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2 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
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. 
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.
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.
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.
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." 
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
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.
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