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Death Toll Reaches 80 in Lebanon as Troops Shell Palestinian Refugee Camp in Battle with Fatah al-Islam

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Christian Science Monitor reporter Nicholas Blanford reports from outside the Nahr al-Bared camp on the deadliest internal violence in Lebanon since the civil war ended in 1990. We also speak with journalist Zaki Chehab, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 24, 2007The View from Lebanon: Scholar, Ex-Diplomat Speak Out on Current Crisis
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Lebanese tanks and artillery are continuing to shell a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli for a third day, amidst growing concerns for the 40,000 civilians trapped inside. The Nahr el-Bared camp has been under siege since Sunday, as Lebanese troops have battled with gunmen from the group Fatah al-Islam. The Lebanese government accuses the group of having ties with al-Qaeda and the Syrian government. Syria denies any involvement.

At least 80 people have been killed in the fighting, making it Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the end of the civil war 17 years ago.

As the Lebanese army continues to fire on the densely populated refugee camp, it’s preventing any of the residents from leaving. Aid organizations have been unable to enter the camp and voice fears of a mounting humanitarian crisis. Doctors inside have called for a ceasefire, because of the dead and wounded on the streets. Electricity supplies have been cut, and there is limited food and water.

The United States, which backs the Beirut government, said Lebanon was justified in attacking the militants. President Bush said, “Extremists that are trying to topple that young democracy need to be reined in.”

The fighting began after members of Fatah al-Islam robbed a bank Sunday. Meanwhile, in Beirut, two separate bomb attacks over the past two nights left one person dead and 17 injured.

We turn now to our guest, Zaki Chehab. He has written the book Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement. He is the political editor of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper and the Arabic TV channel LBC. For over 25 years he has covered Middle Eastern conflicts as a commentator for the Arab and Western media. He is a Palestinian, born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ZAKI CHEHAB: Thanks, Amy. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Let’s begin on Lebanon. We hope to get a report directly from there, but you grew up there — how far from this camp?

ZAKI CHEHAB: In fact, I was born in the south of the country, and this specific camp where the fighting is taking place is right up in the north. And it’s very sad to hear the news that a 40,000 population of this camp who live practically in a lined camp with like length, two kilometers, width, one kilometer. And nothing to be proud of to see such a group trying to rob a bank going into fighting with the Lebanese army, because at the end of the day, this has nothing to do with the Palestinian cause. This is really harming the population. And it would raise the question: why Palestinian factions still holding weapons in Palestinian camps in Lebanon? We should be treated as other camps in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, anywhere. Palestinians should allow the Lebanese government, the Lebanese army, to take control of their territory.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go directly to the camp. Nicholas Blanford is on the line with us, correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. He is with a U.N. aid convoy just outside Nahr el-Bared camp. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nicholas.

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: Hello there. It’s nice to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what you see right now, Nicholas?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: I am on the southern edge of the camp. We were trying to follow a U.N. humanitarian [inaudible] into the camp. There is a ceasefire in place, but it’s extremely shaky. So we were just driving through the entrance of the camp, and there was some machine-gun fire, and it was coming from behind us near an army position. And we’re not quite sure what’s going on, but there’s a possibility that some of the militants slipped out of the camp and were working their way around through the first army checkpoint. So the scene is quite chaotic at the moment. There are a lot of soldiers swarming around, looking through — there is very thick vegetation between us and the sea, which is about 300 or 400 yards away. And that vegetation of bamboo plantations, banana groves, and so on, goes all the way out to the camp and provides good cover if any of the militants want to sneak out of the fight with soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: What sense do you have of the level of casualties?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: Well, we’ve just been talking to — because there is a ceasefire, there are some cars coming out of the camp at the moment. These are individual cars crammed full of people. They’re waving white flags out of the window. We’ve just been talking to some of them. They say the situation in the camp is extremely [inaudible]. There are many dead under the rubble of bombed-out buildings. They’re all extremely angry and upset with Fatah al-Islam. They say that they’re not Palestinians, that they’re foreigners, and they have nothing to do with them. They say that Fatah al-Islam have been shooting at vehicles trying to leave. And there is a demonstration in the camp now. They’re taking advantage of the ceasefire to come out in the streets — over 300 people, one woman told us — to basically demand the Fatah al-Islam to leave, because the Palestinian population in the camp is suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: Are people being allowed out, Nicholas?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: They’re being allowed out now, because I think, really, they’re just taking advantage of the ceasefire, but it’s fairly chaotic. And I’ve been here about half an hour on the edge of the camp, and there’s maybe 10, 12 cars only have come out, each car full of people, so maybe 50 people altogether. But you’re talking about a camp which has a population of around 40,000, crammed into a tiny, small area. And most of them, of course, aren’t able to get out at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Is aid getting in?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: I’m sorry, say again?

AMY GOODMAN: Is aid getting into the camp?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: Well, we watched the U.N. aid convoy head into the camp. We weren’t allowed to follow them any further. So they’re one of the few that have managed to reach the camp safely. There were four trucks filled with medical supplies and food, and there was a water tank, as well, and also a large generator, because the camp has been cut off. There’s been no electricity there since Sunday, when the fighting broke out. People are telling us they’ve run out of food and they’ve run out of water, and they’re hiding in the rubble of their bombed-out houses, praying just for any opportunity to get out.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your sense of who the militants are? And what is the attitude of the people in the camp toward them?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: Well, they’re extremely angry toward them, judging from what people are telling us as they come out of the camp. They say that they’re not real Palestinians. They say that they are Syrians and Iraqis — one woman said there are Afghanis among them — and people from Jordan or from Saudi Arabia. They say, “We don’t really know anything about these people. We don’t know where they came from, why they’re here.” So there’s a lot of hostility.

And also, there’s a lot of anger and resentment, as well, at the fact that they’ve been caught up — the civilians in the camp have been caught up in this confrontation between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam. So, of course, the bulk of the casualties is from the Lebanese army’s shelling of the camp. And it’s been — it’s quiet now, but it has been very heavy in the past, yesterday, especially yesterday afternoon, when you could watch from the high ground above the camp and see the mortar shells being fired from the Lebanese army positions, exploding from one end of the camp to the other, setting buildings on fire and causing, you know, I’m sure, very widespread damage down there.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Nicholas Blanford, correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, with a U.N. aid convoy just outside of the Nahr el-Bared camp. Timor Goksel, a former spokesperson for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, says the outbreak of heavy fighting is just an incident and not the start of a new wave of violence. Do you agree with this assessment, Nicholas?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: Yes, I do. I know Timor Goksel very well, and he’s been around Lebanon much longer than I have. So he has a very good intuition on these things. I do believe this is an isolated incident. There isn’t a nationwide support, by any means, for these militants. There is some local support in North Lebanon amongst some of the more extremist [inaudible] up there, but it’s a very small support, and it really doesn’t presage a greater upsurge of violence around the country. While it’s very vicious, what’s going on, and very unpleasant, but it seems pretty much localized to the camp.

AMY GOODMAN: Some are reporting — I’m looking at Salon right now, Nicholas — the fugitive leader of the shadowy militant organization Fatah al-Islam openly embraces Osama bin Laden and has recruited Arab fighters to carry out attacks around the region. Is this your understanding?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: Well, we’ve been hearing from soldiers on the ground here that the militants are threatening to fire rockets and mortar shells into nearby Tripoli. Tripoli is Lebanon’s second-largest city, and it’s about nine miles south of the camp, but that places it within range of some of the rockets, Katyusha rockets, that these militants are believed to have, which have a range of around 12 miles. They’ve also threatened to bombard neighboring areas a little bit closer to the camp, civilian areas. But so far, though, the fighting hasn’t expanded to that sort of distance from the camp. The militants have been shelling Lebanese army positions. They clearly have mortars and apparently are very well armed. But if they start to bombard Tripoli, then that really will escalate the situation, quite literally.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe they’re tied to Syria?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: I’m sorry, say again?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe they are tied to Syria?

NICHOLAS BLANFORD: Well, this is a group with a very murky background, and it really depends on who you talk to in Lebanon, as to what origins they will say for the group. Essentially, the Lebanese government and the anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon believe that Fatah al-Islam, yes, is an Islamist organization, yes, it has links to Osama bin Laden and follows his ideology, but it is, in fact, placed in Lebanon by a Syrian military intelligence as a means of causing instability in the country. Then there are others who say, well, the anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon blame Syria for everything, and there’s no evidence that these guys are in fact being manipulated by the Syrians. So the jury is out, and it really depends on whom you talk to here, as to the different views that you’ll hear about these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicholas Blanford, I want to thank for being with us, correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor with a U.N. aid convoy just outside of the Nahr el-Bared camp.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn back to Zaki Chehab, the political editor of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper and the Arabic TV channel LBC. His latest book is Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement. But staying on Lebanon for a minute, the description Nicholas Blanford just gave inside the camp. You, someone who grew up in the camps of Lebanon.

ZAKI CHEHAB: I think Nicholas’s statement or whatever he said about the situation right in front of the camp is completely true, because, you know, what he said, that people in the camp already have they taken advantage of the ceasefire to go out and demonstrate against these extreme militant group. It’s so easy for someone who have the money and the arms just to take a corner of the camp, hijack it, and just fight with the others. It’s a gang. It shouldn’t really use the Palestinian name, because it’s against. You know, the Palestinian [inaudible] are law-abiding citizens, and the Lebanese authority have the right to go everywhere in Lebanon. So, you know, there is no need for the weapons in the camp, and we should not like, you know, step into and meddle with the situation in Lebanon. Lebanon have suffered enough. Lebanon have given the Palestinians, more than any other Arab country have given us. And it’s time now that you should give up our weapons and try to help this democratic process in Lebanon to prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in a camp near Tyre. Why are the camps there? And what is it like to grow up in a Palestinian refugee camp?

ZAKI CHEHAB: The camps, you know — the Palestinians who came to Lebanon, they came as a result of 1948 and the Israeli occupation. My parents were forced to flee their villages in the north of the country, north of Palestine, until today. They’re still waiting for a solution. They’re still waiting for a just solution that would give Palestinians, you know, a hope that they will have an independent state, a solution for their problems and their diaspora. That’s the kind of conflicts we are suffering. And as soon as this problem is continuing, extreme elements, terrorists, will take advantage of the poor Palestinians, the desperate Palestinians, send some money and weapons to groups like Fatah al-Islam, and then you can see what kind of disturbance that can cause to Lebanese, to Palestinians and to worldwide.

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Zaki Chehab on “Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement”

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