Well it was about time. The events in Gaza were getting way too depressing. The rhetoric of "severe and harsh" responses, the "promise" of a painful escalation emanating from that profane hole in Olmert's face were just a tad too familiar. So it's time for something new and slightly more esoteric:
Fatah al Islam-- a kooky Salafist group, which nobody had heard about until recently-- has set up shop in the Nahr el Bared Palestinian refugee camp and is battling it out with the Lebanese army. The group apparently also own prime real estate in an upscale neighborhood of nearby Tripoli -- worth a million dollars and upwards-- which they used as snipers' nests during the house to house gun battles yesterday.
The fighting erupted early Sunday morning when soldiers raided an apartment inhabited by militants to arrest the suspected perpetrators of a bank robbery. Fatah al Islam subsequently stormed the army posts outside the camp, lining up and executing eleven soldiers. At least 47 dead in yesterday's clashes, without an updated casualty count from the besieged Nahr el Bared camp where 40,000 Palestinian refugees live. Fighting continued today.
Nobody really knows who Fatah al Islam are or what they want. Their members reportedly hail from as far as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bangladesh. They stand accused of having ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq and of carrying out the Ain Alaq bus bombing, which the group denies ( very un-qaeda'esque not to claim responsibility.) According to a spokesman, they seek to "protect the Sunnis of Lebanon" and a sheikh associated with them recently complained that only the Shi'a are allowed to yield weapons. The militant equivalent of penis envy, perhaps. Either way, they need better PR.
Saniora's government claims Fatah al Islam, a breakaway group of the Palestinian Fatah al Intifada, work for Syrian intelligence. Seymour Hersh writing in the New Yorker in January proposed an alternative explanation:
"Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, 'The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous.' Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. 'I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah,' Crooke said."
Apparently, Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa granted entry visas to 2,000 Al Qaeda-associated militants in December 2005 who never left Lebanon, but rather set up shop in that same camp. Read the rest of Hersh's piece to learn how Saad al Hariri intervened to release Salafist militants from prison. New TV just reported that a framed picture of al-Hariri was found in one of the homes of the militants in Tripoli. Oops!
This is all old news, of course, and the western media is doing us all a great disservice by blindly regurgitating the Saniora government's claims about Syrian sponsorship, and by ignoring these embarassing little details. Fatfat, the minister of Youth, Sports & Caffeinated Beverages, put in his two cents arguing that the violence was intended to derail the International Tribunal. Nayla Mouawad-- just now on CNN-- reiterated the same, and said something about no longer tolerating the "extra-territoriality" of the Palestinians. Lovely. The dumb bell CNN anchor who looked as confused as ever listening to the convoluted ramblings of Dame Nayla made it seem like Fatah al Islam represented the entire Palestinian nation in exile.
What seems clear is that whoever once sponsored or gave orders to Fatah al Islam has unleashed a beast they no longer control and a policy of trying to contain (or tolerate) the group is no longer working.
In the meantime, the army which is not allowed to enter Nahr el Bared, is shelling the camp "indiscriminately", according to a PFLP spokesman earlier today. The wounded are not receiving medical attention; fires are raging. "We want ambulances to be allowed into the refugee camp to transfer the civilian casualties. We also want fire brigades to enter the camp and put off the fire in many buildings." A cloud of black smoke envelopes the camp, and rescue workers who were trying to evacuate the wounded were fired upon.
Last night, I watched a cheesy thriller on TV as a respite from the bad news. My tolerance for cinematic suspense is low, a hereditary condition handed down by my mother who leaves the room at least 20 times in the course of an episode of "Columbo". After the movie, my friend M. went home and I went to the bathroom. With the ominous film soundtrack still ringing in my ear, I was just sitting down on the loo (excuse the details) when I decided that it was best to close the window behind me, so as not to have my back to it (they always attack from behind in movies.)
Suddenly I heard an extraordinary blast, which shook the whole bathroom. For a moment I thought the noise was in my head, that I has suffered some sort of brain tremor, that my vision was blurred and my ears were ringing from combusted brain cells. I heard something fall in the kitchen. I leaped up and ran into the living room to call my friend M. who had just left the house minutes earlier. By the time I dialed his number, he was pounding on the door.
"What was that?" "A massive explosion. There was glass breaking outside," he said, hurrying past me into the living room to turn on the TV.
There were no reports on TV, so we climbed up to the roof. Most of the neighbors were standing out on their balconies. Nobody spoke, except for the policemen who guard the minister's home across the street. They were frantically trying to re-assume their position in front of the house they are supposed to be guarding. Billows of black smoke and the smell of burning carbon filled the air.
I sent as many text messages as my shaking hand allowed-- to family and friends. Conflicting reports about the exact location of the bombing appeared on various news sites, until-- about forty-five minutes later-- it was established that a car bomb had exploded in a parking lot next to the ABC Achrafiye mall, just a few hundred meters away. The bomb tore a 3 m wide and 1/5 m deep radius into the ground. A wall collapsed on a 63-year old lady in her nearby apartment. 12 others were wounded by broken glass.
Lebanon is making headlines again; the Palestinians are bearing the brunt of it, and we are chain-smoking ourselves to death in the early summer sun.