Two weeks ago Lebanese pastor Sami Dagher told WORLD, "Don't be surprised if in a couple of weeks the fighting is here at our doorstep." The outbreak of violence in Tripoli last week may have shocked Westerners for its sudden ferocity, but in Lebanon many saw it as sadly expected.
What is now considered the worst fighting since Lebanon's civil war 17 years ago began when Lebanese forces raided a Fatah al-Islam building north of Tripoli May 20, touching off shelling and armed clashes on both sides. The next day the conflict spread to a nearby Palestinian refugee camp where government soldiers sought to root out Fatah fighters but are prohibited by a 1969 Arab accord from entering the camps.
At least 40 in the camp and over 30 Lebanese soldiers were killed and dozens wounded as mortar rounds fell. Fatah then claimed responsibility for two powerful explosions in Beirut, one on May 20 that targeted a Christian neighborhood and another two days later, a powerful car bomb in a Sunni area that wounded at least seven.
Few noted a connection between the conflict with Fatah, a recently formed, Syrian-based militant group with bases of operation inside Lebanon's refugee camps and ties to al-Qaeda, and the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah last summer that turned much of Beirut and south Lebanon into rubble. Yet that four-month battle weakened the democratically elected government (headed by Christian President Emile Lahoud and Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Fouad Siniora) and emboldened radical Islamic groups.
But the roots of the current fighting extend further. Lebanon has never granted citizenship to its Palestinians, though they number nearly 400,000-or 10 percent of the population. Many are third- and fourth-generation refugees displaced by the demarcation of modern Israel and live in 13 UN camps. Most are in the south, which is largely Shiite and where Hezbollah has its base. Only two are north of Beirut, near Tripoli, where Fatah al-Islam is arising.
Although the country since its independence has been an amalgam of religious groups-Shiites, Sunnis, Maronite Catholics, and Greek Orthodox all have legal status-Palestinians have never been allowed passports or documentation. "It is a longstanding sore point as they have no legal status within Lebanon," said Hillel Fradkin, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of its Center for Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World. "It's always had the potential for instability."
Now, according to Fradkin, "radical groups, not only the one that is operating over the last few days, Fatah al-Islam, but others are setting up shop, trying to attract converts to radical Sunni Islam-and they're succeeding to some degree."
Fradkin and other Mideast experts also contend that the conflicts in Lebanon during the last year are an attempt by Syria to change the subject: the subject being an investigation into the murder of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Every flareup has coincided with action surrounding an international investigation of the Beirut car bombing that killed Hariri in 2005.
The Fatah al-Islam uprising began only days after the United States, France, and Britain circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution to establish a tribunal to investigate and try suspects in the assassination. In May the Lebanese government requested unilateral Security Council approval for a tribunal after Lebanon's parliament failed to agree on a measure approving it.
"This most recent eruption of violence may be timed to that event," said Fradkin.
Many in Lebanon also believe that the conflict can be traced to Iraq. Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria, a group that opposes the Baathist government in Damascus, has pinpointed four camps in Syria that train foreign fighters and are run by former Iraqi generals and Saddam Fedayeen commanders-loyalists to the Saddam Hussein regime. Ghadry reported three months ago in The Washington Times the "movement of large numbers of al Qaeda in Iraq fighters from Syria into Palestinian refugee camps in northern Lebanon and Beirut." He believes they are planning to use Lebanon's refugee camps "to launch attacks against the anti-Syrian democratic government in Lebanon." And just because the Lebanese expect it doesn't mean they are ready.