Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The suspects are many in Kamal Medhat’s assassination

The assassination of Kamal Medhat yesterday in the Miyeh Miyeh refugee camp is a sad moment for the Palestinian cause and a worrisome development for Lebanon. It’s unclear who killed Medhat, even if the suspects are many. Some blamed Israel, but the murder was likely the work of someone more familiar, amid fears that Lebanon may emerge as a new battlefield in a regional struggle over Palestinian decision-making.

There was speculation that Medhat was accidentally killed in the place of the real target, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s representative in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki. That’s not likely. Good killers know their mark. Medhat had vast experience in Lebanese affairs, and his loss will be sorely felt by the PLO. Zaki was the public face of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, but Medhat was the man on the ground, in the shadows, who could implement decisions.

Who had an interest in killing Kamal Medhat? Take your pick. His antagonism toward Hamas was no secret. In recent months, the movement, especially its Damascus-based leadership, had made no secret of its desire to take over the PLO, making the elimination of Fatah leadership cadres more probable. However, there is no certainty that the Islamist movement had the latitude to carry out such an attack, let alone the wherewithal, especially as it became the most likely suspect.

Medhat was also someone little appreciated by other enemies of the Palestinian Authority. If Hamas is eager to lead the Palestinians and marginalize Fatah, it is sustained in this effort by a variety of Arab states and groups, notably Syria and Hezbollah. It’s perhaps somewhere in there that we should look for those behind Medhat’s elimination. But we might also want to be careful. Medhat had not lived unmolested in Lebanon without keeping lines open to both parties, and to many others.

Then there were other attendant details: Medhat’s declared hostility toward certain Palestinian Salafist groups in Ain al-Hilweh; or the fact that he was brought in by Zaki as a counterweight to Sultan Abu al-Aynayn, once the senior Fatah representative in Lebanon (whom Medhat had preceded in his post). Could either have been involved? Again, there is no evidence to suggest that they were, particularly when there was a high risk that those responsible would be exposed.

The main Palestinian interlocutor of the Lebanese state is the PLO. Someone could be trying to change that. The Palestinian camps are houses of many mansions: Fatah remains the largest armed group, and thanks to Zaki and Medhat, and fresh funds from Ramallah, it was making a comeback. Hamas also has a presence, if a less powerful one, while smaller Salafist groups, particularly in Ain al-Hilweh, have the ability to cause serious trouble. As for the Syrians, they have relations with all the parties, in addition to their direct authority over Ahmad Gebril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

In dealing with this complex situation, the Lebanese state needs an address. But who is the go-to person now on the Palestinian side? Abbas Zaki has the title, but he’s not much without men under him who can play the politics of the refugee camps, distribute the money to the right people, and defend the independence of the Palestinian decision.

Syria has for decades been the largest single threat to that independence. When the Syrians left Lebanon in 2005, they managed to retain leverage over the Palestinians. However, the Palestinian Authority, by naming Zaki, sought to reassert the authority of Ramallah over a refugee population that had mainly come to serve Syrian priorities. Damascus has no interest in allowing this to succeed, eager as it is to use the Palestinians as a card in its negotiations with Israel and in inter-Arab politics.

Iran and Hezbollah may not be particularly pleased with a resumption of Syrian negotiations with Israel; however, like Syria, they understand that a weaker Fatah and a stronger Hamas will earn them a greater sway over the Palestinians and their future political choices.

If Medhat’s assassination is the first stage in a conflict to dominate Lebanon’s Palestinian population, then what can the Lebanese government do? For starters, it should limit the scope of possible damage by making it a priority to disarm Palestinian armed groups outside the camps, and it must be adamant about settling the matter of pro-Syrian Palestinian military bases inside Lebanese territory along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Syria will resist, but Lebanon should insist that this remain a leading item on their bilateral agenda, as well as on the US-Syrian agenda, and that between Syria and European states.

Secondly, Lebanon should take steps to ensure that the balance of power in the camps stays unchanged, while making it clear that the PLO is the only organization the government will recognize as the official representative of the Palestinians. That’s because what happens in the camps will have a bearing not only on Resolution 1559 but also on Resolution 1701, which the PLO alone, and Fatah above all, is committed to defending among the Palestinians. The prevailing Lebanese policy of benign neglect toward the camps may no longer be sustainable.

The first time I met Kamal Medhat, he was still in the midst of his long interregnum between his days as Fatah representative and his recall by Abbas Zaki. He was focusing on academic pursuits, he told me. But there was too much to the man to believe he could be satisfied solely with cracking textbooks. In retrospect, he would have been better off doing just that. Sharp and decisive, he was always bound to be troublesome to those who see Lebanon’s Palestinians as pawns to be played without pity.

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