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Peace process perspective from Nahr el-Bared

  • 07 February 2008
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