Scapegoating Lebanon’s Palestinians

Palestinian mourners react as they carry the body of a Palestinian man as they march during his funeral in Tariq al-Jadida in Beirut on 23 October 2012. (Photo: Reuters – Mohamed Azakir )

When an armed Salafi group decided to attack the Roma neighborhood in the Cola district last Sunday night, it was reported by some media that Palestinian fighters were taking part in the clashes.

The news caused alarm in Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp adjoining Tariq al-Jdideh, as the camp’s security committee had deployed its personnel at the entrances from the start of the violence to prevent anyone entering or leaving the camp.

The day after the violence, a young Palestinian called Ahmad Quweider was killed. The statement issued by the army’s directorate of guidance said: “Two individuals named Ahmad and Abed Quweider, of Palestinian nationality, opened fire with light combat weapons on an army patrol in Qasqas Square. “Members of the patrol returned fire, resulting in the death of Ahmad from his wounds.”Fighters from the Future Movement who had clashed with the army affirmed that the brothers had been heading for Maslakh al-Karantina on their motorcycle, and were unarmed. But there was a tragic mistake, and Ahmad was hit in the head by an army bullet, killing him instantly.

Nobody, of course, questioned the army’s account. Who would dare cast aspersions on the army’s behavior in such critical times?

Then a video clip posted on social networking sites showing Quweider’s lifeless body lying on the ground, with no sign of any weapons nearby, raised serious doubts about the incident. Al-Akhbar could not confirm the authenticity of the video. While eyewitnesses who were present say Ahmad was driving the motorbike and his brother was riding behind him, the video shows that Ahmad was shot directly in the head from behind and his brother was hit in the neck.

Officials from Palestinian political factions did not believe the given account of the incident, so took their questions to the army’s intelligence chief, General Edmond Fadel, on Thursday.

They suggested to him that – assuming the two young men had indeed fired on the army – it could be presumed that the rider on the back was doing the shooting, while the man in front was driving. They managed to travel some distance away from the soldiers’ location in order to have then had their backs to them. In that case, the army’s response was strangely slow.

But it was also possible, they suggested, that a gunman positioned elsewhere might have fired on the troops, taking advantage of the motorbike passing by to snipe at the patrol, and that the pair had nothing to with the incident. It is common in wars for soldiers to panic when they come under direct attack. And would it make sense, they wondered, for two gunmen, riding a small moped with a maximum speed of 40km per hour, carrying no ammunition pouches and with their faces unmasked, and with no covering fire, to approach an army patrol in an open area and shoot at it?

The officials affirmed that Ahmad was unarmed, and that he and his brother just happened to be passing by. The army promised to investigate.

There are, therefore, a number of possibilities, including that the Quweider brothers were not involved in the fighting. But from the moment it was reported that a Palestinian was killed in the violence and mayhem, the “news” had stuck in Lebanese minds, and been turned into immutable fact.

Furthermore, Change and Reform Bloc leader Michel Aoun declared in his press conference Wednesday that “there are 70 Palestinians and 34 members of the Free (Syrian) Army setting fire to Tariq al-Jdideh.” The statement issued by the army the same evening, however, spoke of “four Palestinians” having been arrested.

So what happened to the remaining 66?

We can be sure that the people Aoun referred to are Palestinian refugees. However, these youths do not live in the refugee camps. They live and were raised in Tariq al-Jdideh. They belong to Lebanese political parties, and take their orders from them, rather than heeding whatever officials from this or that Palestinian faction might say. That is why they were taking part in the fighting: they have swapped allegiance to their nationality for allegiance to their sect and district.The Palestinians in the camps, however, have nothing to do with issue. They played no part at all in the events of recent days.

But as certain people know full well, Shatila refugee camp is adjacent to the Sabra neighborhood. Sabra is inhabited by Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, and is not under the control of the camp security committee. The committee cannot therefore prevent anyone in that area from going out onto the streets. That task “is assigned to the Lebanese army ,” says the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)’s rapporteur in Lebanon, Fathi Abul-Ardat.

Abul-Ardat explains that when the violence broke out, “we acted to bring under control undisciplined Palestinian elements inside the camps who might try to take part. We prevented any from leaving Shatila. But there are Palestinians in the various Lebanese political parties, and we are not responsible for them.”

From the outset, Palestinian faction officials made contact with the army command and with the various Lebanese parties to stress that the camps are not involved in what is happening, and to inform them that a political decision has been taken not to allow the camps to be dragged into any internal Lebanese conflict.

Yet whatever they do, the Palestinians continue to be blamed for whatever happens in Lebanon. One may recall the famous cartoon from the 1970s by the late Naji al-Ali, with the caption “Every Palestinian is a suspect until proven guilty.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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