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Peace process perspective from Nahr el-Bared

Kylie Baxter |  07 February 2008

Nahr el-Bared, Lebanon The view of the peace process in the West Bank is bleak, but the outlook from the refugee camps of Lebanon is even darker. Lebanon, long a playground for regional powers, has threatened to implode since the 2005 assassination of Rafic Hariri. Syria's influence remains strong and many blame Damascus and its local allies for the string of assassinations. Last Sunday's violence, which erupted from street protests over electricity cuts, was one representation of the popular frustration at the political deadlock which engulfs the state.

In the middle of this tense saga are the Palestinian refugees. The 1948 Palestinian exodus had profound regional ramifications. In Lebanon, an influx of around 100 000 people, mainly Sunni Muslims, raised demographic questions which were (and remain) challenging in a state premised on a delicate sectarian balance. Over the years, Arafat's PLO also played a significant role, utilising Lebanon as a theatre for the expression of Palestinian political autonomy under the Cairo Agreement of 1969 and as a base for militia action against Israel. Lebanon's deadly civil war was triggered by external pressures, internal instabilities and — as many Lebanese are quick to point out — the armed Palestinian presence.

In 2008, these factors still combine to make Lebanon one of the Middle East's most volatile states. In an era of heightened regional tensions between Sunni and Shia communities, Lebanon stands at the frontline. The mood in Beirut is one of frustration and quiet depression. One does not need to be proficient in Arabic to grasp the intention behind Khalas (enough) and Salam (peace) which are the constant refrain of Beirut's cab drivers, commuters and coffee drinkers.

The political elites which have failed, on 13 occasions, to elect a president draw the condemnation of the people they are meant to serve. The dangerous turn in recent violence — the targeting of a US vehicle, the deaths at Sunday's protests and yet another car bomb aimed at destabilising the Army which is the last bastion of Lebanese authority— does not bode well.

In this climate, expecting Lebanon to ameliorate the suffering of the Palestinian refugees is an enormous request. However, their situation only exacerbates an already unstable situation. In Lebanon, some 150 000 refugees (of a community of around 350 000) reside in a series of official camps.

In the northern camp of Nahr el-Bared, the situation is critical. This camp was entirely destroyed in the battle between the Fatah al-Islam militants and the Lebanese Army in 2007. Lebanese and Palestinian sources concur that the militants were overwhelmingly external, an uneasy mixture of foreign fighters with a smattering of local Lebanese and Palestinian recruits inspired by a jihadist mindset.

To open the book on Nahr el-Bared is to be immersed in the endless rumour mill of Lebanese politics. Palestinians generally articulate a belief in a deliberate Lebanese campaign to destroy the camp. Lebanese tend to identify the confrontation as further proof of the powerful regional actors working to destabilise the state. Either way, once the Army entered camp the destruction was systematic and in the current political climate, investigations into actions and events are slow.

Despite the good intentions of the Siniora government, for Palestinians and Lebanese alike, the talk of imminent reconstruction is difficult to believe. In a period of national economic hardship, the pouring of money into a Palestinian enclave would no doubt fire tensions. Moreover, the sheer scale of the devastation suggests a reconstruction program would span years.

History has demonstrated that to wait for an invitation to return is to tempt fate, so the refugees return to the rubble around Nahr el-Bared in a determined rejection of yet another displacement. The conditions are untenable and this has engendered a growing Lebanese awareness that the deprivation of the Palestinians merely creates the conditions for further external manipulation that the state can ill-afford.

Despite the language of participatory assistance, the Palestinians of Nahr el-Bared are now predominately beneficiaries of international aid. As a long-term displaced community, their situation raises complex questions about humanitarian assistance; political advocacy reveals the challenges inherent in the international conceptualisation of this issue.

In the popular imagination, refugees survive in tents at the frontline of some distant conflict. This is the field of acute humanitarian assistance. In the initial aftermath of the 1948 conflict, this was provided to the refugees from Palestine through the establishment of the United Nations Works and Refugee Agency (UNWRA).

But 60 years later, UNWRA's apolitical mandate is continually renewed while a founding principle of its establishment — assistance until a resolution in accordance with UN Resolution 194 on the right of return is achieved — appears ever more distant.

Essentially, for Lebanon, as for the Palestinian refugees, the solid core of this issue remains the simple fact that a comprehensive political solution, not just economic assistance, is required.

Kylie BaxterDr Kylie Baxter works in the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, Asia Institute, the University of Melbourne. She is co-author of the forthcoming US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: the rise of anti-Americanism. Flickr image of destruction at Nahr el-Bared is from Frances Guy, British Ambassador, Lebanon.


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