“Mission Accomplished” at Nahr el-Bared?

NAHR EL-BARED, Lebanon — Wassim al-Hagehussein was worried. The Lebanese soldier was twitchy, suspicious as he stalked through the dark and powerless grocery store where Wassim worked. It was a day after Prime Minister Fuad Siniora had declared an end to the war over the Palestinian camp Nahr el-Bared, during which fanatical jihadists had fought off an Army onslaught for 106 days. And now, today, the fighting had started up again and the grocery store was in the crossfire. A company of soldiers was pinned down by an unknown number of Fatah al-Islam fugitive fighters.

“Are there any Palestinians in here?” the soldier asked the owner, Rabieh al-Masri, who was a boss and a friend to Wassim. The soldiers had just arrested another Palestinian in front of the store and taken him in for questioning.

Al-Masri deliberately didn’t look at Wassim. “No,” he said. “There are no Palestinians here.”

He was lying. Wassim was a Palestinian from Nahr el-Bared.

For three and a half months, this wretched Palestinian camp just north of Tripoli has been under siege by Lebanese troops against Fatah al-Islam militants, a jihadi group that shares an ideology with al Qaeda and which some Lebanese officials say is supported by Syrian military intelligence. The battle started on May 20 when militants attacked Army units normally posted outside the camp, killing more than a dozen troops. The Army responded with a massive campaign of shelling and ground assaults that killed 163 soldiers, at least 131 militants and 42 civilians. The camp itself, a warren of cinderblock buildings built up over almost 60 years now looks like piles of melted wedding cake, with almost every building honeycombed from shell blasts and entire floors sliding off into the streets.

On Sunday, it seemed that after a long grind, the fight had come to an end. After a last-ditch escape attempt that left its leader dead, Fatah al-Islam positions were overrun by Lebanese troops, who sent up a celebratory flare from the center of the camp, which has been in place since the 1948 creation of Israel forced thousands of Palestinian families to flee to Lebanon as refugees. Since then, the camp has swelled to more than 30,000 people cramped into a 1 square kilometer space, and a breeding ground for extreme ideologies that feed on hopelessness and resentment.

Just an hour before the soldier stomped into the store, Wassim, a Palestinian, and Rabieh, a Lebanese, were happily chatting with Western reporters just a few hundred meters from the camp’s entrance. Al-Masri rents the store from Wassim’s parents, some of the more well-off members of the Nahr el-Bared community. Wassim, 30, has worked for al-Masri for seven years and the two are close despite the often strained relations between the Lebanese and the Palestinians. They were happy that the war up north seemed to be over, and Wassim was particularly happy about the pledge from Siniora to rebuild the camp and, more important, place it under Lebanese authority.

Under a tacit agreement, the Palestinians policed themselves, and maintained large weapons stockpiles, mainly as symbols of their resistance to Israel. The Lebanese government has never claimed sovereignty over the camps, publicly committing itself to the Palestinians’ right of return to their homeland.

But those weapons stockpiles had been turned against the Lebanese Army as one faction, Fatah al-Islam, gained ascendency in Nahr el-Bared. Now Wassim was done with Palestinian in-fighting.

“No more factions,” he said.

Al-Masri was glad the war was over, too, and he hoped that customers could come back soon to start shopping at his store again, one of the largest in the area. He worried that Islamist cells, inspired by Fatah al-Islam and al Qaeda might still be active in Lebanon, but said optimistically, “if there are any, the Army will wind up catching them. It is over,” he added with a smile.

It wasn’t. Moments later the scattered sound of weapon fire sounded off in the distance in the direction of the camp. A few minutes later, about three dozen Lebanese troops who had been fighting in the camp just the night before pulled up in front of the store. Commandos in buildings across the street began to take up positions and directing their comrades to train their weapons both toward the camp and up the hill in the opposite directions. Two groups of Fatah al-Islam fugitives had opened fire on the Army patrol as it exited the camp and now the store, its employees and the soldiers were caught in the crossfire.

“May God burn them,” Asmahan Jawhar, 23, one of the female employees of the store, said of Fatah al-Islam. “They came and messed the place up.”

She had good reason to be angry. On July 14, her brother, Bassam, a commando in the Lebanese Army, died along with six of his men in an ambush by the militants. They were killed when a booby-trapped building collapsed on top of them. It took six days to recover the bodies and jihadi snipers killed three more Lebanese troops as they dug through the rubble.

She cried for days when she heard the news. However, “I was very sad and proud at the same time,” she said.

And now the same militants had her pinned down in a dark grocery store next to a stack of water bottles.

“The sons of bitches are moving quickly” to escape, said the Lebanese platoon leader, who declined to give his name as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

When asked how many had him under fire, he growled, “There are plenty of them. The more we kill, the more we see.”

The company’s lieutenant estimated there were perhaps a dozen fugitive militants split into two groups, one still inside the camp and one outside, had staged the ambush.

The soldiers soon responded with heavy machine guns and outgoing artillery fire, although it was unclear where the shells were landing. The boom of the nearby guns rattled the windows of the store and shook loose dust built over three months of neglect. Al-Masri herded his jittery employees into a corner away from the front of the store.

The fighting eventually died down and the Lebanese troops began to relax. Some lounged in the lee of the armored personnel carriers in evident exhaustion. They had been on patrol all night and they were supposed to be en route back to base for some R ‘n’ R.

“Hey, you guys stand up,” barked one soldier, half in jest. “There are still more to kill.”

Suddenly, soldiers hauled over a young man in a T-shirt and pushed him against the side of an APC, as the soldiers checked his papers. He had been picked up just moments before, in an area where civilians were not supposed to be. The soldiers wanted to make sure he wasn’t another Fatah al-Islam fighter. An officer ordered that he not be mistreated. His papers showed him to be a Palestinian from the camp, but the soldiers were still unsure. One said he had marks on his shoulders from carrying a rucksack and shrapnel marks on his legs, signs of being a fighter. They zip-tied his hands behind his back and arrested him, taking him away to an interrogation center.

Wassim blanched. “I know him, he’s from the camp,” he thought to himself. “If they’re arresting Palestinians they’re surely going to arrest me.” That’s when al-Masri protected him and lied to the soldier.

“It’s my duty,” he would say later, as he and his employees — including Wassim — were being evacuated in a small convoy. While in the car, he tempered his earlier praise of the Army.

“They declared victory yesterday, but it was too quick,” he said. “The Army was confused today. We know and they know (Fatah al-Islam) are out in the fields.”

He thought despite the apparent gains, the Army would be fighting for another two days. “There is no quick end,” he said and sighed. “There will always be something to finish.”

*A version of this post appeared in the [Washington Times](http://www.washingtontimes.com/article/20070904/FOREIGN/109040025/1003) and the [Newark Star-Ledger](http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/index.ssf?/base/news-12/1188880008262240.xml&coll=1).*