By Jesse Aizenstat
Special to Ya Libnan
These days it’s common to go to a lecture on the Arab-Israeli conflict and hear the speaker wishfully say: “If only Jimmy Carter could have resolved the whole issue then.
Not only would some kind of suitable solution be in play, but the Palestinian nationalists would have been left in charge. This means no Hamas.”
This logic seems sound. Many in the Levant gave competing ideologies a second chance after Arab nationalists were humiliated in the 1967 War. In fact, Israel welcomed nonviolent Islamic cultural movements during this period—especially in the Gaza Strip—with hopes that it would weaken the PLO’s monopoly on power, and exempt them from providing for the Palestinian population. Over time, certainly given the chance from the inability and corruption of the PLO, the Palestinian Islamists were able to build enough support that it could even win an election.
The problem with this popularized version of history is that it is incomplete. Sure the Palestinian politics of today are bitterly divided into competing nationalist and Islamic factions; what isn’t so talked about, however, is a so-called “third force” that has entered Palestinian political sphere. Lets call it the rise of Salafi-Jihadism.
While this new brand of Islamism is still relatively contained to Palestinian refugee camps outside of Israel and the Occupied Territories, the recently foiled plot in South Lebanon should send chills down the streets of Arab capitals.
Last Monday the Lebanese Army arrested 10 suspects accused of plotting attacks against UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Nearly all arrested had origins from other Middle Eastern countries, and had entered Lebanon on fake passports. Though the extent of their plot is yet to be fully exposed, these men reportedly belonged to the al Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam group, that became famous after a heated battle with the Lebanese Army at the Nahr al-Barid camp, in the summer of 2007.
Though it is a dangerous game to contemplate hypotheticals , one can’t help but imagine the implications of such an attack against the UN peacekeeping force. None of the usual players...Hezbollah, Lebanon, Israel—vest much faith in UNIFIL’s supposed mission of disarmament and territorial guardianship, as defined in UN Security Council Resolution 1701, to begin with. And at this point in the great political game, UNIFIL’s ability to “get even more tough” seems unlikely.
Such an attack would not only have served as catalyst for a troop reevaluation, but it would have caused the countries involved to question their commitment to this fragile peacekeeping mission. Though UNIFIL has a vastly limited role in keeping the peace along the Blue Line, the withdrawal of such a force would likely be written in history as a melodic overture for the next Lebanon war,
Simply put, this kind of plot has the marks of a Salafi-Jihadi group all over it. Islamists like Hamas or Hezbollah—for whatever one many think of their actions, do in fact have indisputable local and territorial connections to their conflict. Fatah al-Islam, in both this week’s case and the 2007 standoff at the Nahr al-Bahred camp in North Lebanon, have at least shown to be more interested in provoking conflict vis-à-vis global jihad than working for the poor who live in it.
The truth is that a new wave of Salafi-Jihadism is breaking over the Palestinian refugee camps of the Levant. Jordanian journalist, Murad Batal al-Shishani, published an article in al-Hayat on 29 June 2009, titled “Salafi-Jihadism: A New Face in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria’s Palestinian Camps,” where he argues that these camps have turned into a playground for “neo-Zarqawis” to spread their Jihadi ideology. He argues that the reason is rooted in the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, the slow decline of the PLO’s hegemony of the camps, the political fallout of the Fatah-Hamas conflict, and the simple fact that poverty and unemployment are on the rise.
Combining these factors, it should come as no surprise that there is an increased willingness to listen to this kind of Islamist ideology in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And, while there are plenty of fingers to point for this crisis, the truth is that the political system in Lebanon cannot feasibly absorb some 400,000 Palestinian refugees without crumbling the existing ethos in Lebanon.
The catch-22 arrives—at least for those interested in the predicable status quo—when these camps become a destination ground for international Salafi-Jihadist who are intent on using these camps for planning attacks, like the planned attacks against UNIFIL earlier this week. Though these camps may be monitored by Syrian intelligence, the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah, the events of earlier this week have shown that the archetype of the wild western refugee camp must finally be addressed. No matter how much any of the mentioned parties do not want to work with the Palestinian factions who traditionally control these camps, the new era of Salafi-Jihadi will prove to be much worse.
There should be no doubt that with the ingenuity and commitment of the new U.S administration, the global community and a committed Lebanese government that the worsening situation in these camps cannot be resolved. If the rise of a bunch of “neo- Zarqawis” in the prison-like camps of Lebanon can teach us anything, it should be that this is how dire the hidden camps of Lebanon have become.