Fighting in Lebanon

May 22, 2007

The plumes of black smoke rising this week from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and the sound of gunfire are eerily reminiscent of the country's decades-old civil war and the ethnic fault lines that kept it going for 15 years. The difference now is that Lebanon's military is fighting to rout a new band of extremists, clearly well armed and reportedly influenced by al-Qaida. The government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is asserting itself - as it must to protect this fledgling democracy.

The fighting in and around the Nahr el-Bared camp on the outskirts of the northern port city of Tripoli, where the members of Fateh al-Islam were hiding, is troubling for several reasons.

First and foremost is the risk of injury to civilians as Lebanese tanks fire on the overcrowded camp of 31,000, where residents live in closely built cinderblock homes.

Second, it raises questions about insurgent activity there and in the other 11 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which are off limits to the Lebanese military under an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization that predates the civil war. The insurgents reportedly include foreign fighters from Bangladesh, Yemen and other Arab countries.

Third, the fighting recalls a key provision of a United Nations resolution that helped end last summer's war between Israel and the south Lebanese-based Islamic militant group Hezbollah. It called for the disarming of all militia groups in Lebanon, and until that is done, the Western-backed government of Mr. Siniora remains vulnerable to rogue elements and its sovereign authority threatened.

But the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are islands unto themselves. Although the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has provided services to Palestinian refugees, it does not administer the camps or secure them. Neither does the Lebanese government, and the refugees have no legal status in Lebanon.

Prior to the 2006 war, Mr. Siniora had been negotiating with PLO leaders to change that policy. The fighting outside the refugee camp underscores why the policy must change. The Siniora government, already embroiled in a political fight with elected representatives of Hezbollah, can't afford a second prolonged conflict. It must defeat the insurgents before the violence spreads.

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