The main Lebanese military checkpoint outside Nahr El Bared has a mean, border-town feel. Men hang around smoking and glowering at passersby with casual suspicion; an old man sells coffee out of a metal pitcher. Five trucks are lined up, waiting to bring food and supplies into the camp. On each truck, a banner proclaims that the supplies are a gift to our brothers in nahr el bared, in the memory of the martyr rafik hariri.
Several Arab reporters and I drive past the checkpoint and down the road that runs alongside the camp. It’s lined with army tanks and soldiers. Several businesses show signs of heavy fighting, the front of their facades collapsed into the street. There’s a ceasefire, but you can still hear the occasional rattle of gunfire. Smoke rises from behind fields covered with purple morning glories.
Of the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, about 250,000 live in twelve camps scattered across the country. The camps are mainly ruled by militias, because the Lebanese army cannot enter under a 1969 agreement ceding control of the camps to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Inside the camps, where living conditions are miserable, regional players hustle for power. Some groups are loyal to Damascus; others to Palestinian parties like Hamas and Fatah; some even span the Sunni-Shia divide and lean toward Hezbollah (most Muslim Palestinians are Sunni, not Shia). What makes this mix of influences particularly volatile is the danger that trouble could spread to other camps as the fighting drags on.
Outside the entrance to Nahr El Bared, a crowd of about 50 men is gathered. A battered white sedan with two bullet holes in the front bumper pulls up. A giant man with a bristly grey crew cut unfolds himself from the car and lumbers toward us, clearing his path with a massive potbelly and dragging a Kalashnikov. He has a green strap tied around his head and a pair of handcuffs dangling from his belt. The pack of men part eagerly before him. His name is Mustafa Abu Saqr.
"We’re helping the army," he says, with pride. "I am bringing the bodies and the injured soldiers out under constant gunfire. They even fired a mortar at me. You can see it, look at the building over there; all the people saw it hit the building. You can take a picture of it. Mine was the only car moving on the street."
Loyalty to the Palestinian cause has always been a reliable way to boost your Arab nationalist credentials; this is why Saddam Hussein donated money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. So attacking Palestinian civilians is generally not a good p.r. move in the Arab world.
But there’s deep resentment of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and they’re often an easy scapegoat for the country’s problems. When we ask Abu Saqr if he knows about civilian casualties inside the camp, he answers by referring to the Palestinians as "Jews," and the camp as "Tel Aviv."
"Over there, in Tel Aviv?" he says, pointing toward the camp with contempt. "Don’t bother asking! There are lots of dead bodies lying in the street like dogs. No one is moving them. None of the hospitals would accept them." (This is not true; half an hour later, we speak to a 17-year-old Palestinian boy, with shrapnel wounds in his chest, at a local hospital that has been treating casualties from the camp.)
Abu Saqr is part of an old Lebanese tradition: He’s a qabaday, a kind of neighborhood strongman. There’s no exact English translation, but the qabadays are a lot like the old precinct captains in Chicago’s Democratic political machine–the ones who went around the neighborhood during elections to make sure everyone voted. Thuggish and occasionally violent, qabadays operate in the pay of a political boss–in Lebanon, a zaim, or patriarchal political leader–and use bands of armed followers to make sure the zaim‘s instructions get carried out.
This bewildering array of allegiances—to leaders, to faiths, to political causes—concentrated into one camp, which sits right next to another array of similarly complicated and competitive allegiances is not the result of a "clash of civilizations". This is crisis by mistake.
Some perceive the fighting of recent days as a confrontation between regional forces – the US, Syria, Saudi Arabia – vying for control of the Lebanese political space. Others see it as a plan that went wrong, with Islamist groups escaping the control of the pro-government forces that nurtured them. And others perceive it as an attempt to draw the Lebanese army – regarded as the only genuinely national force in the country – into the fray of Lebanese politics.
This is what comes of hubris.