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LEBANON: Nahr el Bared residents, supporters rally ahead of key ruling on reconstruction

Palestine house Several hundred people rallied in downtown Beirut on Monday in a show of solidarity with the displaced residents of Nahr el Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp that was  destroyed in spring 2007 when fighting broke out between Fatah Al-Islam militants and the Lebanese Army.

The demonstration was staged days before a key court ruling that could put a halt to reconstruction, leaving some 30,000 people in temporary UN housing or squeezed into the outskirts of the camp indefinitely.

Monday's rally saw young activists from Beirut chant and clap alongside displaced camp residents of all ages, many of whom wore caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the name of one of the 37 different community organizations that organized the protest under the umbrella of the Nahr el Bared Advocacy Committee.

Hassan Mawad, president of the Nahr el Bared Traders' Committee and a member of the Nahr el Bared Reconstruction Commission for Civil Action and Studies, described the living conditions of displaced camp residents as "inhumane" and called for the reconstruction to commence immediately.

"We are living in a ghetto," he said.

Mawad, 65, remembers how the original Palestinian inhabitants cleared the land to build one-room houses out of earth and straw. Now, he said, "we cannot enter our own homes without being searched," referring to the Lebanese Army's continued presence in and around the camp.

In the two years since the fighting ended, reconstruction efforts have been hampered by lack of funds, disagreements over the layout and design of the new camp and political opposition to any permanent construction that could be seen as a step towards the "naturalization" of Palestinians in Lebanon.

On Thursday, the country's highest administrative court is expected to rule on an official request from Christian leader Gen. Michel Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement, to stop reconstruction in order to survey archaeological remains discovered beneath the camp.

But Aoun's critics say his efforts to stop reconstruction are politically motivated, an appeal to his Christian base which fears that the reconstruction would promote the assimilation of Palestinians, skewing the Muslim-Christian balance in this fiercely sectarian country. Others see the attempt to stop reconstruction as a nod to the Lebanese Army, which enjoyed unprecedented support during the Nahr el Bared campaign and is widely seen as having "paid a high price" with 170 soldiers killed.

Ammar Saadedine, an urban planner working with the reconstruction commission, said he believes Aoun's desire to preserve the archeological remains is merely a pretext.

"[Lebanese politicians] are trying to use the Palestinian issue to send messages to each other," he said. "We don't want to get involved in internal Lebanese issues. We are just demanding our rights."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Girl at Palestinian refugee rally. Credit: AFP / Getty

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