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31 May 2007

Refugee camp siege compounds Lebanon's deep political crisis

TRANSPORT PLANES carrying US military aid for Lebanon's army arrived at Beirut airport, on 25 May, following an 'appeal' from the Lebanese government. Lebanese troops spent the last week fighting Islamist forces in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, near Tripoli. The camp is one of several created in Lebanon after the 1948 war which led to the establishment of Israel.
Thousands of people have fled the camp, as aid workers struggle to bring food and medicine to thousands still inside.
Around 50 soldiers and Islamist fighters are reportedly killed so far and the civilian death toll is unknown, although estimated to be in the hundreds. The Islamists have vowed to fight to the death. The Lebanese army says it will annihilate them. The conflict was triggered when Lebanese forces raided a building in nearby Tripoli after a bank robbery. Fatah al-lslam forces attacked army posts near the Nahr al-Bared camp.

The Lebanese army then bombarded the refugee camp. Lebanon has been in deep political crisis for two years. Current prime minister, Fouad Siniora,and the "14th March Forces" that were formed after the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, two years ago, cling to power with Western backing, while pro-Syrian, Shia Islamist Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (led by Christian Maronite general Michel Aoun) supporters demand the Siniora government's removal.
The following report from CWl member, AYSHA ZAKS, in Beirut, looks at the politics behind the new conflict and the way out of the deepening crisis for the working class.

INTENSE FIGHTING between the Lebanese Army and the al-Qa'ida-type network, Fatah al-slam, has led to nearly 100 deaths and hundreds injured. Many innocent Palestinian women, children and old people have been caught in the crossfire.

The Sunni Islamic terrorist group launched attacks on the Lebanese army from inside the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp, outside Tripoli. It is said to be using Palestinian resi¬dents as human shields.

The army is reinforcing its posi¬tions around the camp, with heav¬ier equipment, and stepping up its shelling of buildings, where Fatah al-Islam members are believed to have taken refuge. Brief truces have been agreed after talks between Palestinian officials and prime min¬ister Siniora in Beirut, to allow humanitarian organisations to evacuate the wounded.

It is not a coincidence that this Sunni Islamic group is finding refuge in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared - which is situated in the Sunni-dominated Tripoli city, with some of the worst economic and social conditions in Lebanon. Palestinians in Lebanon, the majority of whom are second and third generation refugees, are still without any basic rights - like the right to work or to hold property ownership. They are forced to live in segregated and overcrowded run¬down camps.

Nahr al-Bared is home to an estimated 40,000 refugees. From this population, thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes since the fighting started. Protesters in the other camps have called for an immediate ceasefire and for humanitarian assistance. Water and power supplies have been cut off since fighting began on Sunday.

Reports say that residents near Nahr al-Bared took up arms and joined the battle alongside the army while several followers of the Future Movement (led by Saad Hariri, younger son of Rank Hariri) living near the camp expressed their will¬ingness to assist the army.

Fatah al-Islam, which has been hitting back with machine guns and grenades, threatened to expand its attacks if the army continued to bomb the camp, claiming the bat¬tle will spread to outside Tripoli, setting Beirut in flames. This group is thought to have 200 members in Nahr al-Bared but to have links with other groups in other refugee camps. One of the fighters killed last Sunday was Saddam Hajj Dib,

a suspect in a plot to blow up trains in Germany, last July. A second dead fighter was identified as Abu Yazan, accused of responsibility for the 13 February 2007 bus bombings in Ain Alaq, in which three died and 20 were wounded. Fatah Al Islam said they have members who have fought in Iraq against the US troops and have former soldiers from the Jordanian and Syrian armies.

Anger in Camps

PEOPLE'S MAIN concern is that the Nahr al-Bared clash will trigger reaction in the other Palestinian camps. Members of the Jund al-Sham group, in Sidon's Ain al-Hilweh camp, demonstrated their armed strength to the Lebanese Army a few days ago. Jund al-Sham gunmen clashed with Fatah (PLQ) members, on 7 May, and killed two of their members.

Representatives of the main Palestinian factions are offering their help in fighting Islamic groups but have expressed concern over the lives of innocent civilians being put at risk. The Lebanese govern¬ment is debating whether to send the army into the Nahr al-Bared camp.

The Palestinian refugee issue has re-emerged, with criticism over the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which bans Lebanese security forces from entering the camps and which allowed the arming of Palestinian groups. Commentators say similar clashes in 1975 developed into a 15-year long civil war.

A representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Leb¬anon, Abbas Zaki, called on ordinary Palestinians not to be drawn into the matter because they, as much as the Lebanese, consider Fatah al-Islam a dangerous terrorist group that threatens their safety.

Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, which is the main force along with Hizbol-lah in the government opposition, holds the Siniora government responsible for the fighting. The FPM has said this conflict could spread to other parts of Lebanon and terrorist attacks could increase, targeting Lebanese civilians.

Aoun accused the government of "blatant neglect" and of "pure incompetence." He said the army is not to be blamed but rather the government. This criticism was echoed by other opposition sup¬porters, who blamed the Siniora government for previously ignoring the arming and funding of the Islamic Sunni groups, while calling for the Shiite resistance, Hezbollah, to disarm. This is seen as serving the interests of the US in the Mid¬dle East and causing divisions and sectarian conflicts.

The 'Iraqisation' of Lebanon is now a well-worn term here in Lebanon, particularly after recent bombings in Beirut. The deepening crisis and chaos is used on both sides of the political divide to gain advantage. On the one hand, the Siniora government blames Syria for allowing Sunni Islamist armed groups to cross the border. Some government spokespeople go as far as to accuse Syrian officials of funding and arming these groups, while, at the same time, pro-Syria Hezbollah refuses to disarm and is encouraged by Syria.

On the other hand, some of the opposition accuses the Sunni-led government of being behind such armed Islamist groups, in order to serve US interests. There is also speculation that the Lebanese army will use the crisis to make a coup bid.

What is clear is that the situation is spiraling fast out of control and that both government and opposi¬tion are trying to exploit it. Of course, workers and the poor across the country, innocent Palestinians and Lebanese, are paying the high¬est price for the conflict. While this is going on, Israeli warplanes hover in our skies.

Workers need united movement

WE NEED a united workers' move¬ment to oppose the conflict and to pull together working people of all confessional backgrounds. Social¬ists oppose the indiscriminate and brutal army attacks on Nahr al-Bared camp, which are slaughtering many civilians. We demand an end to imperialist meddling in Lebanon and the region, and also oppose the intervention of the oppressive Syri¬an regime.

Socialists also oppose the policies and methods of Fatah al-Islam and other like groups. Political Islam and terrorism, which divides the working class, is no solution for the impoverished Palestinians or Lebanese workers.

Working people in Lebanon need their own powerful voice in opposition to the governing parties.

Hezbollah emerged from last year's war with Israel with huge support for its resistance, but it is clear this movement cannot unite workers and poor from all confes¬sional backgrounds and neither does it stand for a fundamental break from capitalism.

The current crisis makes a diffi¬cult situation for the working class. But there is strong opposition to the corrupt, pro-capitalist parties and their neo-liberal policies.

The working class must oppose the slide towards sectarian and confessional conflict. Workers' democratically elected committees, in the workplaces and in communities, can develop ind¬ependent organised working-class organisations.

This class opposition is needed to oppose the corrupt elite and to abolish the conditions which breed confessional and sectarian divisions and terrorism.

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