Lebanon and the Palestinian factor

To the uninitiated, the latest crisis and violence to hit Lebanon may seem bizarre. Lebanese government forces - who have never been deployed to take on or disarm the Hezbollah militia - are suddenly fighting pitched battles with 'foreign' Palestinian elements based on Lebanese soil, in the country's worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

On close examination, however, the crisis helps explain the continued chaos at the heart of Lebanese society, and its ever- increasing stranglehold on the beleaguered nation.

Headlines from Lebanon over the past few years have been dominated by the country's other chronic challenges - high-level assassinations, Syrian interference in the state, Christian-Muslim political tensions and the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Yet, brewing in the background, was Lebanon's own domestic 'Palestine question', itself a component of the wider and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians have been a major part of the Lebanese socio-political tapestry since 1948, when tens of thousands moved there during the Arab-Israel war. They were joined by many more during the second Arab-Israel war in 1967. These Palestinians were not granted citizenship, but were kept mostly in makeshift refugee camps until their future 'return' to Palestine.

Tensions between Lebanon's Christian Maronite-dominated state and the leadership of these Palestinians grew, and took a dramatic turn following the events of 'Black September' in 1970. Marxist Palestinian armed factions, part of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, challenged Jordan, claiming that it was an illegitimate state which should instead be part of the future Palestine. Jordan prevailed, and the PLO leadership, along with many of its fighters, were forced to leave.

They chose to regroup in southern Lebanon, taking control of the refugee camps, rearming, challenging the authority of the Lebanese government and using the country as a base for their war with Israel. Lebanon was suddenly thrust to the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This 'Palestinian factor' proved to be the final straw, and the country descended into civil war in 1975.


The current crisis serves as a timely reminder of the legacy of that 'Palestinian factor'. The PLO has since departed, the civil war is over, yet the camps have remained a hotbed of radicalism and are still power bases for a number of nationalist Palestinian rejectionist factions - former PLO member groups who reject the idea of negotiating with Israel. Yet, as these nationalist groups have become less relevant and influential, a more Islamist radicalism has taken hold. It is in this climate that the al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah al-Islam has emerged, grown and become an armed force.

The world will be watching developments in the next few days. The international community fears a further deterioration in the security situation in Lebanon, and will hope for as speedy a resolution as possible, with minimal additional bloodshed.

It may be that Lebanon will only act when it feels it must, as it appears unable to control its own destiny. Chaos and instability are, tragically, likely to dominate Lebanon's reality for a while yet.

Hagai Segal, a terrorism and Middle East specialist, lectures at New York University in London