NAHR AL-BARED, Lebanon: A motorcycle piled high with boys kicked up dust, speeding out of Nahr al-Bared, the north Lebanon Palestinian refugee camp that is still reeling from a conflict that happened there five years ago. Getting in was slower. A row of arms hung out of car windows, holding ID cards out for inspection. Uniformed soldiers stood around in the heat, and a plainclothes officer collected the cards. The line moved sluggishly.
This checkpoint, and those at all of the camp’s entrances, have been in operation since the Army laid siege to the camp to root out the Islamist group Fatah al-Islam in 2007. Now, many residents say the military presence in and outside the camp feels like a different kind of siege.
An ongoing sit-in, sparked after the Army killed two residents last month, has extracted promises from Lebanese authorities that there will not be entry regulations anymore and that the Army will take steps toward withdrawing from the camp.
“In 2007, the Lebanese Army and the Palestinian people were partners in wanting to finish off Fatah al-Islam,” said Tareq Hussein, sitting under a large red, green and white tent on the once-busy main Nahr al-Bared street. “But [now] it feels like they have turned against us.”
Hussein is one of the many who protested after a soldier pushed, beat, or hit (depending on who you ask) a female relative of a motorcycle driver who didn’t have his papers on him when the Army demanded them.
Rocks were thrown, residents poured into the streets and two men – one only 15 – were shot dead by the Army.
Soon after, the tent was pitched on the spot where the teenager Ahmad al-Qassem was shot. Much of the buzz in Nahr al-Bared is now centered there, as is a stack of mattresses, a smaller tent, plastic chairs and a banner bearing photographs of the camp’s recent martyrs – Qassem and Fouad Loubaneh.
It is Nahr al-Bared’s self-styled Tahrir Square, albeit on a much smaller scale, where strong coffee, cigarettes and nargileh mix with political planning, film screenings, meetings and socializing.
The demands of this peaceful sit-in include the elimination of the permit system that requires residents to show identification when entering the camp. Those who don’t live in the camp must receive permission to come in.
It also demands the Army’s withdrawal from inside the camp and the freeing of 10 men – some said to be under the age of 15 – who have been held by the Army since the incident last month.
Young men – perhaps the hardest hit by the permit regime and high unemployment – were the first on the streets, and today they are leading the sit-in. After the intercession of Abu Walid Ghneim, a respected community member, they organized and eventually decided to bring Palestinian factions, sheikhs and the Popular Committees into the fold to negotiate with Lebanese authorities.
Jamal Abu Ali, the current head of the camp’s Popular Committees, said that a recent meeting with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, representatives of General Security, Army Intelligence and the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee had borne fruit.
Clutching the terms of an agreement in his hands, he read that the Army would end the permission system no later than July 15 and those arrested would be released. No date has been set for their discharge. There are other promises too, including steps toward a return of Army-controlled land and payments for those injured and the families of the dead.
The request that the Army leaves Nahr al-Bared is paired with a surprising lack of hostility toward the institution itself. Hamas’ head in the camp, Abdul-Rahim Ahmad al-Sharif, even noted several marriages between soldiers and camp residents.
“We are not against the Lebanese Army, and our fight is not with the Lebanese Army,” Sharif said.
Rather, “we need the Lebanese Army to decrease its security presence around the camps and not to deal with them as dangerous security areas, especially in Nahr al-Bared where there are no weapons.”
Army representatives in Tripoli and Nahr al-Bared declined to comment.
Aside from their resentment of the Army’s presence, other grievances have been accumulating for some five years now.
A painfully slow reconstruction process – almost all of the camp’s homes were destroyed in 2007 – means that many are still living in cramped temporary accommodations that are no more than glorified aluminum stables. Unemployment is high in a place that was once an economic hub, and for those with jobs salaries are low.
But despite these and other daily indignities, it was the perceived assault of the woman last month that set off what many called “the explosion.”
As Ghneim, a white-haired man who rolls his “r”s with the gravitas of the school principle he once was, explained, hitting this woman “was playing with fire ... When she fell on the ground screaming it was as if a button was pressed, and there was a release of [the pressure] from the past five years.”
Bilal Assayed, under the tent with his proud father smiling nearby, was one of the men in the streets and is now among the protest’s leaders.
“Most of the people in Nahr al-Bared have a depression of sorts,” he explained, adding that Palestinian Factions and Popular Committees brought young people like him “no results or solutions” in the time since 2007.
His generation, he said, came from a time of revolutions, referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s presence in Lebanon. “This made us always look to political parties or the revolution to secure our future.”
This time, “this uprising, this spring, is coming from the youth,” he said, proud that among them were “Islamist youth ... leftists, we have different perspectives but ... we sit together, with a common aim.”
After prayers last Friday, the tent began to fill up with political leaders, local notables and a sheikh – but mostly with the youths who are, to a large extent, calling the shots.
The genial buzz was far from the violent image that is often associated with the camp. A local sheikh said all of the day’s sermons had focused on the current situation.
The echoes of the Arab Spring are no accident. Although Nahr al-Bared is isolated in many ways and reporters are rarely allowed in, residents consider themselves connected to the regional tides.
Milad Salameh, one of the young organizers who said that he had been in the street “since the first day,” said that Nahr al-Bared had drawn inspiration from uprisings in the region.
Eventually, he said the “aim here is to turn this place into an academy to make them [other young people] continue to [advocate for] their rights.” To that end, there are film screenings and other activities held under the tent.
Other, more sinister Arab Spring ties have been alleged. Some, including Ramallah-based Palestinian official Azzam al-Ahmad, have accused outside forces of stirring up trouble in Nahr al-Bared and other Palestinian camps.
The Syrian linked Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command has a presence in some camps.
PFLP-GC’s head in Nahr al-Bared, Mohammad Mustafa Amr, denied that Syria or any other outside conflict was linked to the events in the camp.
Anyone who claims this is “lying,” he said, adding that as for the PFLP-GC, “I am responsible for every member of our community” and they are not whipping up tension.
As of Sunday evening, none of the arrested men had been released but there was talk of a Monday date.
Asked if he trusted any of the government’s promises, the elder Ghneim said: “I have made myself ... believe these promises, because I don’t want to have any more martyrs.”
However, promises have been broken here before. The men in the tent, some of whom are sleeping there, aren’t planning to leave until their demands are met.