Lebanon: Refugees return to camp burned out by Islamic State

The army of the Islamic State invaded Lebanon last week, despite the fact that IS strongholds are hundreds of miles away in the north-east of Syria and parts of Iraq. Refugees at Arsal, a Sunni Muslim border town in Lebanon, had fled there in the hope that they would be safe from the fighting between Syrian dictator Bashr Al-Assad’s army and his various armed enemies. However, when military forces of the Islamic State approached they fled in terror towards Syria. When some of them returned on August 9, they found that their camp and their possessions had been burned to the ground by jihadi forces that were retreating in the face of the Lebanese army. The population of Arsal, normally amounting to about 40,000, tripled since fighting in Syria began in 2011.
 
Lebanon took back Arsal on August 7, and on August 9 redeployed at other checkpoints that had been overrun by the jihadis. Days of fighting yielded at least 17 dead Lebanese soldiers and 50 IS combatants. Some of the IS militants were interspersed with legitimate refugees who were living in the refugee camp at Arbal. Lebanese army units were reportedly greeted as liberators by the people of Arbal as they sought to secure the bullet-pocked police station and government buildings. Lebanese army armored vehicles and trucks drove through Arbal on August 9 on their way to Aqabat al-Mebyaah in Wadi al-Hosn, an military post that IS seized during the first day of fighting , along with Sayadeye and others. Also on August 9, a new attack by IS at Kfar Qouq was beaten back by local fighters. Kfar Qouq is near the Bekaa Valley town of Rashaya, 60 miles south of Arsal. Dozens of people have been killed this week in fighting between the Lebanese army and IS militants.
 
When IS retreated from Arsal to the Syrian border area, its militants took 19 Lebanese soldiers and policeman hostage. IS is demanding that Islamists being held in Lebanese jails be released in exchange for the release of the Lebanese. Among the prisoners whose release has been requested by IS is Emad Gomaa, whose arrest on August 2 sparked the incursion into Arsal. The army has said the attack by the Islamists had been long-planned. Gomaa was a commander of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, but later switched affiliation to the Islamic State in June.  Also in June, the Nusra Front issued a statement promising to liberate Islamist detainees being held at Roumieh prison, northeast of Beirut, since 2007. 
 
Fighting between the Lebanese army and IS militants was fierce since it began on August 2. Lebanon responded to the IS incursion by firing artillery at the town as small arms fired continued.  An unknown number of residents and refugees have died or been injured. In a notable tragedy, a camp for Syrian refugees was mistakenly shelled on August 6. Local aid groups are reported to have found 30 charred corpses. A shaky truce has been in effect since the evening of that day. A group of Muslim scholars making an attempt to negotiate were ambushed by gunmen in the town on August 5.
 
Reportedly, Arsal has long been dominated by two clans – the Hujeiri and Fliti - that profit from smuggling goods back and forth across the border. They are reportedly in league with the Sunni-led Islamic State. Arsal is a backwater where the Lebanon has failed to provide electricity, water or medical facilities for decades. Residents have long made money from smuggling and relying on the largesse of powerful national Sunni politicians. Recently, a hospital built by locals reportedly has a wing devoted to treating wounded Islamic State combatants. Also, it is believed that Mustafa Hujeiri - the Salafist sheikh of the Hujeiri clan - is keeping some of the Lebanese soldiers and police officers hostage.
 
In light of the fighting, Lebanon's Maronite Catholic bishops expressed their "full confidence" in the country's security forces.  Following their monthly meeting on August 6, they released a statement saying "We condemn the unrest and express our complete support to the army and security forces as should all political powers." They asked "friendly states" to provide military and logistical support.
 
They also called for an election of a new Lebanese president to "restore Lebanon's democratic role in the east."  The Levantine country has had no president since May, when President Michel Suleiman's six-year term ended when the parliament to elect a successor. Under the country's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Catholic. 
 
The bishops condemned the series of IS attacks against Christians in Iraq and Syria. Thousands of Christians have fled their homes in those two countries due to death threats from IS. "We call upon the international community to take the necessary measures to stop the crimes against humanity that are being committed in Mosul," the bishops said.
 
They expressed special concern about threats to Syria’s Christians, particularly in Hassake. They warned that the persecution of minorities in the region could lead to "emptying the area of Christian presence, which dates back to 2,000 years." With regard to Operation Protective Edge, in which Israel has responded to barrages of missiles fired by the Hamas terror organization by invading Gaza, they denounced "the Israeli killing machine, which operates in Gaza the cultivation of death and destruction and panic, amid Arab and international silence." They "consider that there is no salvation from this tragedy without dedicating the right of Palestinian people to establish their independent state with Jerusalem as its capital, and make this city an open city for international protection, and keeping Israel from adopting the pretext of terrorism to further settlement expansion."


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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