1. Fath al-Islam is a splinter guerrilla group established last December that has links to the international Salafi Jihadi movement (which some call “al-Qaeda” as shorthand). Its leader has ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is tiny, with at most 300 fighters, and not all of them may be Palestinian. It is opposed by all the major Palestinian political groups, including Hamas and the PLO. It is, according to CNN, extremely well armed. It appears to have an international network. One of the Fath al-Islam guerrillas killed on Sunday had engaged in a terror attack on Germany. It is a little unlikely that this group has any significant relationship to the secular Alawi Baath government of Syria, despite what the Lebanese politicians allege.
2. The group, which robbed a bank and functions as a small local Mafia, has used the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp (pop. 30,000) in north Lebanon as a base. There are thousands of Palestinian refugees in the camp, displaced there from their homes in Galilee by Zionist forces in 1948. Once Israel was formed, these refugees from the fighting were locked out of their former home by Israeli PM David Ben Gurion. Because Lebanon has a Christian political elite, Beirut did not give the Palestinians citizenship, since they are 85% Sunni and it would have upset the demographic balance of the country. Also, the Palestinians of Lebanon generally insist that they will some day go home to Palestine (Israel) and fiercely reject “tawtin” or naturalization as “Lebanese.” Their stateless condition has left the Palestinian population of Lebanon poverty-stricken and barred from certain occupations, including medicine! If you think about it a little bit, you see the analogy between their condition and that of 19th century Jews in some parts of Europe, confined to ghettoes and forbidden from certain occupations.
A clickable map of the refugee camps in Lebanon with information about each can be found here. For an anthropologist’s exploration of the culture of the camps, see Julie Peteet’s article in the Journal of the International Institute at the U of Michigan. Here is her piece with some history of the situation. See also Professor Peteet’s recent book. Also
3. A 1969 accord prevents Lebanese military forces from going into the camps. Anyway, hand to hand fighting in them would produce a high death toll. Firing on a camp full of civilians by the Lebanese government is deeply troubling. Note that the Tripoli Sunni Muslim townspeople appear, however, to approve of the attack on Fath al-Islam. The camps are locally seen as nests of criminality and breeding grounds of terror.
4. Although it is usually said that there are 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, a country of 3.8 million, Palestinian demographer Khalil Shikaki has argued that there are actually only a couple hundred thousand left there. Many have been given temporary visas of various sorts by Germany, Scandinavian countries, etc., and have emigrated to a precarious perch in Europe, where they seldom have a permit to work and so remain in limbo (the Palestinians have now become the symbol of vulnerable statelessness; in the contemporary world, not having a state is the closest thing to slavery.) Their statelessness makes the Palestinians in their camps open to exploitation by mafias and terrorists who thrive where states cannot operate with transparency. The camps are thus analogous to the wilderness of Sinai or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Until there is a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem, this sort of trouble will go on in the Middle East. And all that time, the Zionist Right will blame the Palestinians for being dispossessed.