BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a staunch U.S. ally, has confirmed that a Lebanese military investigation is underway following allegations that Palestinians living in the country's Nahr al-Bared refugee camp were beaten by Lebanese soldiers, and their homes looted and torched, in the aftermath of last summer's battle between Islamist militants in the camp and the Lebanese army.
Lebanese troops burned some homes to rid them of poison left behind by defeated militants at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, Siniora wrote in a yet-unreleased letter to Amnesty International in December. It was the first response the rights group has received from Siniora's government after repeated calls for investigations into alleged army abuses. In an Oct. 31 press release, the group outlined reports it received of widespread looting and burning of Palestinian homes that allegedly occurred after fighting ended and the army took control of the camp in September.
Siniora did not specifically respond to several of the allegations leveled at the army, but in his letter to Amnesty International he writes that the militants operating in the camp were captured with large sums of money, "indicating they had been involved in looting," according to Amnesty's Neil Sammonds. But Sammonds said Siniora did not explain how the militants would have managed to move heavy appliances like refrigerators and washing machines from the camp during the army's three-month siege. "We are pleased to have such a fairly prompt response," said Sammonds, but "clearly there are some outstanding issues."
The 15-week battle, beginning in May 2007, against Fatah al-Islam -- an al-Qaida-inspired militant group that claimed many foreign fighters as members -- killed more than 40 civilians, 160 soldiers, and 220 militants, according to press reports. The army has since been widely praised by the Lebanese public as a symbol of inter-sectarian cooperation in a country cleaved by ethnic and political differences.
In addition to the alleged arson and looting, Amnesty and other rights groups have raised questions about civilian deaths during the fighting. One incident, during a temporary ceasefire May 22, saw two civilians killed when a truck delivering water and food to those trapped in the camp exploded. In another incident on the same day, two people were killed when a bus filled with those trying to flee the camp was fired upon near an army checkpoint. "A boy was reportedly taken from the bus by soldiers and tortured with electricity applied to his wrists, and threatened in an effort to make him say that he had been armed and was planning to carry out a suicide attack at the army checkpoint," according to a June Amnesty report.
At the nearby Badawi refugee camp, hundreds of families that formerly lived at Nahr al-Bared now sleep on floors in crowded classrooms and community centers or pay expensive rent for a flat or space in a garage. During Lebanon's recent cold snap, some families huddled together under blankets around heaters or near makeshift campfires in courtyards.
Many former Nahr al-Bared residents here dispute Siniora's explanations of the looting and arson. Echoing a common accusation, one man told World Politics Review that he witnessed Lebanese soldiers filling army trucks with looted fridges and washing machines during the battle. He returned after the conflict, he said, to find his home destroyed and those of his neighbors stripped of even their plumbing and electrical wiring. Many cars, he said, had been driven into the river. "There is nobody over here to stop [soldiers], to bring journalists to stop them."
While rights advocates are quick to point out that they don't have hard evidence of army wrongdoing, they say they have had little opportunity to investigate the allegations. A cordon of military checkpoints and plainclothes security forces has barred media and human rights monitors for months, hampering independent investigations.
"We don't know anything and that's the problem," said Aurelie Proust. Proust works for a Lebanon-based human rights group, Alef, that has yet to be allowed inside the camp despite laboring for months to get through the Lebanese army's red tape. "Under human rights law you have the right to an effective remedy to whichever violation of your rights occurred. If you cannot report that a violation of your rights occurred, then how are you going to get a remedy?"
Some journalists and independent observers have managed to sneak in and take photos of anti-Palestinian graffiti and burned walls.
In a Washington Post op-ed last month, journalist Nir Rosen described his observations inside Nahr al-Bared. "Most buildings had been burned from the inside; the signs of the flammable liquids that the soldiers had used were scorched on the walls, and empty fuel canisters were strewn on the floors. Ceilings and walls were riddled with bullets, shot from inside, seemingly for sport. Most homes that I saw had been emptied of furniture, appliances, sinks, toilets, televisions and refrigerators. Most shockingly, soldiers had defecated in kitchens and bedrooms, on plates, bowls, pots and mattresses; they had urinated into olive-oil jars. . . . Insulting graffiti were scrawled on the charred walls, as were threats, signed by various Lebanese army units."
Several NGO employees, who wished not to be identified for fear of being barred from Nahr al-Bared themselves, said that there has been a recent tightening of access to the camp, making it harder to bring outsiders in.
Meanwhile, at Badawi, some say that the army has begun allowing residents to return to areas of Nahr al-Bared that were previously off-limits, such as the central neighborhood known as "the old camp," to retrieve their possessions before the area's planned demolition in coming months. Accompanied by soldiers and required to sign a statement that they have recovered all their possessions, several say they have found little but bare, smoke-covered walls.
Samira Trad, who works as an advocate on refugee issues, says it is unclear who did the looting, and says the perpetrators could have been Lebanese civilians or others. "Unless there is a very thorough investigation, it's very difficult to start making accusations. It sounds strange that soldiers would have had the time to do this looting. They were in a very difficult situation."
In 2003, Trad was herself detained by Lebanese authorities and charged with "harming the honor and integrity" of the state after issuing a report critical of the government's treatment of Iraqi refugees. Her detention sparked protest from groups like Human Rights Watch, which said it was designed to "intimidate others from speaking critically about government policies."
Investigating and reporting the allegations surrounding Nahr al-Bared is particularly tough, she said, in an environment of newfound national solidarity around the army, which lost many soldiers in the fight at Nahr al-Bared.
"The pressure should be put on the government, which is accountable to the people, to do an investigation," she said. "In the U.S., you can see generals being brought to trial. It's not normal here. They have to be like saints."
Amnesty International plans to press the Siniora government for further details about how the investigation will be conducted, said Sammonds.
*Also featured in the Council on Foreign Relation's Daily Brief, January 28, 2008.