Lebanon: 30,000 civilians caught in crossfire

BEIRUT (IPS) — Palestinians inside Lebanon have been in a quandary as to how to assist the more than 30,000 residents of the densely populated Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon, where thousands are still trapped after fighting between Lebanese Army units and members of a Sunni Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, broke out May 20.

Ashraf Abu-Khorj, a camp resident, spoke to Inter Press Service in the middle of the shelling on the second day of fighting. Khorj said that the situation was growing increasingly dire, as he and his neighbors felt that no one was acting to put an end to the situation peacefully.

“There is no water,” he said. “The food supplies are decreasing. People can’t leave the camp. People were not expecting this to happen. We are unprepared. Our neighbor was killed, and he is still in the room and his body is starting to smell within the house.”

The Lebanese Army has been pounding the camp relentlessly with artillery rounds and tank fire. With a camp this densely populated, human rights groups have pleaded with the Lebanese government to recommit to a more peaceful means of dealing with Fatah al-Islam.

Since the fighting erupted, at least 27 civilians have been killed and 125 injured, including at least 30 children, according to aid groups. Of the more than 30,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in the camp prior to the violence, more than 15,000 have sought refuge in the Beddawi camp near Beirut. Many families have made the journey by foot. The population of the Beddawi camp has doubled in size.

Palestinians in Lebanon face severe legal restrictions. Most Palestinians in refugee camps cannot legally work, trapping at least 60 percent of them in poverty. Palestinian children are effectively excluded from Lebanese public schools. About 60 percent of the young adults have not completed basic education at least in part because of the poor learning environment in the camps, according to Save the Children.

The fighting was touched off in the northern coastal city of Tripoli when the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, ISF, raided a house believed to have been the hideout of suspects in a bank robbery committed in the nearby town of Amyoun.

Sources in Tripoli say the gun battle quickly escalated to massive street fighting between the ISF and the well-armed gunmen believed now to be members of Fatah al-Islam. The Lebanese Army was called in after members of the group stormed army installations on the outskirts of the Naher al-Bared refugee camp just north of Tripoli. At least 30 people from the Lebanese security forces have been killed in the fighting.

Although there are no clear numbers, at least 15 Fatah al-Islam members have been killed, with some reports circulating that at least some of those killed were Lebanese Sunni fighters and foreign fighters — possibly even Afghanis or Saudis.

Palestinian religious leaders had sent repeated calls to the Lebanese Army to stop the shelling of the camp in order to avoid further civilian casualties.

In a television interview with the al-Jazeera, between Sheikh Lababidi, a Sunni Palestinian religious leader, made an appeal on behalf of the camp residents.

“Everyone, ourselves included, has spoken out against the attacks on the [Lebanese] army. But who is saying no to the army’s assault? Are the people in the camps mosquitoes?

“Let the wise speak up. There are a thousand ways to stop Fatah al-Islam. This is not the way,” Lababidi said.

Before the fighting began, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s U.S.-backed government was already in the throes of a political crisis. The political opposition, led by the Shia party Hezbollah, began demonstrations last December demanding the resignation of Siniora and his cabinet after last summer’s disastrous war with Israel left the country’s infrastructure shattered and some 1,200 Lebanese dead.

Top Lebanese officials have asked the United States for $280 million in military assistance to curb al-Qaeda-style operations in Lebanon. Military sources say that the United States sent Lebanon approximately $40 million in military assistance in 2006.

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