Lebanon moves to enforce its will

A standoff with a Palestinian group's leader threatens war. Robert Fisk reports
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The Independent Online
Ein el-Helwe, Sidon - For more than a week, the Palestinians have been fleeing Ein el-Helwe camp, those with relatives in Beirut or in the south, while the Lebanese Army's 12th Brigade soldiers have taken to wearing steel helmets at their checkpoints around the camp. If Abu Mahjan does not hand himself over for justice, the Lebanese government says, then the army will have to go into Ein el-Helwe and find him. And that, as everyone in the camp agrees, would mean war.

Inside the camp, unshaven gunmen loiter in the alleyways. Some are paid by Yasser Arafat, some by Mounir Makdah, Mr Arafat's disillusioned former commander, others by Abu Mahjan whose 800-strong Esbat al-Ansar (Band of Partisans) is now the most powerful Palestinian Islamic group in Ein el-Helwe. Men with pistols guard his family home although the word is that the elusive Abu Mahjan, whose real name is Ahmed al-Saadi, escaped to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli last weekend, passing through the Lebanese sentries at night, dressed as a woman.

Like almost every crisis in Lebanon, the hunt for Abu Mahjan is on several levels. Inspired by members of a dissident Sunni Muslim Wahabi organisation - supposedly run by the Saudi exile Ossama bin Laden in Sudan - Abu Mahjan is blamed for the murder of Sheikh Nizar al-Halaby, the leader of the Sunni Muslim Habashi sect who was shot dead outside his Beirut home last August; his 12-year-old son and a bodyguard were wounded in the same attack. Five members of Abu Mahjan's "Partisans" were later arrested by the Lebanese police and admitted on television that they had helped in the assassination, adding thoughtfully that they would kill the sheikh all over again for his "apostasy" in the unlikely event that he returned from the dead.

The Lebanese Wahabis and the Habashis are splinters from the Muslim groups which fought in the later years of the 1975-90 civil war: both still receive considerable funding; the former from Saudi dissidents, the latter probably from Iran. Abu Mahjan has treated the Habashis - whose elderly Ethiopian founder, Abdullah Habashi, now lives in secret in the Beirut suburb of Treik el-Jdid - to a graffiti war which accused them of betraying Islam. Ominously, Sheikh Saad Shaaban, the Sunni prelate who ran the most radical of all Islamist militias in northern Lebanon - and whose principal contribution to Muslim orthodoxy was the destruction of local bars and casinos - has allied himself to Abu Mahjan.

On the face of it, therefore, the Lebanese government wants to arrest a suspected murderer and prove that it can impose law and order even inside the Palestinian camps. But there are other issues involved. Sheikh Shaaban's group has now also been indicted for civil war crimes. The hunt for Abu Mahjan, therefore, may embrace a turbulent priest or two. It may also permit the army to enter Ein el-Helwe for the first time, disarming the Palestinians whom many Lebanese still blame for their civil war. And the camp stands on valuable land which still, almost half a century after the first Palestinian refugees arrived, belongs to Lebanese families who want their property returned to them.

Even more to the point, the Lebanese want to show the world that they can control every square inch of their country. How can they expect the Israelis to withdraw from southern Lebanon on condition that the Lebanese army protects Israel's northern border if that same army cannot even arrest a Palestinian gunman 15 miles south of Beirut?

Strategic issues thus lie behind the siege of Ein el-Helwe, for Syria as well as Lebanon. Up to 300 of Abu Mahjan's gunmen are believed to be wanted by the Syrian security police, some of them allegedly Syrian military deserters. In private, Abu Mahjan's brother says that the man the army wants to try for murder will commit suicide rather than submit to arrest.

"The Lebanese want to come into our camp," one of Ein el-Helwe's Palestinian inhabitants remarked with deep cynicism. "They need to come here. But when? I don't think the government can take this decision by themselves - it is a decision that will have to be made in Damascus. I just hope that when they come, they do so peacefully. Both sides realise the dangers. A lot of people could die."