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    Middle East
     Jul 4, 2007
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Lebanon bending under extremist challenge
By Mahan Abedin

The military conflict in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, coupled with growing political instability in Beirut, has shifted attention away from the south and the possibility of a further round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel.

The rise of Fatah al-Islam is indicative of a wider pattern of growing Sunni Islamic militancy in Lebanon. But while this mirrors wider regional trends, the consequences are particularly acute in

Lebanon, where divisive foreign influence often overrides domestic consensus.

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, the month-long conflict in Nahr el-Bared is ultimately attributable to the failing Lebanese state and the volatile political society that underlies it.

More than 17 years after the official end of Lebanon's civil war, the country as a whole finds it very difficult to discuss the profound ramifications of the 15-year conflict. Israeli scholar Oren Barak has likened this mindset to the "don't mention the war" syndrome and argues that the Lebanese state and key political actors have adopted "collective amnesia" about the conflict. The only exceptions, according to Barak, are Lebanese non-governmental organizations that have tried to keep the memory alive, if only to avoid a similar conflict. [1]

The refusal to acknowledge the war (and the inevitable self-criticism that it would involve) is more a symptom of the fragility of the Lebanese state than is the refusal of ordinary Lebanese to accept their role in the horrendous civil war that afflicted their country from 1975-90. History and geography play a part too. In the modern period the country that is now known as Lebanon has been a battleground for competing foreign interests. The Syrians, Iranians. Americans, French, Saudis and Israelis (and a host of other minor players) have used Lebanon to settle scores and enhance their regional profile.

The fragility of the state coupled with intense foreign interests has produced an environment conducive to the growth and success of armed non-state actors. The most notable example is Hezbollah, which controls sizable chunks of territory in the south and in Beirut, and which for all intents and purposes acts as a state within a state.

Although Hezbollah justifies its refusal to disarm (in defiance of United Nations Resolutions 1559 and 1680) on the basis of continued resistance against Israeli occupation of Lebanese lands and constant Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty, there can be little doubt that the perilous security vacuum in Lebanon (where the state has neither the cohesion nor the resources to assert full sovereignty) is a major factor behind its defiance.

It is mainly to mimic (or - more accurately - rival) Hezbollah that small extremist Sunni outfits are trying their luck with forming militias and influencing the course of Lebanese politics and Lebanon's relations with its powerful neighbors. But there are major differences; unlike Hezbollah, these groups are small and prone to constant schisms and - more important - instead of asserting Lebanese sovereignty in the face of Israeli aggression, they have opted to challenge the authority of the Lebanese state.

The meteoric rise of Fatah al-Islam and the month-long battle between its militants and the Lebanese Army have been subject to a torrent of conspiracy theories. Not surprisingly, the divide in Lebanese politics determines the thrust of the theory; supporters of the government tie Fatah al-Islam to al-Qaeda (and inevitably to Syria), while the Hezbollah-led opposition accuse the ruling March 14 Alliance of supporting Fatah al-Islam and other extremist Sunni groups.

Writing in the Mideast Monitor, Gary C Gambill, a veteran analyst of Lebanese politics, summarizes the situation with effortless clarity: "While both narratives (like all good conspiracy theories) draw upon tantalizing grains of truth, the emergence of Fatah al-Islam is largely what it appears to be - the combined outgrowth of a Sunni Islamist revival sweeping Lebanon and the region, a politically fragile central government, and a perilous security vacuum." [2]

The rise of Fatah al-Islam and other small extremist Sunni organizations is often traced to the "special status" of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. This "special status" dates to an agreement between the Arab League and the Lebanese government in 1969, which guaranteed no intervention in the camps and invested the Palestinians with the right to bear arms.

From the outset this arrangement was fraught with difficulties, and it very nearly brought Lebanon to the point of collapse in the early 1980s as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) tried to create a state within a state in the country. After the PLO leadership's flight to Tunis, Fatah continued to maintain a strong grip on the network of 12 refugee camps in Lebanon.

However, from the late 1980s on, Fatah's grip over the camps began to break down. This was partly attributable to the rise of Hamas, but corruption within Fatah (which reached astronomical proportions after its official insertion in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1994) was arguably the main driver behind the organization's weakening grip over the camps.

According to conventional wisdom, Fatah's weakening grip has enabled anarchy to take hold in some of the main camps (in particular Ein al-Hilweh - the largest of the 12 camps - near Sidon in the south) and facilitated the rise of small extremist groups. This converges neatly with relentless US propaganda about the rise of al-Qaeda in Lebanon and how these groups are inevitably tied to the notorious terror network.

But the reality is somewhat different.

The genealogy of such groups as Fatah al-Islam can be traced to Asbat al-Ansar (the League of Partisans). Asbat al-Ansar was founded by Hisham Shreidi, a Palestinian and a former leader of al-Jama'a al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Shreidi was apparently expelled by the group, partly because of his extremism, but also because of his alleged ties to Iranian intelligence agents in Lebanon.

In the early years, Shreidi and his closest followers spent much of their time trying to weaken PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's grip over Ein al-Hilweh. Eventually, Fatah got its revenge when its operatives assassinated Shreidi in the Safsaf district of Ein al-Hilweh in December 1991.

After this, Asbat al-Ansar was plagued by deep schisms, resulting - almost a decade after Shreidi's assassination - in the emergence of Asbat al-Nour (the League of Light) splinter group in

Continued 1 2 

Lebanon battles a new demon (May 23, '07)

Lebanon: Shadow of civil war looms again (Jan 27, '07)

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