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The View from Lebanon: Scholar, Ex-Diplomat Speak Out on Current Crisis

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We go to Lebanon to speak with Rania Masri, an assistant professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, currently in the Beddawi refugee camp in northern Lebanon. And from Beirut we’re joined by Alastair Crooke, founder of the Conflicts Forum. He is a former British intelligence agent and former special Mideast adviser to European Union High Representative Javier Solana. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 22, 2007Death Toll Reaches 80 in Lebanon as Troops Shell Palestinian Refugee Camp in Battle with Fatah al-Islam
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Lebanon to speak with Rania Masri, assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Balamand in Lebanon. She is currently in the Beddawi refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Alastair Crooke also joins us. He is founder of the Conflicts Forum based in Beirut, former British intelligence agent for 30 years and former special Mideast adviser to European Union High Representative Javier Solana.

Rania Masri, you’re in the camp where thousands of refugees from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp have fled. What do you see there?

RANIA MASRI: Well, if I could, before I go into what I see in the Beddawi camp, just one small correction, if I may, Amy. I’ve been hearing this a lot in the Western press, that the violence that we are seeing right now in Lebanon is called the worst since the civil war. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. The worst violence we had since the civil war was the Israeli war last year in July. So, if you can just remember this country has not healed from the July war last summer.

With that, what we have in the Beddawi camp, if we can just — the Beddawi camp has approximately 15,000 refugees in it already. The number of refugees now in the Beddawi camp has almost doubled, because we have approximately 12,000 refugees from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp who are now in the Beddawi camp. That alone could give you an idea of the amount of lack of goods that is now available in the camp. I mean, there is a lack of extraordinarily basic goods, be it medicine, be it foods, be it mattresses, be it anything. Every individual that we talk to, every agency that we talk to said the same thing, which is that the international agencies have not operated quickly enough to be able to respond to the presence of 12,000 refugees almost overnight in this already extraordinarily impoverished camp of the Beddawi camp. Approximately 25 percent of these refugees are going to schools. Another 75 percent are going to homes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the aid, approximately 80 percent of the aid, is going to those individuals in the schools. Twenty percent of aid is going to the 75 percent of the refugees in the homes, which means we are having an extraordinary lack of goods that are being given to the people most in need. When we look at the situation and when we keep in mind the ultimatum that’s been given by the minister of defense, which is this threat of actually invading the Nahr al-Bared camp, then we can envision at the very least that the number of refugees we now have in the Beddawi camp from the refugee camp, Nahr al-Bared, is probably going to increase. So as bad and as horrific as the situation is currently in the Beddawi camp, we are expecting it to actually get worse tomorrow.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of how the fighting is progressing in the Nahr al-Bared camp, what is the situation right now, as far as you can tell?

RANIA MASRI: Well, there has been a, quote-unquote, “truce” for almost a day and a half. But one thing I do want to emphasize with regard to the violence — and, again, this is based upon numerous amounts of eyewitness reports — that the violence isn’t simply extraordinarily indiscriminate heavy artillery coming from the Lebanese army into this — let me stress again — one of the most impoverished Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which is the Nahr al-Bared camp; in addition to getting this heavy artillery from the Lebanese army, in addition to that, there is a third factor: there probably is an armed civilian camp, you know, group militia, that is operating outside of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, that is attacking both the refugees that are leaving, as well as lobbing sniper attacks into the camp itself. So not only do we have the Palestinians in the camp stuck between Fatah al-Islam, which is a non-Palestinian radical organization and the Lebanese army, they are also stuck between this third armed civilian militia group.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s been the position or the attitude of Hezbollah to all of this that has been occurring in the last few days?

RANIA MASRI: The position of almost — almost — every single Lebanese political party — and I say this, all the strong Lebanese political parties, of course including Hezbollah, has been support for the Lebanese army. The Hezbollah leadership has made gentle requests that the civilians on both sides of the conflict, Lebanese and Palestinian, not be harmed, that there be attempts to try to minimize the loss of civilian life. But the response from almost all Lebanese politicians and all the Lebanese political parties is support behind the Lebanese army.

And here, and I want to add something to the comments that Seymour Hersh made. This is being presented — this conflict is being presented by, I would say, a strong segment of both the Lebanese population and almost all the Palestinians within the refugee camps as a conspiracy against both the Lebanese and the Palestinians and as a conspiracy that includes within it a conspiracy against the Lebanese army.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Alastair Crooke, founder of Conflicts Forum based in Beirut, former British intelligence agent for almost 30 years. Can you talk, follow up, on what Seymour Hersh was explaining about who Fatah al-Islam is in its connection to the Lebanese government, possibly to the U.S. government, in the arming of this group?

ALASTAIR CROOKE: Yes. I think it’s probably worth, for your listeners, just to understand a little bit more about the nature of this group. Although it came from Syria into Lebanon and it came from a group that was associated with Palestinians — its name was Fatah also — and was an old mainly Palestinian group that existed in Syria from the days of the Oslo Accord, what we have in Lebanon is something quite unrelated to the Palestinian issue. This is an extreme Sunni group. It’s a Salafi group, as Seymour described it, which means that their main characteristic is not concern about Palestine or a Palestinian state, but their main concern is their antagonism and their hatred for the Shia. And I think the reason that we saw them in Lebanon probably had something to do also with the conflict this summer, that took place last summer with Israel, and the aftermath of that, which seemed to presage an internal conflict within Lebanon, possibly between the Shia and the Sunnis and with Christians involved, as well. In other words, there was a real fear at some stages that Lebanon could be tipping back toward civil war. And I think in this context, therefore, this group, which is virulently anti-Shia, came across with the idea of defending the Sunnis. Of those that have been killed in this group so far, not one of them has been Palestinian. It’s true that the leader is Palestinian, but the other members of it that have been taken so far have turned out to be Saudi, Tunisian, Yemeni and Lebanese, but not Palestinians. So they ended up in this refugee camp — they forced their way in; there’s not much refugees can do when 200 determined and armed men enter your camp — and eventually set up a little satellite area of their own, adjacent to the camp. So I think that’s the context that you have to see this. And I think some Sunnis in Lebanon welcomed their arrival, if you like, as potential reinforcement. If you wanted someone to take on the ranks of Hezbollah, which is a Shia movement, then here was a determined group who hated them that could be co-opted on the basis of your enemy’s enemy is your friend. So I think this is very much the way in which to see what happened. And I think it’s quite true what Seymour said: In a sense, it’s a reflection of a wider policy. It’s not that someone sat down on a pin and said, “We’re going to give support to this particular group and build them up.” I think the rhetoric and the language that is being used by the United States and by Europe, in some cases, of trying to encourage, if you like, Sunni fears about a Shia threat and a Shia menace, the axis of or the crescent of Shia, a threat that faces the region, gives the opportunity and gives a space to these sort of groups to emerge and quite often ends with them getting the support and the financial resources that they require.

AMY GOODMAN: Alastair Crooke, I want to thank you for being with us, founder of Conflicts Forum, speaking to us from Beirut, former British intelligence agent for almost 30 years; Rania Masri, assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, speaking to us from the Beddawi refugee camp.

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