A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

breaking news, breaking hearts: the news from the north

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 20, 2007

We returned to Beirut late last night – or early this morning, depending on how one defines Lufthansa’s 2:10 am arrival time. It was a lovely trip, and a productive conference, but … its always good to be home. I fell asleep to the sound of the first adhaan, and woke in time to check my email before heading to the gym.

My Lebanon Google alert included a strange story about an attempted bank robbery in north Lebanon that I skimmed thinking: well, at least its a change from the usual political violence.

Obviously, I missed this part of the story:

a security source said the gunmen’s escape car has been identified as one of the vehicles used by the Syrian-sponsored Fatah-Islam terrorist group in north Lebanon’s Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.

The source who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that members of the Group had robbed two banks in the northern town of Tripoli and the southern coastal village of Gaziyeh earlier this year to finance terrorist attacks in Lebanon.

I went off to the gym, where everything was as usual – except for the increasing numbers of middle-aged women on the cardio machines. Summer is here, and that means more pressure to look good – which means that more people come to the gym on weekends.

As usual, I was the only one watching the news – to al-Jazeera, which had a “breaking news” alert about clashes in Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian camp near Tripoli.

As I watched, the reported number of casualties increased – as did the media coverage. Jazeera first reported 5 soldiers, 3 civilians, and 3 Fath al-Islam members killed, under its own attribution. It next reported Agence France Presse saying “more than 10 killed, and several wounded”, before returning to its own correspondent’s estimate, which had increased to 29. What sparked the clashes? An attack on Lebanese soldiers, apparently – following their pursuit of the bank robbers whose story I had marked in my head as ‘entertaining post-gym tea-time reading’.

No one around me appeared to pay particular attention to the news, but when I went down to the ladies’ locker room, I found the lounge room television tuned to Future TV and three women standing there, watching the news.

We all have barometers that we use to indicate when something is wrong. This is one of mine. When my manicured fellow gym goers stand in front of a television broadcasting local news, I know that the news broadcast is alarming.

(This is just a side note, but I noticed a substantial difference in the footage Future was showing, compared to al-Jazeera. Jazeera’s coverage was restricted to one street, somewhat away from the fighting. I saw men on mobiles and one man – a man not in uniform, i.e., Palestinian – with a rifle attached to a tripod, but no fighting, and no blood. Future’s coverage was much closer to the clashes, and included a sustained pan over a dead militant, his blood pooling around him. The intimacy of Future’s coverage made me curious – not only about the channel’s willingness to show blood and death, but also about how exactly its cameramen were able to get to the scene so quickly, and to get so close.)

The volume was up sufficiently high that I could hear the television clearly from two rooms away – a rather unhelpful telephone interview with a local MP, who was going on and on about how Lebanon needs an international tribunal. Some people call Fath al-Islam a Syrian creation; even if it were, the problems that have been festering in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps for the past few months suggest that the group has a very real power of its own.

Anyway. I passed through the lounge on my way out, and my heart fell. On the couch facing the television sat a women, head in her hands, listening to the latest report. Maybe she is from Tripoli; maybe she is Palestinian; maybe she is just sad.

I certainly was sad, walking through the streets of Hamra on my way home. Sunday is a quiet day, with many shops closed. Those that were open all had televisions on and tuned, again, to the news. It reminded me of last summer and the first days of the war – as did the little knots of men gathered in the streets, talking worriedly as neighbors do when something is wrong.

I was sad because watching the news this morning brought home to me something I have often avoided thinking about while in Lebanon: that this is a country with only partial sovereignty. Reuters’ report mentioned that the Lebanese army cannot enter Palestinian camps – the product of a 38 year old agreement with … who, exactly, I wonder. Security there is left to the groups inside the camps – and when they fight, as they have been doing for the past few months, the results can be both chaotic and dangerous – for Lebanese outside as well as Palestinians within.

I try to imagine how life in the United States would differ if our sovereignty were punctured in the same way – not as a decentralized federal system, but as a Swiss cheese country with holes of militarized self-governance that eat away at the solid cheese.

I frequently find it difficult to muster sympathy for the political mess that is Lebanon, which to me often seems largely self-created. And I have never found anything to admire in Lebanon’s treatment of its Palestinian populations – from its forbidding them access to most jobs, to its selective granting of citizenship to Christian Palestinians, decades ago. But the specter of militarized bantustans making a mockery of what sovereignty the country does have makes me question the direction of my sympathies.

Meanwhile I was intending to write a funny post about an entirely different subject. Perhaps this afternoon, when the dust has fully settled.

update, 5:00 pm

This recap and analysis (pasted below) just arrived in my inbox from IRIN, the UN’s humanitarian news service. I’m including it here for context, for those not in Lebanon who may be wondering what on earth I am talking about in this post:

LEBANON: Palestinians face siege after 11 Lebanese soldiers killed

BEIRUT, 20 May 2007 (IRIN) – Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps across Lebanon could face an economic crisis, warned analysts, after 11 Lebanese Army soldiers were killed in heavy clashes with Islamist militants based in Nahr al-Bared camp near the northern city of Tripoli.

In what observers say is the worst fighting to hit Tripoli in two decades, army tanks opened fire on positions inside Nahr al-Bared camp held by militants from Fatah Islam, a Sunni al-Qaeda-styled group. The group’s presence spurred the army to close public access to the camp earlier this year, devastating local incomes.

After suffering its heaviest losses in many years, security analysts predict the Lebanese army may increase its military presence around all Palestinian refugee camps, home to over half of Lebanon’s more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees, further limiting public access and damaging an already fragile economic and social environment.

“The Lebanese army will be shocked by this as they have not normally considered themselves a target for attack,” Timor Goksel, a former United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) spokesman and long-time Lebanon security analyst, told IRIN.

“The army plays a very important internal security function and they will now need to restore their credibility. The army might consider putting camps across Lebanon under a similar kind of siege and all Palestinians could suffer. There might be more bloodshed,” he added.

Under a decades-old agreement with Lebanon, internal security in the camps is left to the Palestinians, predominantly the Fatah party, which is the largest faction and a secular rival to the less popular Fatah Islam.

Bank robbery triggers violence

Sunday’s violence began shortly after dawn when police raided a militant-occupied apartment on a major thoroughfare in Tripoli. Authorities said police were looking for suspects of a bank robbery a day earlier in Amyoun, a town southeast of Tripoli, in which gunmen made off with US $125,000 in cash. Local media reported the gunmen to be members of Fatah Islam.

The armed militants resisted arrest and a gun battle ensued. It spread to surrounding streets and continued through the afternoon.

Witnesses said Fatah Islam militants then seized the lightly defended Lebanese army checkpoints at the entrance to Nahr al-Bared, capturing two armoured carriers. The gunmen also opened fire on roads leading to the city and ambushed a military unit travelling through Koura, killing four soldiers, security officials said.

Smoke billowed from the camp as a steady barrage of artillery and heavy machine gun fire from army positions pounded militant positions inside the refugee camp. Palestinian sources inside the camp said a least a dozen civilians had been wounded in the fighting.

Abu Saleem Taher, spokesman for Fatah Islam, told IRIN from inside the camp that militants from the group had attacked the army in retaliation for an incident the previous day in which he claimed Lebanese soldiers had opened fire on Fatah Islam members as they entered the camp. The army was not immediately available for comment on the allegation.

“God is testing us”

“God is testing us and we will serve his cause,” said Taher. “We are ready to continue our fight against the Lebanese army and we know that our brothers in the other camps will not stand still if the situation continues.”

As he spoke, the sounds of gunfire and heavy artillery could be heard in what are continuing clashes between soldiers and militants around the edge of the camp.

Security in and around Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, which are off-limits to the authorities, has been breaking down steadily over the past month, with deadly gun battles between rival militants in Ayn al-Helway, the largest and most lawless of the camps, near the southern port city of Sidon.

“We are really afraid about what is happening and we don’t want these people in our camp,” Abu Raheja, a Nahr al-Bared shopkeeper, told IRIN. “Fatah Islam is not letting the wounded and civilians leave the camp. They are using us as human bullet vests,” he said.

Lebanon’s leaders appealed for calm, denouncing Fatah Islam. Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni-dominated parliament, called on the people of Tripoli to cooperate with the Lebanese army. “Everyone knows these terrorists are criminals and have no relation to Islam,” he told LBC Television.

Syria’s Interior Ministry said it had closed two border crossings from north Lebanon at Arydha and Daboussyah in response to the clashes.


2 Responses to “breaking news, breaking hearts: the news from the north”

  1. intlxpatr said

    Oh sweetie, this is not good. Such a sad time, for all Lebanon, for all those who want to work together and cobble together a peace that will hold and allow Lebanon to thrive. . .

  2. […] I remember being sad then, and the memory of the conflict and how long it lasted makes me sad now. […]

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