Hezbollah's Palestinian Predicament

If the Lebanese Army can put the refugee camps in order, then maybe it can defend its country against Israel. In that case, who needs Hezbollah?

In the Naher el-Bared refugee camp near the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, everyone knows his place. The Sa'sa quarter in the camp's southern part is controlled by a group called Fatah Abu Amar. The "regular" Fatah people are located in the central part of the camp, and parts of the northern section have been "settled" by members of the small Fatah al-Islam organization. This week, when the Lebanese Army flexed its limited muscles against Fatah al-Islam with tank fire and mortar shells, the group asked the Palestinian residents of the Sa'sa quarter to grant them cover in their part of the camp. The answer was no.

Fatah Abu Amar members listened to their leaders' orders, allowing it to cooperate in the Lebanese war against Fatah al-Islam. The situation is similar in the larger refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh. As in every such camp, its quarters are split according to the groups that control them: one quarter for Hamas and one for Fatah, a street for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a neighborhood for left-wing organizations or radical Islamic groups. All of them are armed to the teeth.

According to Lebanese Army reports, large quantities of weapons can be found in the camps and a network of tunnels cuts across them, allowing access throughout the whole camp; in some cases, entire roads have been built underground. Thus, even as the Lebanese Army was comfortably guarding the camp entrances until the latest clashes, in accordance with the agreement between previous Lebanese governments and the Palestinian leadership, the activity within the camps continued unabated.

The Lebanese Army has long known about the goings-on inside the camps, but that doesn't mean there's a lack of surprises. For instance, computer disks that were recently found in a Fatah al-Islam safe house in Tripoli bore information on a many-layered structure of command, instructions for the establishment of street organizations and directions for preparing car bombs and explosives. The disk also described the goal for which the organization was established: to transform Lebanon into a radical Islamic state, following the model of Al-Qaida's aspirations for Iraq.

This isn't the first time the Lebanese Army has clashed with extremist Islamic groups. At the beginning of 2000, it fought hard against an armed gang led by Bassam Ahmad Kanj in the town of al-Diniyeh, near Tripoli. Kanj was apparently an Al-Qaida operative who trained and fought in Afghanistan and set up his organization in Lebanon with the financial aid he received from donors in Afghanistan. He recruited a large group of supporters, who set themselves the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon. Kanj was killed in the battle with the Lebanese Army, but some of his people managed to escape and find refuge in the Ein-el Helweh camp. Last week, they launched a limited attack on Lebanese military troops stationed outside the camp. This group of terrorists, now called Jund al-Sham, is a well-known faction of Kanj's supporters, and it does not seem to be connected to Fatah al-Islam. The two groups do not appear to be coordinating their movements or acting under the same orders.

Fatah al-Islam is also not a brand-new organization. It's a small band of Islamic fundamentalists, who at the end of 2006 broke off from Fatah Intifada, a left-wing group that was affiliated with Fatah. Apparently, the split was linked to the distribution of funds and a disagreement over control. But it is a primary example of the way in which such groups - several dozen of which are estimated to be active in Lebanon - are formed. Most of them don't have a public profile, since they are active only within the refugee camps, imposing membership taxes and constituting an inseparable part of the camps' violent fabric.

These groups generally operate according to their own agenda; their leaders call themselves emirs and they tend to listen to radical spiritual advisers. For instance, the spiritual teacher of Fatah al-Islam leader Shakar Abasi is Sheikh Naim Taysir al-Rali, a Palestinian from the Miyeh Miyeh refugee camp who studied with Khaled al-Ara, a radical clergyman from Algeria who was recently killed in an American attack on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The splits among these groups are giving the established Palestinian organizations - Fatah, Hamas and the PFLP - a pounding headache. "We are guests in Lebanon," Abbas Zaki, the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, explained last week. That's why, he said, "the camps won't be a haven for criminals." The Hamas representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, said his movement wants to reach a deal with Lebanon so it stops firing in the camps.

Fatah, Hamas and the PFLP struck an agreement with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on establishing a joint action committee aimed at toning down the fighting in the Naher el-Bared camp and curbing the outbreak of violence in Ein el-Helweh. The result could be seen last Tuesday, when seven Fatah al-Islam members surrendered to Fatah.

The Palestinian leadership knows that even though many years have passed since the "Palestinian state" within Lebanon was crushed, the harsh experience is still seared in the collective Lebanese memory. The Palestinian leadership also knows that the 12 refugee camps in Lebanon are still a highly sensitive issue, partly due to UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the armed militias in Lebanon to be dismantled.

Although there is an internal Lebanese agreement not to touch the abundant Palestinian weapons in the camps, when the Lebanese Army suddenly demonstrates determination to fight phenomena like Fatah al-Islam and, for the first time, doesn't hesitate to enter a refugee camp, it is likely that someone will demand a more extensive operation and turn the Palestinians into an easy target. This makes coordination with the Lebanese government all the more important, especially in the context of the negotiations the Palestinian leadership is holding with the Lebanese government on easing the living conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon. Every violent incident involving the Palestinians, even if they are members of a marginal group that doesn't represent the mainstream, can thus put the interests of all the Palestinians in Lebanon at stake.

The actions of these splinter groups are also not desirable from Hezbollah's perspective. That's because as soon as the Lebanese Army shows it is capable of attacking a small Palestinian organization it wants to disarm, there are some who call for the army to take the opportunity to disarm Hezbollah, too. True, the groups are not really similar and Hezbollah's status is completely different from that of the Palestinian groups, since it is a Lebanese political and military movement. But Hezbollah invested a lot of effort into convincing the Lebanese that it is not just another militia, and it doesn't want those efforts tainted by someone in Lebanon singling it out as one of many militias that need to be disarmed.

No less important is Hezbollah's desire to prove that its weapons are not aimed at Lebanese targets or at the Lebanese people themselves and that it is continuing to play a role as an entity protecting the state against Israel. Thus the Shi'ite militia does not want to show support for an organization that explicitly aims to change the face of Lebanon and kills Lebanese Army soldiers - especially since the Islamic state the Palestinian groups want to establish is a Sunni one.

But the Lebanese Army's demonstration of its ability and determination is now liable to shatter another one of Hezbollah's arguments in favor of holding onto its weapons. After all, if the Lebanese Army is capable of fighting an enemy from the inside, then with good equipment and suitable training, either American or European, it will also be able to protect the state from Israel - rendering Hezbollah superfluous.

The short battle in the refugee camp cost the lives of about 100 people, 45 of them Lebanese Army soldiers. Lebanese observers say the battle is about to end, if it hasn't already. It won the Lebanese government and its army a lot of credit, but not enough to end the political crisis. The UN decision to establish an international court for the trial of the suspects accused of being responsible for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is due to come into effect today. That's another important victory for the Siniora government, but it's a victory that's liable to cost him dearly if Hezbollah decides to protest the decision and escalate its struggle against the government, thereby obliterating the memory of the government's victory at Naher el-Bared.