Khaled Meshal didn't expect that his most significant cooperation with Fatah would have to occur in Lebanon and not in Gaza. Nor did he believe that from his secure location in Damascus, where he resides under Assad's patronage, he would have to argue with the Lebanese prime minister. But on Tuesday he realized that Lebanon was his key diplomatic front and that he'd better send his representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, to sit like a scolded child next to the Fatah representative in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, and the representatives of the other Palestinian factions, in order to take a drubbing from Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
And not just like a scolded child, but like one even Hezbollah was furious at, because the Palestinian leadership in Lebanon was unable to calm the situation. It thereby made Syria and Hezbollah appear responsible for the deterioration in the country - all this just when Hezbollah was seeking to exert its control over the course of events and look good in the eyes of the Lebanese public, ahead of the possible establishment of an international court to judge those responsible for the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
This whole story began in a rather bumbling way. Lebanese internal security forces were pursuing suspects in a robbery of the Middle East Bank in a small town near Tripoli, northern Lebanon. Apparently, the robbers had found shelter in a house in Tripoli, which had been rented a few months earlier by a woman described as wearing a veil, who paid $220 up front for three months' rent.
The security forces surrounded the house and began firing at the occupants. The problem was that the robbers were members of a radical Sunni Islamic group that calls itself Fatah al-Islam. Last November it split off from another small organization called Fatah Intifada - a secular Palestinian nationalist organization with close ties to Syrian intelligence. Fatah al-Islam, on the other hand, is associated with Al-Qaida in Iraq and receives funding from radical Islamic organizations. Its leader, Shakir al-Abbasi, who is suspected of involvement in the 2002 murder of an American diplomat in Jordan, owns apartments and vacant lots in Damascus and also has some impressive bank accounts whose origins are unknown. The organization is primarily based in the Naher al-Bard refugee camp, but its activists also live in Tripoli, which has over the years become one of the most neglected and impoverished cities in Lebanon.
The start of a war
The chase, and the assault on the house in Tripoli where the robbers were hiding, were not coordinated with the Lebanese army forces who guard the entry points to the Naher al-Bard camp. The agreement that exists in Lebanon between the government and the Palestinian organizations is that the army does not enter the refugee camps, but it does oversee who enters or leaves. Therefore, the army is able to control some of the civilian activity that goes on in the camps.
The Lebanese army forces stationed at the camp's entrance didn't know about the assault launched by the Lebanese internal security forces on the house in Tripoli. They learned about it the hard way - via machine gun fire, assault rifle fire and mortar shells fired by the camp's Palestinian residents. Several Lebanese soldiers were killed and several more injured in the first barrage. And at that moment, the dam burst.
Now, it wasn't just another internal security forces pursuit of Fatah al-Islam bank robbers, but the start of a war. Lebanese army artillery and tanks fired into the refugee camp, striking buildings and passersby. Stores were closed, the food supplies that are subsidized and funded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were held up outside the camp and the Lebanese government demonstrated a determination not seen in quite some time. It's no wonder that the leaders of the Palestinian factions figured that one of the biggest achievements of the Palestinians in Lebanon - permission to keep weapons inside the refugee camps - was about to evaporate.
"I will not allow the army's deterrent power to be crushed," Siniora told the Palestinian leaders, including Meshal and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who phoned him to request to stop the army from entering the camps. The beginning of the mass exodus from Naher al-Bard camp, which only increased two days later, made the gravity of the crisis crystal clear to the Palestinian leaders. Interestingly, in this situation, the government is backed by Hezbollah, with which it has been in serious conflict since November 2006. Apparently, Hezbollah's support for the Palestinians and their struggle against Israel is limited to a struggle that does not take place on Lebanese territory.
Hassan Nasrallah's attitude toward this week's events in the refugee camp and in the city of Tripoli, which left approximately 80 dead, including Palestinians and Lebanese soldiers, therefore depends on three considerations. The first of them relates to the impending UN decision on the establishment of an international court to try the suspects in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. Since Nasrallah, in coordination with Syria, is opposed to the establishment of such a court, it's important to him that no one suspect that he has non-Lebanese partners, i.e. Palestinian organizations, working with him in this struggle. The reason for this is that the Palestinians in Lebanon are not only considered foreigners, they are also not fondly remembered from the period of the Lebanese civil war, as those who took over Lebanon and caused the Israeli invasion.
Nasrallah's second consideration has to do with UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which call for the disarming of the armed militias in Lebanon. Nasrallah twisted the government's arm and obtained a clear declaration that Hezbollah does not qualify as such a militia, and that its armaments constitute the weapons of resistance that are meant to defend Lebanon - therefore it needn't lay them down. In return, Nasrallah agreed that the weapons of the Palestinians residing outside the refugee camps should be removed, while the weapons within the camps, designated for "self-defense," should remain.
Now, given the battle in the Naher al-Bard refugee camp, Nasrallah is afraid the government might aim to prove that it is able to remove the weapons inside the camp. Such a move could strengthen the government's image and could affect the demand that Hezbollah also be disarmed.
The third consideration has to do with Syria's disavowal of Fatah al-Islam and its efforts to demonstrate - apparently rightly so - its opposition to its actions. Against this backdrop, Nasrallah was quick to denounce the organization's activity and to express support for the Lebanese army.
Like in Gaza
This is another one of those complex situations Nasrallah has gotten himself into in Lebanon, where, on the one hand, he needs to demonstrate support for the Palestinians and opposition to the government, and at the same time defend the honor of the Lebanese army and oppose the Palestinian struggle within Lebanon. This situation leaves the Palestinian leadership in Lebanon and Damascus in a very tough dilemma. The heads of the organizations, who met with Siniora on Tuesday, pledged to take action to quell the fighting and to gradually disarm the Fatah al-Islam organization. They set up a joint committee with the Lebanese government and held discussions on how to handle this organization. But they understand that their situation in Lebanon is really no different than that in Gaza. The only difference is that in Lebanon, Meshal and Abu Mazen must achieve closer cooperation, because there the stakes are not just about who controls which force, but about survival.
Control over the fragments of organizations is already nearly impossible in the reality that exists within the camps, even more so when the big organizations like Fatah and Hamas are suffering a shortage of cash that could compete with the cash being offered by the new organizations, which are evidently receiving generous funding from radical organizations in Iraq. As such, until the last general elections in the West Bank, in which Hamas was victorious, Fatah's student supporters in the camps used to receive aid from Fatah in the West Bank, which came from general Palestinian funds. Hamas also used to transfer money to its people in the camps. In this case the funds came from aid contributions to the West Bank, via Damascus. But now, due to the economic boycott imposed by Israel, the refugees in the camp are getting very little aid, and at least a third of Palestinian students are unable to register for university in Lebanon because of the high cost of tuition and the absence of scholarships.
On the face of it, this situation gives the Lebanese government an advantage, for now it can get rid of at least some of the weapons in the camps. But the Siniora government is aware of the limits of its power and of its inability to wage a military campaign inside the Naher al-Bard camp without stirring up additional violent battles in other camps. The result will apparently follow the usual Lebanese pattern: a meaningless compromise that will allow the small and violent organizations to continue operating while maintaining an appearance of calm.
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