Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In May, fighting broke out between Fatah Islam, a militant Islamist Palestinian organization, and the Lebanese army after a bank robbery in which the robbers were traced to the militants’ office in Tripoli.

The fighting, which continues to this day, centered around the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, north of Tripoli, where an estimated 150 to 200 Fatah Islam fighters have been resisting attempts by the Lebanese armed forces to restore law and order in the camp. This untenable situation has forced the Lebanese Army to bombard the camp, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Lebanese soldiers and Palestinian militants and forcing thousands of Palestinian families to flee the refugee camp for even worse conditions elsewhere.

Fatah Islam (“Conquest of Islam”) is a new type of radical Palestinian group. It has worldwide aspirations, as opposed to a radical movement such as Hamas, which seeks to impose an Islamist state in Palestine only. As an al Qaeda-inspired group, Fatah Islam also conducts operations outside of the Palestinian-Israeli arena. In July 2006, for example, two of its operatives were arrested in Germany following their failed bombing of German commuter trains.

With Fatah Islam and other like-minded Palestinian groups (however small) representing a transformation of Palestinian national aspirations, the question now becomes whether the impoverished younger generations in the Gaza Strip will follow suit and reject Fatah and Hamas, the main organizations in the Palestinian Authority, and establish their own versions of post-Palestinian nationalism. And, most importantly, for the sake of preserving Palestinian nationalism, how will Fatah and Hamas, which no longer exercise complete control over the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, respond to such threats to their authority and influence?

These questions, arising from alarming issues and trends affecting Middle East stability, are addressed in Bernard Rougier’s important book, “Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam among Palestinians in Lebanon.” Mr. Rougier, who spent several years in Lebanon conducting field work in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, the country’s largest concentration of Palestinians, which also became a center for al Qaeda-inspired militant Islamists, is a Middle East scholar affiliated with Sciences-Po in Paris.

Although the writer is chiefly concerned with how militant pan-Islamism took hold in Ain al-Hilweh, Mr. Rougier offers extensive evidence of similar developments in Nahr al-Bared and other refugee camps. He shows how a growing number of disaffected Palestinian refugees now view themselves as part of the global geography of radical Islam, pointing out that this is a position that has led them to identify with the rhetoric of al Qaeda.

How did militant salafism, defined by Mr. Rougier as an ideology that combines “a literal interpretation of the sacred texts of Islam with emulation of the first Muslim communities (salaf) and a warlike cult of jihad,” succeed in replacing Palestinian nationalism and branding Fatah and Hamas as “infidel” Palestinian organizations?

According to Mr. Rougier, these militant Islamists represent a social stratum among the estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon that is disenfranchised economically, politically and socially in Lebanese society. They cannot hope to be integrated, since they are not allowed to become Lebanese citizens.

Fatah and Hamas, which represent the Palestinian middle class, have done little to alleviate their plight, paving the way for militant salafi “religious entrepreneurs” who were raised in the refugee camps and spent time in al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan to step in to cut the link between the refugees and their past in Palestine. Mr. Rougier writes: “Their hatred for the Palestinian political leadership has led them to withdraw their solidarity from the weight of its history and symbols, and to free the refugees from any political loyalty toward the Palestinian national movement.”

The rebellion by the salafi militants to defend “true Islam” within the refugee camps is also marked by rhetorical and physical violence, such as assassinations of magistrates, policemen, “deviant” Muslim preachers, alcohol vendors and even nationalist Palestinian operatives.

Mr. Rougier concludes that militant Islamism among the Palestinians can be mitigated by re-invigorating the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and offering the Palestinians a viable state. However, can such an ideal scenario actually succeed in the face of increasing religious militancy among the Palestinians?

Currently, there are moves within the U.S. Congress to establish a “National Commission on the Prevention of Radicalization.” Members of this commission and all those working to advance understanding of the threat posed by Islamic radicalization will greatly benefit from reading this book.

Joshua Sinai is a program manager for counterterrorism studies at the Analysis Corp.

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