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Nir Rosen on the Palestinians in Lebanon--WashPost 12/16/07

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of
"In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq."

*Scapegoats in an Unwelcoming Land*

By Nir Rosen
Sunday, December 16, 2007; B02

Last Wednesday, a car-bomb blast on a crowded Beirut street killed Brig.
Gen. Francois Hajj, one of Lebanon's top generals. The capital began
buzzing with speculation that Hajj had been assassinated in retaliation
for his role as the operational commander of the army's bloody
three-month battle with an armed Islamic group last summer. In May,
Fatah al-Islam -- a foreign jihadist group inspired by al-Qaeda, led by
veterans of the struggle in Iraq and made up mostly of Saudis, Syrians
and even some Lebanese -- ensconced itself on the outskirts of Nahr
al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, and massacred
Lebanese troops at an army checkpoint. Hajj's forces responded by
indiscriminately bombarding the camp in the name of the war on terror,
and the Lebanese public rallied 'round.

Palestinians had once again become Lebanon's scapegoats, victims of a
land in which they have long faced slaughter and discrimination.
Attacking them may be personally risky, but it's also often good
politics; the assassinated general's boss, army commander Gen. Michel
Suleiman, is poised to become Lebanon's next president. Suleiman isn't
the first army commander to punish the Palestinians, and he won't be the
first president to do so, either. Between 1958 and 1964, President Fuad
Shehab created an elaborate, ruthless secret-service network to monitor
the Palestinian camps. During his 1970-76 reign, President Suleiman
Franjieh clashed militarily with Palestinian factions, even using the
air force to bomb a neighborhood thought to be pro-Palestinian. I've
heard followers of assassinated president-elect Bashir Gemayel, whose
Maronite Christian militia massacred Palestinians in 1976, brag that he
was stopped at a checkpoint in the early years of the country's 1975-90
civil war with a trunk full of the skulls of dead Palestinians. Even
today, the Lebanese opposition's preferred candidate for president is
Michel Aoun, a Christian retired general who also participated in the
1976 killings.

 
The rights of the Palestinian refugees have been ignored for six decades
by a world that has wished them away. But the Middle East will never
know peace or stability until they are granted justice. In 1948-49,
around the conflict that Israelis refer to as their War of Independence
and that Palestinians call the Catastrophe, some 750,000 Palestinians
were ethnically cleansed to make way for the creation of the Jewish
state. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, 400,000 Palestinians were
expelled by the Israeli military, according to Amnesty International.

A series of subsequent peace processes has ignored the refugees, offered
no compensation for their suffering and lost property, or refused to
recognize their right to return to their homes in their homeland. It's
not just the Israelis who have brutalized them; Palestinian refugees
have been massacred in Jordan and Lebanon. Small numbers have become so
radicalized that they have gone on to fight the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In Lebanon -- a small, weak state with a delicate sectarian balance and
turbulent political system where, according to Refugees International,
about 382,000 Palestinians have registered with a U.N. refugee-relief
agency -- the refugee problem has never really left center stage.

Last summer, I witnessed yet another chapter in the book of the
refugees' misery. By late June, most of the Palestinians from Nahr
al-Bared had fled to Badawi, another refugee camp nearby. In a
schoolyard there, I was stopped by a man named Abu Hadi, born in Haifa
in 1946. "I am a person without an address," he told me. "I wish I was a
donkey or a horse so I would have doctors and lawyers for my rights." He
showed me a plastic bag with a sponge and a towel. "My bathroom is in my
hand," he said.

The term "refugee camp" summons up images of tents and squalor, but Nahr
al-Bared, like many of its counterparts elsewhere in Lebanon, had been a
thoroughly urban camp, with low-slung apartment buildings. It even had
soothing views of the Mediterranean. The 40,000 Palestinians of Nahr
al-Bared wound up housed in schools in the Badawi refugee camp and
Tripoli, watching from afar as their homes were obliterated. According
to aid workers and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, at least
42 Palestinian civilians had been killed by Sept. 2, when the Lebanese
army and media declared that Gen. Suleiman's forces had won a great victory.

Only in October did the army finally begin to allow a trickle of
Palestinians back to their homes, and then only in the so-called new
camp, a small area on the outskirts of the original camp that had housed
2,000 families and been safely under Lebanese army control throughout
the clash.

When about 1,000 families finally passed through the checkpoints, to the
jeers of soldiers and demonstrators, they found only destruction. Every
single home, building, apartment and shop that I saw had been destroyed.
Most buildings had been burned from the inside; the signs of the
flammable liquids that the soldiers had used were scorched on the walls,
and empty fuel canisters were strewn on the floors. Ceilings and walls
were riddled with bullets, shot from inside, seemingly for sport. Most
homes that I saw had been emptied of furniture, appliances, sinks,
toilets, televisions and refrigerators. Most shockingly, soldiers had
defecated in kitchens and bedrooms, on plates, bowls, pots and
mattresses; they had urinated into olive-oil jars.

The media were not permitted in, and most Lebanese outlets ignored or
denied the outrages. When I managed to slip inside, I was shocked by the
scope of the damage. The buildings were crumpled, windows broken,
electrical wiring yanked out, water pumps destroyed, generators stolen
or shot up. All the gold jewelry had been stolen, as had been the cash
that so many Palestinians had stored in their bedrooms. Insulting
graffiti were scrawled on the charred walls, as were threats, signed by
various Lebanese army units. Every car in the camp that I saw had been
burned, shot or crushed by tanks or bulldozers. The ruination had been
strikingly personal; I saw photo albums that had been torn to shreds.
Palestinians told me that they had seen their belongings on sale in the
main outdoor market in Tripoli.

Like all institutions in Lebanon, the army is sectarian, a fact that
helps explain the devastation. Most of the soldiers fighting in Nahr
al-Bared had been Sunnis from northern Lebanon; the Sunnis had once seen
Palestinian militias as friendly, but now they blamed the Palestinians
for the outsiders of Fatah al-Islam and unleashed their fury on the
camp. By contrast, refugees told me, Shiite soldiers from the south had
been far kinder and more supportive after the fighting.

The camp had once been woven into the area's economy and culture. Now
the Palestinians were again unwanted and rejected. "It is our destiny,"
one man said emotionlessly in his blackened home in Nahr al-Bared,
standing near feces that Lebanese soldiers had left on his kitchen floor.

I saw Palestinian children's art from this period that depicted the
Lebanese soldiers and tanks that destroyed the camp as Israelis,
equating their suffering at the hands of the Lebanese with the suffering
of their brethren at the hands of the Israelis. I saw videos filmed by
Lebanese soldiers on the Internet, showing army medical staff abusing
corpses and beating prisoners. Hundreds of Palestinians had been abused
or tortured in Lebanese detention, according to human rights groups, and
refugees told me that some had died from medical neglect of treatable
wounds.

The refugees still faced harassment and the occasional beating by
Lebanese soldiers. Nobody is helping them, but rather than giving up,
hundreds of Palestinians were at work emptying their homes of debris and
trying to get on with their lives. One woman stood on her balcony,
throwing rubble from inside her home out onto the broken street. She was
lucky; most of the Palestinians still couldn't get to their homes and
could only wonder what awaited them. On the roof of one of the taller
buildings in the new camp, I found Farhan Said Mansur, a sanitation
worker, standing with his wife. They were gazing silently across to
their distant home, whose broken roof they could just make out, as if
they were looking over the border toward Palestine, where he was born.
"It is a calamity to all Palestinians," he said.

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