Beirut/Brussels - Although attention naturally is focused on possible ripple effects on Lebanon from Syria’s conflict, it would be wrong to ignore the unresolved legacy of the battle that shook the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp five years ago. The risk of renewed flare-up, already significant, is now compounded by the regional crisis.
Lebanon’s Palestinian Dilemma: The Struggle over Nahr al-Bared, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, marks the fifth anniversary of the deadly, three-month war pitting an Islamist fundamentalist group against the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
Today, the camp’s displaced and resident population still suffers from lagging reconstruction of homes, a strict permit system that limits entry into and isolates Nahr al-Bared economically and socially, and the absence of a local Palestinian body to represent the residents’ interests.
In spite of pledges to build a new model of coexistence between the state and Palestinian camps, outlined in the so-called Vienna Document, the Lebanese government has failed to make meaningful progress, leaving the situation at a low boil.
“The new model that is taking form is not the answer”, says Cale Salih, Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa analyst. “The relationship between camp residents and the state has not improved; rather, given the overwhelming security presence, refugees tend to see the authorities in the least appealing light: not protecting them, but rather protecting the country from them”.
What in May 2007 began as a chase of bank robbers quickly evolved into a violent conflict between the LAF and Fatah al-Islam, a previously unknown Islamist group inside Nahr al-Bared, a refugee camp 16km north of Tripoli. Lebanese forces prevailed, but in the process much of the camp was devastated and 27,000 residents were displaced. Inefficient contractors and a tug-of-war between on the one hand the army and the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which want more space in the camp and, on the other, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which seeks more land to build homes, have delayed reconstruction.
Developing a workable management model for the camp will depend on concerted action by the government, the security forces, Palestinian factions, UNRWA and the international community on three issues: redefining and clarifying the model currently under consideration; reconstructing the camp; and applying the lessons of Nahr al-Bared to other camps.
The Lebanese parliament and government should seize the opportunity and present an updated plan for the camp that clearly delineates responsibilities of each actor.
The role of the security forces needs to be adapted to camp realities. In particular, the ISF should not enforce discriminatory property, employment and assembly laws inside the camp; it should ban the recruitment of residents as informants; and it should forego plans to build a second police station there. Likewise, the LAF’s presence ought to be restricted to the outside perimeters and it should facilitate entry until the permit system is abolished altogether. Finally, the government, Palestinian factions and civil society should ensure that a locally elected Palestinian body represents the camp’s population.
“There is still time to get things right”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “Should that be the case, the experience of Nahr al-Bared - after all the death and destruction it has endured - could help put relations between Palestinian refugees on the one hand, and the Lebanese state and people on the other, on firmer and sounder footing”.