Palestinian Camp Deaths Lead To Fresh Protests in Lebanon

After the funeral of Ahmad Qassem, 16, who was shot dead by Lebanese army officials during a riot at the Nahr al-Bared camp, hundreds protested against the presence of the Lebanese Army, writes Omar Ibrahim. The Palestinian Institute for Human Rights issued a statement stressing the need to launch an urgent investigation into refugee conditions.

al-monitor Lebanese soldiers stand by as refugees set items on fire during clashes at the Ain al Hilweh refugee camp near the port-city of Sidon in south Lebanon June 18, 2012. The clashes were in reaction to the death of a refugee at the Nahr al-Bared camp.  Photo by REUTERS/Ali Hashisho.

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badawi camp, ahmad qassem, nahr al-bared camp, palestinian refugee camps in lebanon, palestinian, lebanese army

Jun 20, 2012

The security incident in Nahr al-Bared Refugee Camp has re-ignited hostilities between its inhabitants and the Lebanese Army after two people were wounded and one (Ahmad Qassem, 16) was killed three days ago. Qassem’s funeral was held on June 18 and ended with one individual dead and eight others wounded. The incident occurred after five years since tensions were appeased in a piecemeal fashion. Efforts to stop the bloodshed have been unfruitful, at a time when Lebanon’s problems are spreading quickly and becoming increasingly complex. The crisis is approaching a point of no return amidst the difficult situation plaguing Tripoli and the rest of northern Lebanon.

According to available information, hundreds of angry young men stormed the location once Qassem’s funeral was over, burning its contents and an army military vehicle.

Army troops responded with tear gas upon withdrawing from the position, but the youth continued hurling stones at them until gun fire from the Army’s side led to the death of Fouad Loubani and the wounding of seven others. Shortly after, the Lebanese Army closed off all entrances to the camp and brought in additional reinforcements, having had previously withdrawn most of its troops from the streets of the camp to avoid any provocation during the funeral.

The wounded were transported to El-Kheir Hospital in Minyeh and Safad Hospital in the Badawi refugee camp. A Palestinian source said that “the army did its best to facilitate the funeral, but a fifth column intervened to involve the camp in unnecessary conflict.”

Qassem’s death led to widespread protests organized by young men angered by the Lebanese Army, which has been completely controlling the camp since 2007. This was not the first time that the camp’s inhabitants have objected to the army’s decisions and strict measures in and around the camp.

However, this time, the events, movements and political meetings on the ground by non-Palestinian factions both inside and outside the camp, were somewhat different. This exacerbated the situation to the point where it spiraled out of the control of the Palestinian factions and camp authorities, who, at times, have been compelled to acquiesce to the will of the protesters.

To this day, the two sides have not been able to agree on what led to the death of Qassem, who was laid to rest at an official funeral at Badawi Camp and another at Nahr al-Bared. Protesters in Nahr al-Bared blame the Lebanese Army for what happened: they accuse it of indiscriminately opening fire on the hundreds of people who took to the streets to protest the arrest of two individuals who were riding a motorbike without proof of ownership. Certainly, it is not unusual for an individual to get arrested in a camp. The inhabitants have grown accustomed to the measures employed by the army at its entrances, where everyone is subjected to stringent identity checks to make sure that they possess the army-issued permit that is required of all Palestinians who want to enter the camp.

Part of the incident may have resulted from the prevailing tension — tensions that are the result of a variety of issues. Foremost among these is the Lebanese state’s failure to deliver on all of its promises. These include putting an end to the reconstruction issue, the return of displaced people, mitigating the security measures and opening the camp to the surrounding Lebanese areas so as to boost the economic activity in the camp. These demands are being raised at today's open sit-in that is staged by the camp residents.

But what happened in Nahr al-Bared?

According to reports, the Lebanese Army stopped two people riding a motorcycle at one of the checkpoints. After heated quarrels, beatings, and few shots in the air, the two men were led into one of the Army’s centers within the camp. This sparked controversy, as Palestinians launched protests demanding their release. It did not take long for the protests to grow into a popular rally throughout the whole camp. Protesters blocked roads, burned tires and established barricades. They hurled stones at the army, who responded by shooting at the protesters, leaving one dead and three wounded.

Soon the skirmishes reached the Badawi Camp, whose leadership managed to absorb and control the protests. Meanwhile, efforts were made to calm the situation in Nahr al-Bared. Concerned parties, mainly the Palestinian Embassy in Lebanon, managed to stop the clashes between the army and protesters.

The army ceased all patrols in the camp and withdrew its military apparatus from the camp, which helped alleviate the situation. However, rallies continued and protesters staged sit-ins and blocked roads away from the Army’s quarters. Over the past three days, Palestinian factions have been playing a major role on the ground.Palestinian Ambassador Ashraf Dabour, leading a [Palestinian] delegation that included all major factions, visited the camp last night. A meeting was also held with the protesters, where the participants agreed on many steps. Hence, Qassem was buried in Samed cemetery, even though protesters were demanding that he be buried in Khalid Bin Walid cemetery, which is located in the old camp under Lebanese Army control. Protesters agreed to hold peaceful rallies until their demands were fulfilled. The Palestinians demanded that military control inside the camp as well as the permit system be abolished. They also demanded that the camp be opened on the [surrounding] Lebanese neighborhood and that the rest of the aid and housing units be handed over to residents. They also demanded that the “Five Martyrs’ Stadium,” and the land of Samed be returned, and that a committee tasked with investigating the incident be formed. Dabour emphasized the need to “curb all attempts to target the security and stability of the camp.” He urged all parties “to be patient and wise in this delicate situation.”

Some prominent religious leaders who are unaffiliated with the factions had the upper hand on the ground, as they participated in the protests. During the negotiations between the concerned parties, the religious leaders took hard-line positions, which were interpreted as attempts to take advantage of the situation and alter the balance of power inside the camp.

As a result of their intervention, the Fatah leadership rushed to adopt the late Qassem as a martyr of the Palestinian revolution. Fatah arranged the funeral in the Badawi camp from its headquarters in order to prevent any attempt to exploit the incident.

Some factions’ efforts  were fruitful, but many faced obstacles on the ground. Foremost was their quest to prevent Lebanese interference in the incident. In fact, they failed to persuade a delegation from the Association of Muslim Scholars in Lebanon — headed by Sheikh Hassan Katerji and comprised of about 40 clergy from Akkar — to refrain from visiting the camp to offer condolences.

Qassem's body was escorted to his final resting place in a majestic official and popular funeral from "the headquarters of the late President Yasser Arafat" in the Badawi camp. A group of guards carried it and fired 21 gunshots in the air.

The funeral procession walked to the sound of exclamations that “God is great” until they reached the entrance of the camp near the Fatah al-Intifada Movement checkpoint, where the body was put in an ambulance that carried it with a convoy of cars to Nahr al-Bared camp, where huge crowds attended the funeral.

As-Safir learned "that the Lebanese army completely withdrew from the camp." People easily entered the camp to participate in the funeral.

The Palestinian Institute for Human Rights issued a statement on June 19, stressing "the need to launch an urgent investigation into the circumstances of the incident, and to bring those who shot at the civilians to military justice."

The statement narrates the details of the incident and calls on the Lebanese government to make a clear decision as soon as possible to end military control of the camp, which has been ongoing for more than five years.

The statement calls on the Lebanese state to make urgent decisions through its legislative, executive and judicial institutions to improve the conditions of refugees.

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