Lebanon is the country to watch right now, it is the key point in the Syria-Hezbollah front that keeps on threatening to start another and wider war against Israel. At the end of the month, moreover, there are due to be elections that for the usual sectarian reasons are virtually certain to result in political deadlock. Syria demands subservience, however, and its determination to have its way generates brutality, murder if necessary. The disruption already created by the terrorist group calling itself Fatah al-Islam is a sinister portent, and it happens also to illustrate perfectly the whole Arab order and the difficulty of interpreting it.
Nobody knows who or what Fatah al-Islam really is. The name suggests Islamism but that may be a cover for some sort of military coup. A man called Shakir al-Absi and some three hundred well-armed followers simply turned up four months ago, and took over Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp outside the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Who paid for these men and their weapons ? How were they recruited ? What was the purpose of occupying at gun point a Palestinian stronghold ? The experts more or less unanimously answer that Syria intended to give a warning that it truly means to have its way, and can prove it by restarting civil war in Lebanon with huge and disastrous consequences. And who was Shakir al-Absi ? Reports claimed that he had served a short sentence in a Syrian jail, the presumption being that he was now working his way back into favour in Damascus, a producer of terror satisfying his customers’ demand. In short, he was as much an entrepreneur as a terrorist.
It’s been a long time since I visited Nahr al-Bared. I remember looking down on it from mountainous rises to its east, and thinking how attractive the setting was. I had a PLO guide taking me through the little lanes and alleys so characteristic of an Arab medina, where privacy and the collective are in happy contradiction. I met some rather scary members of Murabitun, a Sunni extremist group. The inhabitants of Nahr al-Bared are virtually unanimously Sunni: What was their real relationship to Fatah al-Islam ?
Today the story is over. After a pretty dismal performance dragged out over these four months, the Lebanese army has finally routed Fatah al-Islam, killed Shakir al-Absi and his deputy, and identified some of the dead terrorists as Saudis and others as men who have fought in Iraq. Between two and three hundred have been killed, about half of them Lebanese soldiers. And meanwhile 40,000 Palestinians have fled from their homes, most probably never to return. Lebanese artillery has turned Nahr al-Bared into the sort of ruin the Russians have made of Grozny in Chechnya.
This whole ugly episode exemplifies the self-inflicted violence of Arab power politics. Probably Syria really did inspire it, but maybe some Saudis were the financiers, perhaps even al Qaeda – we are unlikely to discover the truth.
The media is no help, of course, hardly reporting the Nahr al-Bared crisis unless in a paragraph on some inside page. In contrast, just cast your mind back to 2002 when the Israeli army cleared Fatah terrorists from the refugee camp of Jenin on the West Bank. No artillery, no indiscriminate destruction, no 40,000 fleeing for their lives, less than a hundred dead all told, but pretty well every front page and every news bulletin accused Israel of war crimes and atrocities. I particularly remember one Professor Derrick Pounder on behalf of Amnesty speaking of massacre, and proclaiming that the dead under the rubble were too numerous to be counted. The absence of such media professors and human-rights groups from Nahr al-Bared now certifies the whole lot of them as foremost specialists in the double standards underpinning the usual Western representations of the Middle East.