War of the Camps
I stumbled on this very inspiring account of the 'War of the Camps' at one of the backissues of 'Washington Report on Middle East Affairs'.
By Stephen J. Sosebee
. . . Few communities have endured such sustained efforts at eradication as the Palestinian refugees of the Sabra-Shatila camps. Less than three years after the Israeli-backed 1982 massacre, the camps again were attacked with almost the same ferocity by the Syrian-backed Shi'i-dominated Amal militia. Amal's full-scale military attack on the Sabra-Shatila and Bourj al-Barajna refugee camps in west Beirut in May 1985 was the first of three separate sieges that lasted through 1988 and became known in Lebanon as "The Camp Wars."
The Amal movement came to power as an arm of the disenfranchised Shi'i Muslims who dominate south Lebanon and the slums of south Beirut. "Like Palestinians, the Shi'i are an oppressed people in Lebanon," explains Nabil Akram, a Palestinian survivor of the camp wars. "We never understood why they would attack and kill us, as we did not oppress them."
On the eve of the attack on the Palestinian camps in Beirut in the spring of 1985, Amal leader Nabih Berri, who now is a member of Lebanon's cabinet, stated that Amal refuses "to go back to the situation prevailing before 1982 and the rebuilding of a [Palestinian] state within a [Lebanese] state." Most Lebanese explained that Amal was doing the dirty work for Syria which, as the occupying power in most of Lebanon, had a vested interest in seeing the Palestinians remain weak and powerless.
"The resistance of the Palestinians impressed even the most seasoned observers."
In fact the withdrawal of the PLO's armed forces from Lebanon, and the demoralization that followed the Sabra-Shatila massacre, left the Palestinians in Beirut's refugee camps in no position to rebuild a "state within a state." Instead, the 1982 Israeli invasion had left the Palestinians at their weakest point since their arrival in Lebanon as refugees in 1948.
As a result, by 1985 the Syrians and Amal calculated that it was a perfect time to ensure that Syrian dominance in Lebanon would never again be challenged by a PLO under Yasser Arafat. However, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad miscalculated in assuming that leftist Palestinian factions partially or wholly funded by Syria would stand aside as Lebanese Shi'i militiamen crushed Arafat loyalists defending the camps.
"They underestimated the unity of the Palestinian people," recalls Akram. "The DFLP [Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine] and other Palestinian factions stood side by side and fought off the Amal attacks. This was not a war against Arafat, but against Palestinian camps housing Palestinian families of all factions. We made a military pact, but not necessarily a political one."
The first battle of the camps erupted in May and lasted for a month. Some Sabra camp refugees fled deeper into adjoining Shatila camp but when Sabra fell after two weeks, many of the remaining inhabitants were massacred or again made refugees. At Gaza Hospital in Sabra, 70 patients were taken from their beds and killed by Amal soldiers. "What the Israelis and their Christian allies could not finish in Sabra camp in September 1982 was completed by Amal in two weeks," says Akram.
"When Amal attacked us, we were unprepared to defend the camps," recalls Marwan Hamdan, a DFLP veteran of the fighting. "The fall of Sabra made us realize that this was a fight for
Seemingly Easy Targets
To most observers, all three camps in Beirut seemed easy targets that would quickly fall under the onslaught of better-armed, better-trained and far more numerous Amal militiamen and the Shi'i-dominated Sixth Brigade of the Lebanese army. Amal political chief Akif Haydar said his comrades-in-arms launched a "total war" against the Palestinians, whose fighters were outnumbered eight to one. While Amal used tanks, mortars and cannons, the Palestinians had only light weapons. With an estimated 40,000 Palestinian civilians at their backs, a few hundred encircled Palestinian fighters made one of the bravest military stands in modern history.
In Amal and the Palestinians: Understanding the Battle of the Camps, U.S. scholar Elaine Hagopian writes: "The resistance of the Palestinians—in two of the three camps—right up until the global cease-fire impressed even the most seasoned observers; the military leaders of the Amal movement were the first to be surprised. Such resistance was in major ways the dynamic factor that dictated all the major phases of the battle."
In addition to the stiff Palestinian resistance from within the camps, the shelling of Amal and Shi'i positions around the camps by Druze and Palestinian leftist fighters from the mountains overlooking Beirut helped relieve some of the pressure on the Palestinian fighters. After a month of bloodletting, international and Arab pressure on Syria and Lebanon forced Damascus to impose a cease-fire between the Shi'i and Palestinians.
It lasted until May 1986, when Amal fighters again attacked Shatila and Bourj al-Barajna camps in Beirut and also the Ein el-Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon. In her book, Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon, author Rosemary Sayigh (a sister of Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said) says Palestinian fighters were better prepared to defend their camps in 1986 and after one month of bloody fighting had battled Amal to another cease-fire.
In November, 1986, however, the war of the camps resumed and this time the Palestinians were driven to near starvation during a six-month siege. "I didn't even have food for my baby," says Umm Mohammed of Shatila. "We would have to go get water through snipers, and every day a mother was shot down." By March 1987, besieged camp inmates had requested a special religious dispensation to allow those still living to eat the dead. Fortunately the siege was lifted before that happened, but the last battle of the camps was a harrowing test of Palestinian resistance and determination. . .
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