Nahr Al-Bared returnees find homes destroyed systematically

Nahr Al-Bared is the Palestinian refugee camp rocked by months of fighting since May, when the Lebanese Army went after members of the Fatah Al-Islam splinter group. This fighting took place just under a year after the ferocious two-month Israeli attack (June-August 2006) that targetted much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, not only in the south of the country, following Hizbollah’s attack on a group of Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area that Hizbollah says belongs to Lebanon. Hizbollah is still holding two of these soldiers captive, without any visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). After the active conflict ended (though Israeli overflights are, however, reportedly continuing — Israel says they are needed to monitor Hizbollah’s rearming), there were a number of internal attacks, including bank robberies and bus bombings, that the Lebanese government accuses Fatah Al-Islam of committing.

A number of Palestinian officials and Fatah leaders in Lebanon also denounced Fatah Al-Islam. The situation in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon was said to be explosive — many of the refugees crowded inside have not been given Lebanese documentation, and they are not allowed to work in many professions, and construction materials to improve their housing is not allowed inside the camps.

During the Lebanese Army attack, many Palestinians from Nahr Al-Bared were evacuated to other already crowded refugee camps in Lebanon.

Given a chance to return recently, a number of the Nahr Al-Bared evacuees did just that — despite the danger of unexploded ordinance throughout the camp, and reports that their homes were surely damaged if not destroyed.

But, according to this account, what they found was much worse that what they had been told — and even what they had imagined:

“Between May and September of this year, a ferocious battle took place between the Lebanese Army and a small armed group known as Fatah Al Islam. From the first the day, the Lebanese Army surrounded the camp and fired in artillery, maintaining this course for months. Most of the residents of the camp were forced to leave with the clothes on their backs within the first three days. As the number of young Lebanese soldiers killed and horribly maimed rose through the battle, Lebanon became awash with patriotism and grief, any questioning of the army taboo.

“Something terrible has been done to the residents of Nahr al Bared, and the Lebanese people are being spared the details. Over the past two weeks, since the camp was partly reopened to a few of its residents, many of us who have been there have been stunned by a powerful reality. Beyond the massive destruction of the homes from three months of bombing, room after room, house after house have been burned. Burned from the inside. Amongst the ashes on the ground, are the insides of what appear to have been car tyres. The walls have soot dripping down from what seems clearly to have been something flammable sprayed on them. Rooms, houses, shops, garages – all blackened ruins, yet having had no damage from bombing or battle. They were burned deliberately by people entering and torching them.

“How many we do not know, it is too large for a few people to comprehensively assess. But finding an un-bombed house or a business that has not been torched is very hard indeed.Why did this happen? Why have the people whose entire life’s work is to be found in ashes on the floor of these burned out homes, not been given any information about this – not a word? Each day new people return to find that this is what has happened to their homes.

“It is not just the burning of houses. Cars that residents were ordered to leave behind in the first days of the battle have been smashed up. Mopeds and TVs and all that ordinary people value, also broken up. Fridge after fridge with bullets through them. All of this clearly done from inside the houses, not from any outside battle.

“People returning to their homes sit outside alone on the ground. Stunned. When you ask them to bring you into their houses, they tell you, person after person, of how their valuables were stolen. Even where the valuables were well hidden, everything was ransacked and valuables found. Explosives were used to get through locked doors or to open safes. Items that people have had stolen include everything from clothes to cars. That which has not been burned, which was not smashed, which was of value seems to have vanished …

“On the inside walls of many, many houses, are written slogans. Everything from proud soldiers noting army units, to profoundly racist, offensive slogans against Palestinian people. Many families have found some of their belongings in nearby houses. Faeces are on some mattresses and floors.

“Every day that goes by more families return to the camp. Within hours, they have swept up and cleared away ashes and debris, so that they can try to imagine where to begin again. Mattresses with faeces are being burned. Journalists are still prohibited from the camp. Cameras are illegal there. Human rights groups have not entered …”

This report was published here on Electronic Intifada.

According to the UN spokesperson on Wednesday, UNSG BAN Ki-Moon has informed the UN Security Council that “Lebanon has continued to experience political crisis and instability in recent months. He notes the recent challenge posed by the Fatah al-Islam group, and commends the Lebanese Government and Armed Forces for successfully weathering a critical test on the road to a truly free and sovereign Lebanon“.

In this report, BAN calls Fatah al-Islam a “militant Islamist group”. Click on your preferred of the UN’s six official working languages for this report here.

A very large part of Ban’s report is devoted to Fatah al-Islam, and observes that “the emergence of Fatah al-Islam, the precarious security situation and the enduring political stalemate underline the undiminished challenges to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of Lebanon”.

Ban reported that he received a letter dated 8 October from Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora information, the Prime Minister wrote, “clearly points to a carefully drawn plot, of very serious and dangerous proportions, to seize control of a good part of northern Lebanon, destabilize the whole country by bombing Government and business institutions, mount attacks against UNIFIL in order to threaten participating countries and jeopardize the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, particularly 1701 (2006)”.

There was an oblique reference to an attack on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on 24 June that killed six peacekeepers.

UNSG BAN’s report continues: “The Prime Minister further wrote that the information ‘clearly supports the strong suspicion that the Fatah al-Islam plans were also linked to the ongoing attempts to topple the democratically chosen Government, jeopardize a democratic election of a new president, and create conditions that would impede progress in the setting up of the special tribunal [to investigate] … the assassination of the late Prime Minister Hariri and others that followed’. The United Nations does not have the means to independently corroborate the information contained in the Prime Minister’s letter. According to the Prime Minister of Lebanon, the information obtained by the Lebanese authorities from the interrogation of detained Fatah al-Islam members and from captured software data suggests those members of Fatah al-Islam ‘who came from Syria illegally, including its leadership, did so through the stretch of Lebanese-Syrian border controlled by’ the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), which is headquartered in Damascus. As the Prime Minister further wrote, “it is common knowledge that PFLP-General Command and Fatah al-Intifada (which controls another stretch of the Lebanese-Syrian border) have both set up military bases on the Lebanese side of the border and are closely associated with, and are supported and supplied with weapons, ammunitions and provisions regularly from, Syria’.”

Later, the SG’s report says that the Lebanese Prime Minister argued that “the circumstances of Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker Yousef al-Abssi’s release from prison in the Syrian Arab Republic, ‘and the way that his movements and those of Fatah al-Islam recruits into Lebanon were facilitated by Fatah al-Intifada within Syria, from Syria into Lebanon, and within Lebanon, as well as the ‘peaceful’ manner in which Fatah al-Intifada recast itself, turned over its facilities and resources and mutated into Fatah al-Islam, clearly point to a deliberate and carefully designed plan, which could not have been without the knowledge and blessing of Fatah al-Intifada’s sponsors, namely Syrian intelligence’. In his letter, the Prime Minister further states that ‘the direct contact between some of Fatah al-Islam’s leaders and some senior Syrian intelligence officers, which were revealed in the interrogations, are consistent with the suspicion that Syrian intelligence has used Fatah al-Islam to serve its political and security objectives in Lebanon’.”

The SG’s report said that the fighting that erupted at Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on 20 May “posed the most significant challenge to the further extension of Government of Lebanon control over all Lebanese territory during the reporting
period; the fighting signified the most severe violence in Lebanon since the end of the civil war. After 15 weeks — 105 days — the fighting ended on 2 September, when the Lebanese Armed Forces declared victory over the militant Islamist group. It left 168 Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers and approximately 222 militants dead, and hundreds of soldiers, militants and civilians injured; 202 militants were arrested; an additional number have been detained since the fighting ended formally. However, the leader of the group, Shaker Yousef al-Abssi, and a number of other militants escaped. The Lebanese authorities have issued arrest warrants for them”.

SG BAN wrote in the report that in the 8 October letter from PM Siniora, “the Government of Lebanon provided further details on Fatah al-Islam and affirmed that the Government maintained extreme vigilance in pursuing members of Fatah al-Islam who might still be at large, as well as other associates of Fatah al-Islam. However, as the Prime Minister also wrote in his letter, ‘the fact that Government security authority does not yet extend to all of Lebanon’s territory, including Palestinian refugee camps which have been outside Government control since 1969, is undoubtedly a complicating factor’.”

Ban concludes that “In the aftermath of the victory over Fatah al-Islam, it is essential now that the Government of Lebanon and the Lebanese Armed Forces maintain their vigilance and efforts, for the welfare and security of all people living in Lebanon. It is also paramount that political discussions resume among all Lebanese parties, leading them to reaffirm their commitment to the disarmament of Palestinian militias in Lebanon, in fulfilment of the terms of resolution 1559 (2004). I am also deeply conscious of the conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the challenges that arise from them. It is imperative that the close cooperation that has been established between PLO and the Lebanese authorities continue, for the welfare of the Palestinian refugees who already have too often paid the price for the misdeeds of others. I commend both the Government of Lebanon and PLO for their role in re-establishing security in the camps, but call on them to undertake tangible measures now to improve significantly the conditions in which the refugee population lives, without prejudice to the settlement of the Palestinian refugee question in the context of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The United Nations family stands ready to work with our Lebanese and Palestinian partners towards this goal, while we also exert all efforts to help bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement at the earliest time possible”.

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