How long will the state erect military checkpoints in residential areas, treating them as though they were camps sheltering wanted people and gunmen, while all the Palestinian camps, which shelter criminals and wanted people, enjoy freedom of movement, politically, militarily and in terms of security, as though they were security islands independent of Lebanon politically, militarily and in terms of security?

—Jibran Tuwayni, al-Nahar (July 18, 2002)

The view expressed by assassinated Lebanese Member of Parliament and editorialist Jibran Tuwayni has become depressingly familiar among Lebanese politicians since the end of the Lebanese civil war. Though Tuwayni was a firebrand of what is now the loyalist camp in Lebanese politics, his perspective is also shared by elements of the current opposition, particularly members of the parliamentary bloc loyal to former Gen. Michel Aoun. There may be more than a grain of truth in the saying that the only thing that unites the Lebanese political factions today is antipathy for the Palestinians living in their midst.

The 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, home to some 400,000 people according to official UN figures, [1] have been perceived in the past decade and a half as zones of lawlessness within sovereign Lebanese territory. They are regularly described by politicians and pundits as “security islands,” the implication being that they are regions of insecurity in a sea of peace. Anyone who has been following events since the civil war formally ended in 1989, of course, will know that Lebanon has not been fully secure during this time. Moreover, the camps are not the only parts of the country that have witnessed the occasional violent flareup. Yet the impression persists that they are safe havens for criminals and outlaws.

It is against this backdrop that the summer 2007 events in the northernmost Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Barid must be seen. When fighting broke out in and around the camp in late May, some commentators blamed it on the fact that the camps were hotbeds of extremism that defied all efforts by Lebanese security forces to bring them under control. Indeed, many reports stated that the Lebanese army and security forces were prevented from entering the camps due to a secret agreement struck between the Lebanese army and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Cairo in 1969. Widely known as the Cairo Agreement, the document authorized Palestinian Armed Struggle, a security arm of the PLO, to “undertake the task of regulating and determining the presence of arms in the camps within the framework of Lebanese security and the interests of the Palestinian revolution,” according to an unofficial text that was later leaked to the press. [2] What these press reports missed, however, was that the agreement was officially rescinded by the Lebanese parliament on May 21, 1987, exactly 20 years before clashes erupted in Nahr al-Barid. There is therefore no legal barrier to the entry of Lebanese troops into the Palestinian refugee camps. In fact, Lebanese army checkpoints are positioned at the entrances of most Palestinian refugee camps and Lebanese police regularly enter the camps to arrest suspects and carry out other functions. [3]

If they are not really the islands of insecurity that they are claimed to be, why are the refugee camps represented as such? One answer is surely that Palestinians have long served as a convenient scapegoat upon which to blame the civil war and Lebanon’s ills since that war came to an end with the Ta’if Agreement in 1989. But this answer leads to another question: If there is a serious interest in eliminating “security islands” on the part of the state, why has the Lebanese army not entered the Palestinian refugee camps? The answer to that question is somewhat more complex. Arguably, in the fragmented quasi-state that is post-war Lebanon, it suits the interests of various groups to maintain pockets of the country that can be blamed for outbreaks of instability. Different factions can use them to foment unrest, while maintaining “plausible deniability” that they are the instigators of the disturbances. The losers in this dangerous political game are primarily the refugees themselves.

Fatah al-Islam

Fighting broke out in Nahr al-Barid on May 20 after a group designating itself Fatah al-Islam launched a dramatic nighttime raid against the Lebanese army, resulting in the deaths of 27 Lebanese soldiers, some of them killed in their beds. At least some of these militants then allegedly withdrew to locations within Nahr al-Barid, prompting the army to unleash an artillery barrage upon the refugee camp, which is also home to some 35,000 (mainly) Palestinian civilians. The camp is a densely packed neighborhood of ramshackle concrete buildings, some three or four stories high. It is bordered to the east by a swath of agricultural land and is located on the outskirts of Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli.

Reports differ widely as to the provenance and motivation of the Fatah al-Islam group. Most accounts agree that it is composed of a few hundred fighters of various Arab and Muslim nationalities (including Lebanese, Syrians, Saudi Arabians and others). [4] The Lebanese opposition claims that they were largely the creation of the loyalist Future Movement led by MP Saad al-Hariri, while the government accuses them of being a Syrian implant that infiltrated the country through the porous Syrian border. Though the subsequent fighting has arguably not been in the interest of either the government or the opposition, each side may have had some motivation for encouraging Fatah al-Islam in the first place and for allowing it to set up shop in Nahr al-Barid. For pro-government forces such as the Sunni-dominated Future Movement, there would have been a point to arming a Sunni militia to serve as a counterweight to the Shi‘i Hizballah. The aim might not have been to take on the powerful Hizballah militarily, but instead to strike a bargain to disarm the Sunni militia in return for the disarmament of Hizballah. For the opposition groups and especially their Syrian patrons, fomenting unrest may have been desirable in order to topple the government or put pressure upon it not to pursue its anti-Syrian and pro-Western policies. Whatever its origin, Fatah al-Islam may have outmaneuvered both groups and acted independently in attacking the army and engaging it in a protracted firefight in the camp that, at press time, was well into its third month.

Eyewitnesses inside the camp have said that civilian casualties were heavy in the first few days of fighting. A physician who was attending to the wounded for the first four weeks of the conflict told us that there were 17 civilians injured just in the first three days, and an unknown number of dead who were not brought to clinics. Throughout the clashes, it has been difficult to obtain precise civilian casualty figures and it has been widely feared that many civilians were buried in the ruins of the camp. [5] Human rights activists have warned that if independent observers were not given access to the camp as soon as clashes ended, the bodies of the dead might be bulldozed under the rubble. Since fighting erupted without warning, many camp residents were unable to flee and were caught in the crossfire. The first mass evacuation took place on May 23, when 2,000 civilians were allowed to leave. Subsequent days and weeks witnessed a steady stream of evacuees, until Lebanese papers reported that all civilians had left the camp in one final convoy on July 12, apart from the militants’ families and some “wanted” individuals. [6]

When we asked Milad Salama, a nurse in his twenties, why civilians stayed in Nahr al-Barid after the first outbreak of hostilities, he said: “I would turn that question around: How could we leave?” He said no one provided residents with the wherewithal to evacuate the camp, adding that “evacuation was spontaneous” and took place under shelling. He had left on June 17, after four weeks of fighting. He said that he and an accompanying physician, Tawfiq Salih As‘ad, were the last health professionals to evacuate the camp. Together they told a tale of harrowing conditions inside the besieged camp. Salama personally carried stretchers to houses that had been shelled in order to evacuate the wounded. The alleyway outside their clinic was so narrow that two people could scarcely pass each other, yet artillery shells fell into it on more than one occasion. Garbage accumulated at every corner, vermin were rife, mosquitoes swarmed everywhere, and cases of vomiting and diarrhea were common. They gathered fuel from parked cars to supply their single generator to keep essential electrical equipment running and to charge mobile phones for communication with the outside world, they ate moldy bread and drank non-potable water, and performed their medical duties as best they could. When they could no longer do so, they managed to get themselves out.

All men evacuated from the camp were detained by the Lebanese army for interrogation. Salama described a three-day ordeal during which he was held in detention at a military base at al-Qubba near Tripoli. He said that 420 men and boys, some of them as young as 13, were held in three rooms with a common bathroom. They slept on the floor, taking turns to lie down due to overcrowding. Though he was not physically abused or tortured, he said that some of those with him were, merely for being bearded or wearing a kaffiyya. But all were subject to verbal abuse, particularly “crude expressions about the Palestinian people.” Numerous others corroborate Salama’s account. Young men in Beirut have even been arrested and physically abused merely for carrying Palestinian identity papers.

Model Camp?

Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr declared victory in Nahr al-Barid on June 21, after a month of continuous bombardment. The fighting showed no sign of abating, however, and wags have subsequently compared the bold proclamation to President George W. Bush’s ill-fated “Mission Accomplished” statement. Murr’s intent seems to have been to declare victory, then designate all subsequent fighting as “mopping-up operations.” But live images from the camp showed no sign that the fighting had changed pace: Hulking artillery pieces continued to pound the camp from the overlooking hills as helicopter gunships strafed it from the air. The victory declaration seemed to have been designed to appeal to a largely supportive Lebanese public, which was hungry for a positive result after a month of fighting, as well as to the troops themselves, whose morale could not have been high given the relatively large number of casualties (more than 100 soldiers dead in the first two months) sustained against an outnumbered and besieged adversary. [7]

Even though the Lebanese government may not have been raring for a fight with Fatah al-Islam, very soon after the conflict began, it began to make plans to rebuild the camp and transform it into a “model” for the other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. In the neo-liberal discourse of the state, the most charitable interpretation of this notion would involve converting the camp into a Potemkin village, housing cheap Palestinian labor to replace the Syrian manual labor upon which the Lebanese agricultural, industrial, service and construction sectors are still heavily dependent. If the other camps were to follow suit, they would no longer be an eyesore for the foreign investors and tourists that the Lebanese government is so eager to attract, and the country’s dependence on Syrian labor would be reduced. In the more sinister reading, the government’s plans would require transforming Nahr al-Barid and other camps into ghettos that are constantly under the watchful eye, or more likely the iron fist, of the intelligence services — a situation reminiscent in some respects of the 1950s and 1960s, when Lebanese military intelligence’s notorious Deuxième Bureau reigned supreme in the camps. [8]

Within a couple of weeks of the beginning of the violence, local television stations showed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora poring over maps of the camp with engineers and architects from the engineering consulting firm Khatib and Alami. A move to rebuild Nahr al-Barid according to the dictates of the Lebanese government had begun almost as soon as the conflict began, as though the government knew that the army would embark on a systematic destruction of the camp. But reconstruction plans do not seem to have had the welfare of the refugees in mind and there has been no real attempt to involve the residents of Nahr al-Barid themselves in rebuilding the camp, an attitude that makes them understandably nervous. At one meeting of local NGOs with representatives from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in late June, tension over this issue was palpable. Meeting near the entrance of Baddawi camp, where many of those from Nahr al-Barid have sought refuge, local aid workers expressed their concerns to the UNRWA officials who are in close contact with the government. They spoke of rumors that bulldozers were poised to enter the camps, as soon as the guns fell silent, to raze what had not been destroyed by military ordnance. A few weeks later, the Lebanese press reported that bulldozers equipped with searchlights were indeed being readied behind the front lines to destroy the remaining structures and remove the rubble. [9]

When UNRWA officials told those assembled that a return to the camp could only take place some three weeks after the fighting had stopped, one former resident of Nahr al-Barid pointed out that the people who were displaced during Israel’s summer 2006 bombardment of Lebanon had returned to their homes in the south within hours of the ceasefire, and that there was no reason that Palestinian refugees could not do the same. But another camp resident, who works for a local NGO that runs child care centers in most of the Palestinian refugee camps, shook her head despairingly and muttered under her breath: “They returned because [Hizballah Secretary-General Hasan] Nasrallah told them to. We don’t have a marja‘iyya.” In this context, the Arabic term marja‘iyya refers to a political leadership that can represent people’s views and respond to their grievances.

Rights and Return

One common complaint among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is lack of political representation. The gap was thought to have been filled by the appointment in May 2006 of Abbas Zaki of Fatah as the PLO representative in Lebanon, a position that had been dormant for several years. The crisis in Nahr al-Barid, however, has shown Zaki to be very loath to criticize Lebanese policies or the conduct of the Lebanese army. His attitude has made it all the more evident that the Palestinian refugees need grassroots representation that would give voice to their concerns rather than a diplomatic mission from the Palestinian Authority to the Lebanese government.

Rather more pressing than the absence of political leadership is the lack of basic civil and social rights for Palestinian refugees. Nearly 60 years after the establishment of the state of Israel displaced and dispossessed them, Palestinians in Lebanon are still without such basic rights as the right to employment, property ownership, health care and social security. In a brief moment of cooperation among the principal Lebanese political actors after the Syrian military withdrawal in April 2005 and before Israel’s war in July-August 2006, the government took a few timid steps to change their circumstances. Palestinians were allowed to work in some jobs provided they were granted a work permit—whose cost is, however, prohibitive for most of them. Most professional jobs remain closed to Palestinians and there is no sign that that will change. Doctors like Tawfiq As‘ad can only practice medicine within the refugee camps; although some work clandestinely at Lebanese clinics, they are always at risk of being fined or arrested by the authorities.

The justification traditionally given by Lebanese officialdom for the deplorable conditions of Palestinian refugees is that withholding civil rights ensures that their presence in Lebanon is temporary. The bugbear of resettlement or naturalization (tawtin) is regularly invoked in Lebanon to justify all manner of abuse against Palestinians, and prohibitions on tawtin are written into the Lebanese constitution as well as the Ta’if Agreement. But while the vast majority of refugees themselves insist on their right to return to Palestine, most also say that this should not preclude their ability to enjoy basic human rights in Lebanon. Indeed, many argue that it is only if their civil rights are granted that they can be empowered as a community to demand redress in the context of a regional settlement.

Lasting Impact

Ironically, it is not the return to Palestine, but rather the return to their refugee camp that is now the immediate concern of the inhabitants of Nahr al-Barid. Though this has been their consistent demand, it is unlikely that they will be allowed to do so when the conflict is over. The Lebanese authorities and UNRWA have cited the fact that the camp has been mined and booby-trapped by the Fatah al-Islam militants to justify preventing the refugees from returning to their homes as soon as the fighting stops. [10] It has also become increasingly evident that there will be few if any habitable buildings left to return to due to massive artillery bombardment by the Lebanese military. The director of UNRWA recently confirmed that the refugees would not be allowed back quickly, saying that temporary accommodations would have to be found for them elsewhere while the camp was being rebuilt. [11]

Despite the fact that most Lebanese politicians have been careful to point out that Fatah al-Islam is not a Palestinian group and that the majority of its members hold other nationalities, the legacy of the battle for Nahr al-Barid is likely to be tough times for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The security clampdown on Palestinians has already been launched, leading to many cases of physical abuse. According to Human Rights Watch, both the army and the Internal Security Forces have engaged in wanton harassment of innocent Palestinian civilians. [12] During a peaceful demonstration just outside Baddawi refugee camp on June 29, two protesters were shot dead and dozens more wounded by the army. Human Rights Watch accused the Lebanese Army of an “unlawful use of force” and called on the government to launch an impartial investigation into the shooting.

The US seems as devoted to this conflict as the Lebanese government, quickly coming to the aid of the Lebanese army with supplies. The transfer of military aid was effected in record time and has continued throughout the fighting. US military hardware was first delivered on May 25, when several transport planes flew into the Beirut airport, carrying ammunition and equipment for the Lebanese army; the following day more planes arrived from US military bases as well as from US client states in the region. US military aid to Lebanon has increased dramatically, from $40 million in 2006 to a requested $280 million in 2007. [13] Most of this military aid is not of the type that would help the army defend the country’s borders, such as anti-aircraft weapons to deter the constant Israeli overflights of Lebanese territory. Rather, it is the kind of hardware that will enhance the army’s ability to deal with internal “disturbances,” whose main victims are usually civilians.

The conflict in and around the refugee camp could inaugurate a new era for Lebanon, one of a security-obsessed regime in which all citizens are potential suspects in an extended “war on terror.” Physical and verbal abuse by the security forces has broadened beyond the Palestinians to include any suspicious-looking individual, preferably young, male, bearded and swarthy, in a Lebanese version of racial profiling. [14] There are also clear signs of jingoism among the general populace. [15] Despite the fact that the country is sharply divided by a political and sectarian schism, most factions are united in backing the army and demanding a tough clampdown on Palestinians and other suspect elements. If Lebanon does not fall apart due to internal strife, it may yet turn into another Middle Eastern police state.


[1] Some estimates put the number of Palestinian refugees at closer to 250,000, since their numbers have been depleted by immigration, and to a lesser extent, by naturalization. See Sherif Elsayed-Ali, “Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon,” Forced Migration Review 26 (August 2006), pp. 13–14.

[2] An English translation of the agreement is posted at

[3] Jaber Suleiman, “The Current Political, Organizational and Security Situation in the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Lebanon,” Journal of Palestine Studies 29/1 (Autumn 1999).

[4] For more on events leading up to the fighting and Fatah al-Islam’s origins, see Jim Quilty, “The Collateral Damage of Lebanese Sovereignty,” Middle East Report Online, June 18, 2007.

[5] At press time, the numbers of dead were estimated at 136 soldiers, at least 100 militants and at least 41 civilians. Reuters, August 13, 2007. In addition, 65 individuals have been detained and charged with terrorism, which carries the death penalty in Lebanon. Al-Jazeera English, August 1, 2007.

[6] Al-Safir, July 13, 2007.

[7] In late July, army commander Michel Suleiman was quoted as saying that Nahr al-Barid was “the toughest battle of [the Lebanese army’s] history.” Al-Safir, July 24, 2007.

[8] The hegemony of Lebanese military intelligence was so complete during these decades that it even affected what schoolteachers could say in the classroom. See Rosemary Sayigh, “Sources of Palestinian Nationalism: A Study of a Palestinian Camp in Lebanon,” Journal of Palestine Studies 6/4 (Summer 1977), p. 30.

[9] Al-Safir, July 13, 2007.

[10] UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda al-Turk has been quoted as saying: “We don’t want people who survived the war to die from UXO [unexploded ordnance] when they go back home.”, July 4, 2007.

[11] He also estimated that reconstruction costs “will certainly run into hundreds of millions of dollars.” Reuters, July 20, 2007.

[12] See also Sophie McNeill, “Collective Punishment of Palestinian Civilians in Lebanon,” Electronic Lebanon, June 22, 2007.

[13] Voice of America, May 25, 2007.

[14] See Fadi Bardawil, “Lebanese Counter-Terrorism: Mere Side Effects,” al-Akhbar, June 9, 2007. [Arabic]

[15] See Khaled Saghiyeh, “Support Our Troops,” al-Akhbar, June 7, 2007 [Arabic]; Sami Hermez, “Cheering to the Beat of the Palestinians’ Misery,” Electronic Lebanon, May 25, 2007.

How to cite this article:

Diane Riskedahl, Muhammad Ali Khalidi "The Road to Nahr al-Barid," Middle East Report 244 (Fall 2007).

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