Lebanon's Troublesome Camps

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Marwan Naamani / AFP / Getty

Members of a joint force of pro-Syrian groups and the PLO patrol a street in the northern sector of the refugee camp of Ain el-Helweh, near Sidon, Lebanon, June 6, 2007.

The Palestinian gunman ran toward the entrance of the small military base and cocked his rifle. "Get your hands up in the air," he yelled angrily at a visiting TIME correspondent. His aimed rifle and furious scowl made it clear that visitors were not welcome.

The base, hidden in a small quarry just south of Kfar Zabad village in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, is local headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a small pro-Syrian faction. With Lebanon mired in steadily worsening violence, this base and other Palestinian refugee military camps are coming under renewed scrutiny: many are controlled by pro-Syrian groups scattered mainly in remote rocky valleys close to the Syrian border and, as the United Nations Security Council said last week, there is "deep concern" that weapons and militants are being smuggled across Syria's porous border with Lebanon, contributing to the growing instability in this tiny Mediterranean country.

On Wednesday, Walid Eido, an outspoken anti-Syrian politician, was killed along with his son, two bodyguards and six civilians in a large car bomb explosion in Beirut. He was the seventh anti-Syrian figure to be assassinated since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. In the north, Lebanese troops remain locked in a bloody three-week confrontation with militants from the Fatah al-Islam faction in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. Lebanese officials say that the recently formed Fatah al-Islam was sent into Lebanon by Syrian military intelligence to cause instability, a charge Damascus strongly denies. Lebanese security officials also maintain that pro-Syrian Palestinians of the PFLP-GC have taken sides with Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared.

"The men of the PFLP-GC are fighting [alongside] Fatah al-Islam," Brigadier General Ashraf Rifi, the head of Lebanon's paramilitary Internal Security Forces, told TIME. This week, Terje Roed-Larsen, a U.N. Mideast envoy, reported to the U.N. Security Council that the PFLP-GC and Fatah Intifada, a smaller pro-Syrian faction, appeared to be growing stronger in Lebanon due to a "steady flow of weapons and armed elements across the border from Syria." Syria has described the allegations as "lies" with the Syrian state news agency asserting that Roed-Larsen's claims were "misleading" and nothing more than "rumors released for political purposes."

Most of these small Palestinian military bases have existed since the early 1970s and are separate from the 12 established Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where the estimated population of some 350,000 refugees live. In early 2006, Lebanon's top leaders agreed that the Palestinian military bases would be closed down within a six-month time frame. But the decision went unfulfilled as more pressing political crises emerged, overshadowing the fate of the bases. In an interview with TIME, Mohammed Chatah, senior advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora described the bases as "a nuisance at the very least."

A U.N. delegation is about to wrap up a three-week mission to examine security procedures along the Lebanon-Syria border and will conclude that much needs to be done to tighten border security. That could spur U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to recommend dispatching a U.N. observer mission to monitor the porous frontier. Such a decision will anger Damascus, which has repeatedly stated its opposition to an international presence along its border with Lebanon. It will further add pressure on the Palestinian bases, which are linked to Syria via numerous remote trails that criss-cross the mountainous border. The Lebanese army tightened control over the bases 18 months ago, manning checkpoints on the approach roads and monitoring movements of the Palestinian militants. A corner of southeast Lebanon near the villages of Yanta and Helwa along the Syrian border, where several Fatah Intifada bases are located, has become a sealed-off military zone. "Everybody is focusing on us and the PFLP-GC because we are pro-Syrian, but we are proud to be pro-Syrian," says Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, a Fatah Intifada security official in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut.

The angry PFLP-GC guard at the base near Kfar Zabad held a TIME correspondent at gunpoint until the post's commander arrived. The bearded commander, dressed in a purple shell suit and sandals, was friendlier, but taciturn. "We are guests in this country and we are here in these bases only to help liberate Palestine," he said with a smile, while refusing to give his name and answer any further questions. The fighting in north Lebanon presents the Lebanese army with its toughest challenge in decades. Analysts believe that if the Fatah al-Islam militants are soundly defeated it will greatly boost the stature of the under-equipped army and strengthen its ability to impose security.

The possibility of a confrontation with the Lebanese army appears to be playing on the minds of the PFLP-GC. The entrance to a PFLP-GC base at Naameh in the coastal hills nine miles south of Beirut has been reinforced recently with sandbags and fiberglass tubs filled with earth. A uniformed gunman pulled a wool mask over his face at the approach of a TIME correspondent. As he called his commander by field telephone, a dozen other heavily armed fighters emerged from a small trail running into the brush-covered hillside beside a long-abandoned factory partially destroyed by years of Israeli air strikes against the base. Some of the fighters wore checkered headscarves over the faces, others clutched rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Deeply suspicious, they took up firing positions in the rocks either side of the road and scanned the approaches intently.

Abu Amine, the gray-haired commander in Naameh, said that they would abandon the military posts and return to the refugee camps if Palestinians in Lebanon were given basic civil rights. The Palestinians are tightly controlled in Lebanon, barred from all but menial labor. "They talk about Naameh as an illegitimate security zone, but we will never take sides against the patriotic Lebanese army," says this grizzled veteran of the Palestinian revolution dressed in an old U.S. army desert camouflage uniform and sandals. Still, the reinforcements at Naameh and the alert fighters suggests that despite talk of peace, the militants of the PFLP-GC are readying for a confrontation.