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Expert: Lebanon Standoff Unlikely to Spread to other Refugee Camps

Tension between an Islamist group holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and the Lebanese army is unlikely to spill over into other Palestinian refugee camps, a Middle East expert has said.


Fatah Al-Islam, a group said to be linked with Al-Qa’ida, has been engaged in a standoff with the Lebanese army in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr Al-Barid since May 20. 


But Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri from the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan downplayed speculation that the standoff would embolden Palestinian refugees elsewhere and cause uprisings against local governments.


Promoting the Palestinian cause might be mentioned in passing but it is not Fatah Al-Islam’s primary focus, and Palestinian groups are disassociating themselves from the group, he said.


The fighting in the Nahr Al-Barid refugee camp began on May 20 in the northern city Tripoli, near the camp. Lebanese security forces stormed a safe house in Tripoli, where suspects were being pursued over an armed robbery.


More than 70 people, including Lebanese soldiers, Islamist fighters and unarmed civilians have been killed so far in the ensuing clashes.


Lebanese army artillery attacked positions at the edge of the camp on Tuesday, reportedly to prevent Islamist fighters from fleeing. Sporadic clashes have continued since a shaky truce was put in place last week. Tuesday’s renewed fighting was the worst outbreak of violence in a week.


Hundreds of soldiers, backed by tanks and armored carriers, are deployed on the outskirts of the camp ready to storm it.


The Lebanese government is reluctant to take any drastic military steps, due to the potential casualties this could cause among the remaining refugees in the camp.


Lebanon’s decision-makers disagree over whether to allow more time for a diplomatic solution, or to resolve it through a military operation.


The latter idea has more support from countries in the region and from the United States, Zweiri said. The group’s main aim was to fight Israel, he explained.


“They have no intentions of creating problems in Lebanon. At least that’s what they are saying.”


As long as the group aligns itself with Al-Qa’ida and its ideology, Lebanon’s decision-makers will be more determined to wipe them out, Zweiri added.


Nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Lebanon. About 30,000 refugees live in Nahr Al-Barid.


Refugees in Lebanon often complain of being treated as second-class citizens, but Zweiri does not believe Fatah Al-Islam’s current actions are part of a campaign to promote Palestinian rights.


The Lebanese government and Palestinian groups are trying to detach themselves from Fatah Al-Islam, which they describe as an extremist group.


A cartoon in the Palestinian daily Al-Hayyat Al-Jadida captures the position of Palestinian officialdom. The cartoon shows a masked man holding Nahr Al-Barid – in the form of a veiled Palestinian woman – hostage.


Officials have also been outspoken in denying any connection between Fatah Al-Islam and the Palestinian cause.


Fatah Al-Islam “must not exploit the Palestinian camps to fuel the fire of civil strife,” said Jamal Abu A-Rub, a Palestinian lawmaker with Fatah.


According to the Palestine Press Agency, he called to make a distinction between the “traditional” Palestinian factions and outside organizations, which he said had “no link to Palestine or to the national Palestinian struggle.”


“I think there is an understanding that the Fatah Al-Islam phenomenon and what’s going on has no connection to the Palestinian situation,” Zweiri said. “There is no concern that this will have any impact on other Palestinian refugees in the region.”


More than four million Palestinian are registered as refugees with UNRWA in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.


Fatah Al-Islam was formed last year as a breakaway of a pro-Syrian group. The group is suspected of being behind a deadly bombing in February in which three people were killed. The group denies any connection to the attack.


Some believe Syria is using the group to destabilize Lebanon after Syria reluctantly withdrew its forces from the country in April 2005. Syria denies these accusations.


The group has vowed to fight until death. Its leader, Shaker Al-‘Absi, said the group would fight “the Jews, the Americans and their loyalists,” according to a message carried by Al-Jazeera television channel.


As many as 25,000 of Nahr Al-Barid’s 30,000 residents have fled the camp since the fighting began.