross jersey, my black and white checkered kaffieyh and the Palestinian flag taped to my lapel as I joined a group of Palestinian aid workers and slipped into Nahr el-Bared trying not to look conspicuous.
Our mission was to facilitate the delivery of food, blankets and mattresses, but I was also curious about the political situation. Who was behind the events that erupted so quickly and violently following a claimed ‘bank robbery’? A heist that depending on who you talked to, netted the masked bandits $ 150,000, $ 1,500 or $ 150!
It seems that every Beirut media outlet has a different source of ‘inside information’ based on which Confession owns it and ‘knows’ the real culprits pulling the strings. But then, even we who are particularly obtuse have realized, as the late Rafic Hariri often counseled: "In Lebanon, believe nothing of what you are told and only half of what you see!"
My friends made we swear out loud that I would claim to be Canadian instead of American if Al Qaeda types stopped us inside the Camp. My impression was that they were not so worried about my safety but for their own if they got caught with me. It would not be the first time that I relied on my northern neighbors to get me out of a potential US nationality jam in the Middle East, so I ditched my American ID.
We were advised as we approached the Fatah al Islam stronghold that we would be in the cross-hairs of Lebanese army snipers from outside of Nahr el-Bared Camp as well as Fatah al-Islam snipers from the inside, and that any false move or bad luck could prove fatal.
After three days of shelling and more than 100 dead and with no electricity or water, Nahr el-Baled reeks of burned and rotting flesh, charred houses with smoldering contents, raw sewage and the acrid smell of exploded mortars and tank rounds.
Press figures of 30,000-32,000 are not accurate. 45,000 live in Bared! Contrary to some reports food and water still not being allowed in.
15 to 70 percent of some areas destroyed. Some light shooting this morning and afternoon. Army shelling at rate of 10-18 shells per minute from 4:30 am to 10 am on Tuesday. Army will not allow Palestinian Red Crescent to move out civilians because they don’t trust them. Only the Lebanese Red Cross is allowed. It is possible to enter Bared from the back (east side). The Army taking cameras of journalists they catch. The Lebanese government is controlling the information and don’t want extent of damage known yet. Still unrecovered bodies. 40 per cent of the camp population have been evacuated. The rest don’t want to leave out of fear of being shot or that they are losing their homes for the 5th time or more for some.
No electricity and cell phone batteries are dying. Relatives who fled are telling families to stay because there are not enough mattresses at Bedawi Camp. Bared evacuees are living up to 25 in one room in Badawi schools etc. 3,000 evacuees in one school in Bedawi. UN aid is starting to arrive at Badawi but workers not able so far to deliver it to Bared due to attack on relief convoy on Tuesday.
I met Abdul Rahman Hallab famous for Lebanese candy factory in Tripoli. Helped him unload 5,000 meals to evacuees from Bared staying in Badawi. He is Lebanese not Palestinian.
The camp population all say that Fatah Al-Islam came in September-October 2006 and have no relatives in the camp. They are from Saudi, Pakistan, Algeria, Iraq, and Tunisia and elsewhere. No Palestinians among them except some hanger ons. Most say they are paid by the Hariri group.
Reports that Fateh al-Islam helps people in Bared are denied. " All they do is pray, one woman told me..and do military training.. They are much more religious than the Shia" she said.
Population of Badawi camp was 15,000 and as of of this morning it is 28,000. Four bodies arrived this morning at Safad, the only Palestinian Red Crescent Hospitals in north Lebanon.
I was told the army will have to destroy every house in Bared to remove Fateh al Islam.
I expect to stay in Bared tonight with aid workers. Some say FAI with die fighting others than a settlement could be negotiated. I may try the latter with NGO from Norway here. Not sure if anyone in government is interested. One minute ago a member of Fateh at_Islam walked into the medical office I am using at Safed Hospital and said they want a permanent ceasefire and do not want more people killed or injured.
They claim to have no problem with the army.
Now some background about Nahr el-Bared. Like the other Palestinian camps in Lebanon, it is inhabited by Palestinians who were forced from their homes, land, and personal property in 1947-48, in order to make room for Jews from Europe and elsewhere prior to the May 15, 1948 founding of Israel.
Of the original 16 Refugee camps, set up to settle the more than 100,000 refugees crossing the border into Lebanon from Palestine during the Nakba, 12 official ones remain. The camp at Tal El-Za`tar was ethnically cleansed by Christian Phalange forces at the beginning of the 1975-1990, Lebanese Civil War and the Nabatieh, Dikwaneh and Jisr el-Basha camps were destroyed by Israeli attacks and Lebanese militia and not rebuilt. Those remaining include the following which currently house more than half of Lebanon’s 433,276 Palestinian refugees:
Al-Badawi, Burj El-Barajna, Jal El-Bahr, Sabra and Shatilla, Ain El-Helwa, Nahr El-Bared, Rashidieh, Burj El Shemali, El-Buss, Wavel, Mieh Mieh and Mar Elias.
Nahr el-Bared is 7 miles north of Tripoli near the stunning Mediterranean coast and is home to more than 32,000 refuges many of whom were expelled from the Lake Huleh area of Palestine, including Safed. Like all the official Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, plus several ‘unofficial’ ones, Nahr el-Bared suffers from serious problems including no proper infrastructure, overcrowding, poverty and unemployment.
Tabulated at more than 25%, Nahr el-Bared has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees anywhere who are living in abject poverty and who are officially registered with the UN as "special hardship" cases.
Its residents, like all Palestinians in Lebanon are blatantly discriminated against and not even officially counted. They are denied citizenship and banned from working in the top 70 trades and professions (that includes McDonald’s and KFC in downtown Beirut) and cannot own real estate. Palestinians in Lebanon have essentially no social or civil rights and only limited access to government educational facilities. They have no access to public social services. Consequently most rely entirely on the UNRWA as the sole provider for their families needs.
It is not surprising that al-Qaeda sympathies, if not formal affiliations, are found in the 12 official camps as well as 7 unofficial ones. Groups with names such as Fateh al-Islam, Jund al-Shams (Soldier of Damascus) , Ibns al-Shaheed" (sons of the martyrs) Issbat al-Anssar which morphed into Issbat al-Noor – "The Community of Illumination" and many others.
Given Bush administration debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and its encouragement for Israel to continue its destruction of Lebanon this past summer, the situation in Lebanon mirrors, in some respects, the early 1980’s when groups sprung up to resist the US green lighted Israeli invasion and occupation. But rather than being Shia and pro-Hezbollah, today’s groups are largely Sunni and anti-Hezbollah. Hence they qualify for US aid, funneled by Sunni financial backers in league with the Bush administration which is committed to funding Islamist Sunni groups to weaken Hezbollah.
This project has become the White House obsession following Israel’s July 2006 defeat.
To understand what is going on with Fatah al-Islam at Nahr el-Bared one would want a brief introduction to Lebanon’s amazing, but shadowy ‘Welch Club’.
The Club is named for its godfather, David Welch, assistant to Secretary of State Rice who is the point man for the Bush administration and is guided by Eliot Abrams.
Key Lebanese members of the Welch Club (aka: the ‘Club’) include:
The Lebanese civil war veteran, warlord, feudalist and mercurial Walid Jumblatt of the Druze party (the Progressive Socialist Party or PSP)
Another civil war veteran, warlord, terrorist (Served 11 years in prison for massacres committed against fellow Christians among others) Samir Geagea. Leader of the extremist Phalange party and its Lebanese Forces (LF) the group that conducted the Israel organized massacre at Sabra-Shatilla (although led by Elie Hobeika, once Geagea’s mentor, Geagea did not take part in the Sept. 1982 slaughter of 1,700 Palestinian and Lebanese).
The billionaire, Saudi Sheikh and Club president Saad Hariri leader of the Sunni Future Movement (FM).
Over a year ago Hariri’s Future Movement started setting up Sunni Islamist terrorist cells (the PSP and LF already had their own militia since the civil war and despite the Taif Accords requiring militia to disarm they are now rearmed and itching for action and trying hard to provoke Hezbollah).
The FM created Sunni Islamist ‘terrorist’ cells were to serve as a cover for (anti-Hezbollah) Welch Club projects. The plan was that actions of these cells, of which Fatah el-Islam is one, could be blamed on al Qaeda or Syria or anyone but the Club.
To staff the new militias, FM rounded up remnants of previous extremists in the Palestinian Refugee camps that had been subdued, marginalized and diminished during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Each fighter got $700 per month, not bad in today’s Lebanon.
The first Welch Club funded militia, set up by FM, is known locally as Jund-al-Sham (Soldiers of Sham, where "Sham" in Arabic denotes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine & Jordan) created in Ain-el-Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon. This group is also referred to in the Camps as Jund-el-Sitt (Soldiers of the Sitt, where "Sitt" in Sidon, Ain-el-Hilwa and the outskirts pertain to Bahia Hariri, the sister of Rafiq Hariri, aunt of Saad, and Member of Parliament).
The second was Fateh-al-Islam (The name cleverly put together, joining Fateh as in Palestinian and the word Islam as in Qaeda). FM set this Club cell up in Nahr-al-Bared refugee camp north of Tripoli for geographical balance.
Fatah el-Islam had about 400 well paid fighters until three days ago. Today they may have more or fewer plus volunteers. The leaders were provided with ocean view luxury apartments in Tripoli where they stored arms and chilled when not in Nahr-al-Bared. Guess who owns the apartments?
According to members of both Fatah el-Islam and Jund-al-Sham their groups acted on the directive of the Club president, Saad Hariri.
So what went wrong? "Why the bank robbery" and the slaughter at Nahr el-Baled?
According to operatives of Fatah el-Islam, the Bush administration got cold feet with people like Seymour Hirsh snooping around and with the White House post-Iraq discipline in free fall. Moreover, Hezbollah intelligence knew all about the Clubs activities and was in a position to flip the two groups who were supposed to ignite a Sunni Shia civil war which Hezbollah vows to prevent.
Things started to go very wrong quickly for the Club last week.
FM "stopped" the payroll of Fateh el-Islam’s account at the Hariri family owned back.
Fateh-al-Islam, tried to negotiate at least ‘severance pay’ with no luck and they felt betrayed. (Remember many of their fighters are easily frustrated teenagers and their pay supports their families). Militia members knocked off the bank which issued their worthless checks. They were doubly angry when they learned FM is claiming in the media a loss much greater than they actually snatched and that the Club is going to stiff the insurance company and actually make a huge profit.
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (newly recruited to serve the bidding of the Club and the Future Movement) assaulted the apartments of Fatah-al-Islam Tripoli. They didn’t have much luck and were forced to call in the Lebanese army.
Within the hour, Fatah-al-Islam retaliated against Lebanese Army posts, checkpoints and unarmed, off-duty Lebanese soldiers in civilian clothing and committed outrageous killings including severing at four heads.
Up to this point Fatah-al-Islam did not retaliate against the Internal Security forces in Tripoli because the ISF is pro-Hariri and some are friends and Fatah al-Islam still hoped to get paid by Hariri. Instead Fatah al Islam went after the Army.
The Seniora cabinet convenes and asks the Lebanese Army to enter the refugee camp and silence (in more ways than one) Fatah-al-Islam. Since entrance into the Camps is forbidden by the 1969 Arab league agreement, the Army refuses after realizing the extent of the conspiracy against it by the Welch Club. The army knows that entering a refugee camp in force will open a front against the Army in all twelve Palestinian refugee camps and tear the army apart along sectarian cracks.
The army feels set up by the Club’s Internal Security Forces which did not coordinate with the Lebanese Army, as required by Lebanese law and did not even make them aware of the "inter family operation" the ISF carried out against Fatah-al-Islam safe houses in Tripoli.
Today, tensions are high between the Lebanese army and the Welch Club. Some mention the phrase ‘army coup’.
The Club is trying to run Parliament and is prepared to go all the way not to ‘lose’ Lebanon. It still holds 70 seats in the house of parliament while the Hezbollah led opposition holds 58 seats. It has a dutiful PM in Fouad Siniora.
The club tried to seize control of the presidency and when it failed it marginalized it. Last year it tried to control of the Parliamentary Constitutional Committee, which audits the government’s policies, laws and watch dogs their actions. When the Club failed to control it they simply abolished the Constitutional Committee. This key committee no longer exists in Lebanon’s government.
The Welch Club’s major error was when it attempted to influence the Lebanese Army into disarming the Lebanese Resistance led by Hezbollah. When the Army wisely refused, the Club coordinated with the Bush Administration to pressure Israel to dramatically intensify its retaliation to the capture of the two soldiers by Hezbollah and ‘break the rules’ regarding the historically more limited response and try to destroy Hezbollah during the July 2006 war.
The Welch Club now considers the Lebanese Army a serious problem. The Bush administration is trying to undermine and marginalize it to eliminate one of the last two obstacles to implementing Israel’s agenda in Lebanon.
If the army is weakened, it can not protect _over 70% of the Christians in Lebanon who support General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. The F.P.M. is mainly constituted of well educated, middle class and unarmed Lebanese civilians. The only protection they have is the Lebanese Army which aids in maintaining their presence in the political scene. The other type of Christians in Lebanon is the minority, about 15% of Christians associated with Geagea’s Lebanese Forces who are purely militia. If the Club can weaken the Army even more than it is, then this Phalange minority will be the only relatively strong force on the Christian scene and become the "army" of the Club.
Another reason the Club wants to weaken the Lebanese Army is that the Army is nationalistic and is a safety valve for Lebanon to ensure the Palestinian right of return to Palestine, Lebanese nationhood and the resistance culture led by Hezbollah, with which is has excellent relations.
For their part, the Welch Club wants to keep some Palestinians in Lebanon for cheap labor, ship others to countries willing to take them (and be paid handsomely to do so by American taxpayers) and allow at most a few thousand to return to Palestine to settle the ‘right of return’ issue while at the same time signing a May 17th 1983 type treaty with Israel with enriches the Club members and gives Israel Lebanon’s water and much of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Long story short, Fatah el-Islam must be silenced at all costs. Their tale, if told, is poison for the Club and its sponsors. We will likely see their attempted destruction in the coming days.
Hezbollah is watching and supporting the Lebanese army.
– Lamb’s recent book, The Price We Pay: A Quarter Century of Israel’s use of American Weapon’s against Lebanon (1978-2006) is available at Amazon.com.uk. Hezbollah: A Brief Guide for Beginners is expected in early summer. (counterpunch.org)