SIDON, Lebanon: “We are Lebanese, we will remain here under the protection of the Lebanese Army, and we will not flee.”
Those were the defiant words of Badia al-Zaknoun, a woman in her 70s and a resident of the embattled neighborhood of Taamir, a Sidon area mostly made up of Lebanese that has become the focus of security concerns and predictions of an impending showdown with radical militants.
The Taamir neighborhood, which lies at the entrance to the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, was involved in the June clashes between the Army and gunmen loyal to the radical Salafist preacher Ahmad al-Assir.
Fresh protective security measures and maneuvers by the Army have given rise to speculation that it is preparing for a possible confrontation with radical elements in the area, but security sources say the measures taken by the Army are only intended to reinforce weak points exposed in the operation against Assir.
Fighters belonging to Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam, two militant groups with a history of antagonizing the Lebanese Army, opened fire against the military and launched shells at its positions in an effort to aid Assir, who was under assault in his security perimeter in the district of Abra.
Sources told The Daily Star that some elements of Fatah allowed the militants access to their weapons, but that the Army showed restraint in its retaliation because of the high population density of the neighborhood.
The fighting stopped after mediation by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and officials in Hamas, but the intervention failed to bear results before one Lebanese civilian was killed and houses and cars in the neighborhood were destroyed.
Sheikh Jamal Khattab, head of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Ain al-Hilweh, assured other Islamic movements and committees in the camp that Jund al-Sham forces would not be drawn into battle against the Lebanese Army again.
Head of Fatah al-Islam Haitham al-Shaabi stressed that fighting would only be directed toward Israeli forces and not within Lebanon, and there was a need to protect the camps and the surrounding areas.
Security sources told The Daily Star that both militant groups were working in close affiliation with Al-Qaeda and were carrying out its orders.
The sources also said they were currently monitoring the militants’ movements as the groups were continuously developing and arming their members, as well as improvising explosives. The sources reported that there have been records of the organizations preparing said explosives and using them outside of the camp upon receiving orders to do so.
The speedy control of the area by the Lebanese Army in light of the clashes with Assir has however resulted in a number of the groups’ plans being thwarted.
Residents of the Taamir neighborhood are mostly Lebanese, a mixture of Sunnis and Shiites, and it is a densely populated area dominated by low-income inhabitants. It is vibrant, and the relatively large population in the district makes its support crucial in local municipal as well as parliamentary elections, with many visits by politicians to the area in the run-up to polls.
The area was built up in the 1960s to house residents fleeing old Sidon after the devastating earthquake of 1956. Taamir sustained widespread damage during Israeli air raids between 1974 and 2006.
The Lebanese Army deployed to the entrance of Taamir in 1991. Then in 2007, upon insistence from residents and amid clashes elsewhere with Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham during the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp crisis, the Army entered the neighborhood and pacified 90 percent of it, leaving only 10 percent under the control of Jund al-Sham and another fundamentalist group, Osbat al-Ansar, both of which tempered their rhetoric against the Army.
Taamir residents are convinced that a “major battle” will take place in the area, and the Army will evict or arrest the remaining Jund al-Sham fighters and follow that by deploying near the entrance of Ain al-Hilweh.
Rumors abound in the neighborhood about the presence of “takfiri” groups and a leadership struggle among fundamentalists in the area, which contributes to the tension.
Security sources deny that this has any basis in reality, and say that those who intentionally spread the rumors are using recent measures employed by the Lebanese military that are only intended to protect against vulnerabilities identified during the battle with Assir’s fighters.
“We are with legitimacy and the Lebanese Army,” said Zaknoun, the elderly resident.
The proliferation of rumors has led Taamir residents to flee their homes frequently, just as many did during the Assir clashes.
These worries were amplified after the twin bombings Friday of mosques in Tripoli that killed 47 people and injured hundreds, raising fears of an escalation across the country in sectarian violence linked to the crisis in Syria.
“We carry our children and flee,” said Mohammad al-Masri, another resident. “Gunmen gathered under our house Friday and threatened that they would defend the Sunnis.”
Security sources confirmed that the Lebanese Army would likely enter the area in order to reach the borders of the Ain al-Hilweh camp, though “not in the manner being described.”
The sources said the Army would carry out the operation when ordered to do so by the political leadership.
Reports emerged in the wake of the Assir operation that the preacher and his top aide, the former singer Fadl Shaker, had sought refuge in Taamir after fleeing their base in Abra, and were under the protection of Jund al-Sham militants. Palestinian officials strongly deny the allegations.
Beyond the boundaries of Taamir, Sidon was on edge again this weekend amid the deteriorating security situation in the country.
Following Friday’s Tripoli bombings, hundreds of phone calls flooded local authorities reporting strange vehicles in the area and causing local police to block roads and carry out sweep operations, only to discover that the reports were false alarms.
The streets of Sidon remained nearly empty, with local shops reporting virtually no traffic.
“Movement is paralyzed and the people are scared,” said Abu Rami Badie, who sells falafel at a shop across from the Sidon sea castle.
People sought some measure of relief by taking boat trips off of Sidon’s picturesque coast, where they said terrorists could not reach them.
“Here in the sea it is safe,” said Mahmoud Hafouda, a resident. “There is no car or truck bomb, the sea protects us and drowns any conspirator.”
“What is happening is a pity,” said Fuad al-Qabrasli, a retired taxi driver in his 80s. “We are waiting for death every day.”