Local people against rebuilding of Palestinian refugee camp

All three men were family from Bibnin, a village overlooking north Lebanon’s Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, and, said cousin Rawa Fiyad after praying for the dead Lebanese soldiers, all were proud to sacrifice their lives fighting for their country.

After a 15-week battle against the Al-Qaeda-styled extremists of Fatah al-Islam that badly overstretched Lebanon’s poorly resourced army, Defence Minister Elias Murr announced an end to major combat operations following final heavy fighting on 2 September, as most remaining militants were killed attempting to flee the camp.

Murr said a total of 222 Fatah al-Islam militants had been killed and 202 captured, since the outbreak of the conflict on 20 May. The army lost 163 soldiers, with another 400-500 soldiers wounded, many of them permanently disabled.

At least 33 civilians were also killed in the bloody standoff that had forced the camp's over 40,000 residents to flee, many of them to the already over-crowded Beddawi camp, 10km away.

Officials are waiting for the results of a second DNA test on a body believed to be that of Fatah al-Islam leader Shaker al-Abssi, whose wife identified his body at a hospital morgue.

“Why should we rebuild the camp?”

The government has pledged to rebuild the camp and is hosting a donor conference on 10 September in coordination with the Palestinian relief organisation, UNRWA, to raise money for Nahr al-Bared’s reconstruction.

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However, problems of unexploded ordnance, unsafe buildings and the danger of disease inside the devastated camp will take many months to overcome before reconstruction can even begin, and the government is now facing a growing chorus of anger from local residents such as Rawa Fiyad, who say they do not want to see Nahr al-Bared rebuilt at all.

“Why should we rebuild the camp? The Palestinians brought destruction to this area, so let another, wealthier country host them,” she said.

“The Palestinians protected Fatah al-Islam in their camp and they took money from them,” said `mukhtar’ (local official) Jamal Abu Khalil, who said he nearly died after being shot by a sniper from inside the camp. “They are betrayers, so we decided as civilians that we will fight the Palestinians - and the Lebanese army if they try and rebuild the camp.”

Palestinian leaders in Lebanon have roundly condemned Fatah al-Islam, which broke from Damascus-based Palestinian group Fatah Intifada in November last year. Among dozens of former residents of Nahr al-Bared interviewed since April by IRIN on the subject of Fatah al-Islam, none supported the group.

Still no temporary shelters

Though it pledged in June to build temporary accommodation for Palestinians displaced by the fighting, UNRWA has yet to secure any land where building work could begin. UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda al-Turk told IRIN an initial three plots of land near Nahr al-Bared had been leased on which UNRWA offices, a school and temporary refugee accommodation could be constructed, but she was unable to provide details of how many displaced people could be housed on the plots.


Photo: Hugh Macleod/IRIN
Rawa Fiyad lost three of her relatives during the Lebanese army’s three-and-a-half-month battle against Fatah al-Islam militants in Nahr al-Bared camp

Spare land on the edge of Beddawi camp has been rejected by Palestinian local leaders, who say displaced refugees want to live as close to Nahr al-Bared as possible.

In Bhanine, a small town just 5km south of the camp, Akkar provincial official Abu Talal Wehbe has already opposed a Palestinian request that an open plot of land be used to build some 80 apartment blocks to house displaced refugees.

Not everyone is opposed to the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared.

“The camp can be rebuilt but it must be put under control of the Lebanese army,” said Lebanese Rifat Fatfat, whose home-ware business on the road leading to the edge of Nahr al-Bared lost an estimated US$10,000 during the 106 days it was closed.

Palestinians “should start paying taxes”

But, said Fatfat, Palestinians in Lebanon should now live as Lebanese. “They are not going home to Palestine, so they must be settled here, and they should start paying taxes like the rest of us.”

Lebanon’s 12 official refugee camps, home to just over half the country’s 400,000 Palestinians, have long been off-limits to the army, originally under the 1969 Cairo Agreement.


Photo: Hugh Macleod/IRIN
Khaled Saadi once owned a shop in Nahr al-Bared’s central marketplace. With much of that area now destroyed, the Palestinian has a new shop on the road leading into the camp, but still hopes to return to home soon

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the rebuilt camp would be placed under the authority of the state. Analysts predict the precedent may be used to alter the autonomous Palestinian security arrangements in the remaining 11 other official camps.

The issue of settling Palestinians in Lebanon is a highly vexed one, due to the refugees’ unwillingness to give up their right to return to Palestine and because of the threat of upsetting the sensitive sectarian demographic on which Lebanon is run.

Palestinian Khaled Saadi saw his market shop in Nahr al-Bared lose up to three quarters of its business in the run-up to the outbreak of the conflict. He has now set up a new shop next door to Fatfat’s, buying goods on credit from Lebanese dealers, and said he supports the army’s right to control security inside Nahr al-Bared.

But Saadi refused to accept settlement in Lebanon.

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