Lebanon’s latest war

LEBANON IS EXPLODING yet again, this time in a battle between the Lebanese army and a splinter group of radical Islamist militants who control a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. As usual, civilians (in this case, the refugees who live in the Nahr el Bared camp) are held hostage to the whims of armed fanatics (in this case, the Fatah al Islam jihadists who attacked the Lebanese army). As usual, the fighting may or may not have been inspired by -- but certainly benefits -- a cynical foreign power (in this case, Syria). As usual, there are no good solutions, and the best that can be hoped for at the moment is to quell the Islamist uprising without a bloodbath.

As the United States and several Arab nations rush military aid to Beirut, however, they should make sure the festering Palestinian refugee problem in Lebanon doesn’t erupt into a new war. The truth is that the 370,000 Palestinians (about 12% of the population) are despised by most Lebanese, who blame them for the 1975-90 civil war and see them as a dangerous Sunni fifth column in their midst. The Palestinians are denied not only citizenship but the right to own property and even to work, a formula for radicalization. Last week brought ugly scenes of Tripoli residents cheering while the army fired artillery shells into the refugee camp, where about 40,000 Palestinians lived. As of Friday, the U.N. estimated that 15,000 people were still in the camp, where a fragile truce was holding.

It is unacceptable for any government to shell a refugee camp. But it’s equally unacceptable for a refugee camp to become a terrorist enclave -- in this case, one protected by a 1969 Arab agreement that prevents the Lebanese army from entering. That agreement may be something of an excuse for the overstretched army, which may have its own reasons for not wishing to engage in house-to-house combat with the heavily armed Palestinian and jihadist fighters, who reportedly hail from Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia.


The 1969 agreement made a modicum of sense, as it gave the Palestinian Liberation Organization authority over camps it already controlled. Now, with the PLO and the camps splintered among various factions, the agreement is a dangerous anachronism. Afghanistan and Pakistan have shown that terrorist states-within-states pose a threat beyond their borders. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora should inform the Arab League and the United Nations that he intends to assert control over the camps -- and the West should back him.

But it’s vital that our Lebanese ally play by the rules. Now that Washington is stepping up military aid, it has a responsibility to ensure that civilians are evacuated before fighting resumes.