The weeks-long battle in summer 2007 by the Lebanese Armed Forces to dislodge violent Islamists from a Palestinian refugee camp cast a spotlight on the Palestinians living in such camps in Lebanon (the population number usually cited is 180,000, but that is almost certainly inflated; the reality is more like 100,000). Their situation is truly pitiful. Out of bitter memories of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon, which sparked the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war, Lebanese almost to a person agree that the Palestinians must remain isolated in the camps, not allowed to work outside them, and even severely restricted in what they are permitted to do for a living in the camps. This extreme isolation has led to a peculiar political evolution, little appreciated even by experts on the region.
The only Western researcher to have done substantial work on the issue is Rougier from the prestigious Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (known as Sciences-Po). Drawing on his four years of field research, he brings to life in a rich and detailed account the political atmosphere in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The surprising story is how these refugees have abandoned Palestinian nationalism in favor of Islamic extremism—indeed, militantly Sunni extremism with a strong anti-Shi‘a bent. In contrast to their enemy Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi‘i group that has embraced the Palestinian cause, the main Lebanese Palestinian political movements emphasize pan-Islamic causes, such as the struggles in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Rougier's analysis is hard to follow unless one comes to it already well informed about the minutia of Lebanese and Palestinian politics. The first four chapters are vaguely chronological but contain many leaps back and forth in time. They recount the displacement of Iranian influence by extremist Sunni Islamism similar to that of Saudi radicals. The last three chapters cover in turn preachers' topics, the Islamic institutes, to which young people have turned as the secular school system declined, and the underground jihad terrorist training camps run by extremists in Lebanon without the occupying Syrians realizing what was happening. Rougier's book was originally published in French in 2004 but updated to account for the 2005 departure from Lebanon of the Syrian troops with which one group in the camps was allied.
Rougier's story is particularly timely because of the increasing tension in Lebanon between Shi‘a and Sunni, which has largely displaced the Muslim-Christian divide as the essential split in Lebanese society (about 40 percent of Lebanese are Shi‘a, 20 percent Sunni or Druze, and 40 percent Christian). The Shi‘a have a powerful armed force in Hezbollah, whereas Lebanon's Sunni are utterly deficient in military terms, never having had a militia of their own during the civil war. In this context, the militantly Sunni Palestinian radicals are tempting allies to many in the Lebanese Sunni community. The Lebanese press is full of rumors about rich Gulf Arabs—including the Saudi government—funding extremist Sunnis to work in and with the Palestinian refugees to give Lebanon's Sunnis an armed force.