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Yarmouk Refugee Camp, Damascus.
Known simply as “the General”, Michel Naim Aoun was born in a peaceful mixed Christian-Shia area of Haret Hreik, now a core Hezbollah zone. He rose from poverty to become the head of Lebanon’s newly created Eighth army following the September 1983 battle of Souq el Gharb against Palestinian and Druze forces. Six years later he served a forcibly truncated term as President of Lebanon. Since returning in 2005 from a 15-year sojourn in France, he is widely believed to be intending to regain that office. A current outspoken member of Lebanon’s parliament, Aoun has many supporters and detractors, being variously referred to a brilliant, cunning, honest, corrupt, obstructionist, mercurial, mentally ill, Napoleonic, and Hezbollah’s most important political ally.
The past couple of months have seen the General’s popular support shrink a bit and one of his recent antics led to Hezbollah signal its concern since the leaders of the Resistance were getting political heat they did not need nor felt they deserved. This current problem began on August 13, 2009 when the key Hezbollah ally and ambitious leader of the Free Patriotic Movement sought and was immediately granted from Lebanon’s highest administrative Court, the Shura Council, an injunction freezing any and all reconstruction of Nahr al Bared (Arabic: Cold River) Palestinian Refugees camp which had been destroyed two years ago in a three month battle between the salafist group Fatah al Islam and the Lebanese army. The renewable injunction was initially for 60 days and it instantly froze UNRWA’s $445-million rebuilding project for the complete rebuilding of Nahr al Bared by the projected April 2012 completion date.
Aoun’s injunction added to the skepticism over the reconstruction among some Nahr al-Bared displaced residents, who have long voiced fears that the state would never allow them to rebuild their camp, and feared the fate of the disappeared Tell Zaatar camp leveled during the 1975-90 Civil War. Specifically General Aoun had petitioned the State Shura to halt backfilling in the camp, a method of rebuilding on top of archeological ruins which secures and preserves them for future exploration.
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Aoun argued that he was just trying to protect Lebanon’s heritage. Hezbollah did not immediately respond to queries of ‘what gives?’ from the Sabra Shatila Foundation and others who assumed that Aoun would not have acted without their ok. Few in Lebanon, and no one in the Lebanon’s 12 Palestinians camps and 10 gatherings, credited him with a sudden pro-environmental epiphany as they reminded each other that when the General was head of the Lebanese army and during battles in 1989-90 he savagely destroyed plenty of Lebanon’s heritage including ancient ruins, places of worship and museums if they were located in areas controlled by his adversaries. Some analysts have pointed out that Aoun surely knows, that Lebanon is a giant historical layer cake, the lower slice of stone "cake" being Canaanite –about 5,000 years old along with Greek, Roman, Crusader, Omayed , Ottoman and European strata. Wherever one puts in a shovel and digs a few feet, chances are ‘antiquities’ will be close to the blade. Many suspected that Aoun in expressing concern for ancient ruins had more than archaeology in mind since his petition, if sustained by the State Shura Council would mean that UNRWA would have to rebuild much of the camp on a different site, meaning many of Nahr al-Bared’s more than 31,000 registered residents would never return to their homes.
Government representatives have stated that it would be impossible to rebuild in the area adjacent to the camp, as Aoun proposed, because there is no land available in the area within miles of Nahr al Bared. According to Ammar Saadedine, an urban planner with the Nahr al Bared Reconstruction Commission, Aoun is trying to use the Palestinian issue to send political messages to friends and foes. "We don’t want to get involved in internal Lebanese issues. We are just demanding our rights." Many Christians and other Lebanese still fear that the reconstruction or granting basic human rights, would promote the assimilation of Palestinians, skewing the Muslim-Christian balance by encouraging naturalization. These sentiments appeared to be echoed initially by Hezbollah’s spokesman on the Palestinian question, Hassan Hodroj, who explained: "The threat of tawtin is genuine. It is one of the ways in which Israel, backed by the US, is endangering the region."
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According to progressive Lebanese MP Ghassan Moukheiber, “our official policy is to maintain Palestinians in a vulnerable, precarious situation to diminish prospects for their naturalization or permanent settlement". What some supporters of Lebanon’s Palestinians are pushing for from the next government is a simple law patterned after the 1956 Syrian one that grants Palestinian Refugees “the right to employment, commerce, and national service, while preserving their original nationality." Such an enactment in Lebanon would create immediate civil rights for refugees but not give them citizenship. In fact few of Lebanon’s Palestinians would accept naturalization (tawtin). Others accused Aoun of shameless pandering to embittered Akkar residents who lost sons fighting Fatah al Islam as a majority of the 175 Lebanese army soldiers killed were from their community opposite Nahr al Bared Camp. Still others accused Aoun of trying to carve out some of Samir Geagea’s more right wing Christian base. Geagea, who is promoted in some circles here as the Obama’s administration’s only remaining reliable operative in Lebanon as a result of three years of clumsy US-Israel interference in internal political disputes ( Comment: one is reminded of the 25th anniversary at the October 24, 1983 explosion at the US marine barracks which was a direct and foreseeable result of the Reagan administration joining the same Phalange party against the Sunni, Shia and Druze population) is making a move to corral Lebanon’s Christians under his leadership.
Broad based opposition to Aoun’s injunction
More than 2000 people rallied in downtown Beirut on October 20 in a show of solidarity with the displaced residents of Nahr el Bared. More than 40 different community organizations, including the Washington DC-Beirut based Sabra Shatila Foundation, joined the protest organized by the Nahr el Bared Advocacy Committee. Lovely Palestinian children from camps across Lebanon arrived for the protest and some had built small cardboard houses to illustrate their worries over becoming displaced and homeless. A majority of the destroyed camp’s 31,000 refugees are packed into ‘temporary’ housing including garages or metal storage sheds where in summer the inside temperatures can soar beyond 140 degrees F. and in winter plunge below freezing. Some are indefinitely warehoused along the tall grass perimeters of the camp, the same grasses from which Fatah al Islam fighters crawled to carry out their initial slaughter of Lebanese soldiers in May of 2007. Beirut’s Daily Star quoted one of the Nahr al Bared demonstrators: “It’s very hot in summer and very cold in winter,” said one of the children’s fathers, Ziad. “We want to see the reconstruction started before looking for any food or water or anything else. We don’t have a house. I want a house to live in, so the first thing we need is the reconstruction.”
Simultaneous demonstrations protesting Aoun’s injunction took place inside Nahr al Bared and at Beirut’s Shatila and Burj al Barajneh camps as well as in the Ain al-Helweh, Al-Buss and Burj Shemali refugee camps down south. In Saida’s Ain al-Helweh, some Islamist groups discussed ominous and threatening contingency plans if the rebuilding ban was not lifted. Decades of exclusion and marginalization has incubated among some young Palestinians millenarian ideas associated with al-Qa’ida. Some of the young men have been organizing attack units. They pose as the protectors and guardians of international Sunni Islam. As is well known in Lebanon one of the 9/11 hijackers dedicated a poem to Ain al-Helweh jihadists in his videotaped will and dozens of Palestinian fighters from the camp have joined al-Qa’ida in Iraq.
One Hezbollah source told this observer after several attempts to explain the party’s position in Aoun project: “No way does Hezbollah control the General, only his wife can do that!” he said with a grin. “We in Hezbollah consult regularly with his staff but frankly we benefit more from our alliance that he does and there are limits to what we can press him to do. I personally think Aoun made a mistake with his Nahr al Bared case and it appeared he was bashing the Palestinian refugees for immediate personal political gains. Honestly, all parties in Lebanon have been guilty of doing that including us I am sorry to say, but I would insist we have done it less than others. But that’s my view and it may or may not be that of our leadership. There are many strongly held opinions within Hezbollah. Contrary to Zionist propaganda and what some in the West believe, we are very democratic within the party and we are always analyzing and debating events and ideas. If a party member comes up with a sound idea it has a good chance of being implemented. In that sense we are different from the Lebanon Ziam (tribal leader) system still dominant in so many of the 18 Confessions here. But I believe the party has insisted that General Aoun drop his case”.
Following talks encouraged by Hezbollah between Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Palestinian factions just before the October 20 demonstrations, an FPM representative was sent by Aoun to the protest to show solidarity with resuming work at Nahr al Bared. Aoun’s representative stressed that the FPM still remains opposed to the naturalization of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees. So do an estimated 95 per cent of the refugees who want to live in Palestine not Lebanon but they need some civil rights until their departure. For some of the surprised demonstrators, seeing Aoun’s representative was a good sign. Another positive sign for the Palestinians came when Aoun could have submitted reminders asking the Shura Council to extend the rebuilding ban past the original two-month suspension. Although expected by many to do so, he did not and let the deadline lapse.
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This was confirmed to this observer on October 11, twelve days before the Shura’s injunction was widely expected to be renewed. During a conference in Damascus on the Golan Heights, which subject is also of concern to Hezbollah, a good friend and member of Hezbollah’s delegation and one of the brains behind Hezbollah’s spate of successful German aided prisoner exchanges, came to my room. Knowing of my often expressed concern, he embraced and said, “It’s over, Aoun will abandon his actions against Nahr al Bared.” Without pressing my friend for details, I concluded that Hezbollah did not approve of preventing the camps rebuilding and instructed Aoun to back off because the Resistance did not need the heat. Sure enough, on October 23 caretaker Prime Minister Fuad Siniora gave the good news to Palestinian representatives that he had instructed UNRWA to immediately restart the reconstruction of Nahr al Bared, despite the possibility that theoretically the Shura Council might still decide for a permanent halt to the rebuilding. Hezbollah sources advised this observer that there will not be any similar delays by Aoun or others regarding Nahr al Bared. A collective sigh of relief could be heard all the way deep inside the Yamouk Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus from Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community. For their friends know well the paucity of breaks they receive these days.
FRANKLIN LAMB is Director of the Sabra Shatila Foundation. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.