AIN AL HILWEH, Lebanon: Some 45 armed men gathered early one recent morning in the heart of Lebanon’s largest Palestinian camp to plot their next move. One group would head to the vegetable market, another to the Bustan al-Quds neighborhood, while the rest fanned out across the camp at major intersections. Fixed and moving checkpoints were to be set up at all the camp’s entrances to search cars entering and exiting.
These trained fighters, which included both Islamists and secular nationalists, were not there to carry out a military operation. They are the joint security forces that patrol the camp and report to the Palestinian Follow-up Committee, which includes representatives from all of the major Palestinian factions.
The security forces are gearing up for a new push to bolster security in the camp after leaders there received strict warnings from Lebanese political and security figures that instability in the camps would not be tolerated.
The camp has come under increased scrutiny since June’s clashes between the Lebanese Army and supporters of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who is believed to be hiding somewhere near the camp or inside it.
Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the secretary-general of the Islamic Forces, told The Daily Star that all factions in the camp were keen to safeguard stability and maintain good relations with the surrounding areas and the Lebanese state.
“Everyone has come together to deploy this force in order to maintain security inside the camp ... [and] ease the daily lives of the people,” he said.
Khattab denied allegations that the camp was giving refuge to militants from the Nusra Front or Al-Qaeda.
“These rumors and lies are at odds with reality,” he said. “Not a single car bomb left Ain al-Hilweh; there are no security operations. The whole camp is keen to preserve the security here and in the surrounding area.”
Khattab claimed the accusations against Ain al-Hilweh were intended to give an excuse to “foreign powers” to strike the camp and displace the Palestinians once more.
His enthusiasm for the initiative was echoed by representatives from the Palestinian National Security Forces, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and several other local leaders who spoke to The Daily Star.
Abed al-Maqdah, the secretary of the Follow-up Committee, which includes representatives from most of the major factions, said the different groups were brought together by their mutual interest in preserving the security and stability of the camp “from all aspects.”
“We are keen to preserve national unity and to work together for the success of this force, and we ask our people to cooperate in order to facilitate the task of the committee [and the security force],” he said. “God willing, this camp will always be safe and stable.”
But while local leaders say the new security measures are intended to address everyday issues such as traffic congestion, organizing and regulating commerce, and keeping the peace, residents have been put on guard by what officials have termed “precautionary security” measures. Many have welcomed the push for increased security, but complain that the security forces lack the power needed to address the camp’s serious problems.
“It is very important for us to have a security force like this one in order to uphold the peace but they should be given more power to track down and arrest those who threaten security,” local resident Mohammad Ayoub said.
Ziad Qamar said his only concern was maintaining stability, and he did not care which factions participated in the joint security forces.
“It is good that they are united on this,” he said. “Hopefully this committee will succeed and everyone will cooperate with it because we support it.
“The entire camp is just 1 kilometer squared and there are 100,000 people living here,” he continued. “There are schools, cars, traffic, bulldozers, construction sites, and it all needs to be regulated and organized on the ground.”
For his part, camp resident Ahmad al-Kazmawi praised the security forces for their efforts.
“We ask God to help them protect this camp from mischief and strife,” Kazmawi said.
Another woman, who went by the name Umm Fahed, also turned to God to bless the camp and find the “best solution for all.”
Mohammad al-Ali, a student, said he hoped the new security initiative would mean he “wouldn’t have to hear any more ‘bang-bang’” in the camp, referring to sporadic gunfire.
Palestinian security sources admitted the new initiative faced several challenges, including the presence of hostile entities. For example, some Islamist groups expressed trepidation about a proposal to place security forces along the stretch leading from the neighborhood of Tawari and Taamir, where some elements of Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham still have a foothold and where Assir is rumored to be hiding. The neighborhood itself is controlled by the Islamist Osbat al- Ansar faction, and some fear trying to impose increased security measures may spark an even more serious crisis.
The second problem has to do with the refusal of Ansar Allah, a Palestinian Islamist organization close to Hezbollah and Iran, to participate in the new security measures, despite the fact that they have contributed five members to the joint security forces.
The five were not present on the day The Daily Star visited the forces.
After the personnel had deployed throughout the camp, representatives from all the participating groups met at the the headquarters of the General Secretariat of the Palestine Liberation Front in Jabal al-Halib to discuss the initiative’s progress.
Salah Youssef, a member of the front’s political bureau, praised the consensus reached by all factions, both secular and Islamist, and warned against being drawn into the trap of strife.
“The joint forces’ primary duty is to make daily life easier for the people, to organize the traffic in and around schools, to ease congestion and to relieve, even if just a little, the suffering of our people in Ain al-Hilweh,” he told the assembled figures.
“If it proves successful and effective, which of course is what we hope, we can develop further to improve the security of the camp and the surrounding area.”