SIDON, Lebanon: Palestinian factions in Lebanon should no longer carry arms and ought to seek protection under the Lebanese state, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said Tuesday, a day after the assassination of an Islamist gunman in Ain al-Hilweh.
Machnouk criticized the use of weapons in internal Palestinian strife and said Lebanon had a responsibility to protect the refugees.
“Palestinian arms have harmed intra-Palestinian relations. They only bring trouble and fuel bloodshed,” Machnouk said following a security meeting in Sidon. “The Lebanese state is the real protector of Palestinians.”
“Palestinian arms inside and outside the camps are unjustified.”
But Machnouk said the disarming of the Palestinian camps required a fresh political accord.
The current transitional government would not be able to pursue an agreement to disarm the camps, but the issue could be a priority for the next Cabinet, he added.
Rival Palestinian groups have clashed recently in the impoverished southern refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh outside Sidon and elsewhere.
Machnouk’s comments came days after clashes between gunmen at the Mieh Mieh camp near Sidon killed nine and after a Sunni sheikh was fatally shot in Ain al-Hilweh.
Sheikh Arsan Sleiman was the head of a charity linked to Al-Ahbash, an Islamist group active during Syria’s tutelage over Lebanon.
The latest assassinations in the Palestinian camps have jeopardized a neutrality agreement that was signed by Palestinian factions in Lebanon to disassociate themselves from violence linked to the war in Syria.
Under the terms of the 1969 Cairo Agreement, the Palestinian factions in Lebanon assumed responsibility for the armed protection of the refugee camps in the country. But recent security incidents have prompted fears that the camps are harboring extremists, though Palestinian officials say those responsible for recent attacks in Lebanon are not from the camps.
The latest incidents have also sown fear among Palestinians of a repeat of past large-scale crackdowns in the camps.
This was Machnouk’s first official visit to south Lebanon since being appointed interior minister.
Machnouk presided over a meeting of senior security and judicial officials in the south at Sidon’s Serail.
The meeting outlined the security situation in Sidon, the Palestinian refugee camps and the south in general, as well as providing an overview of the number of Syrian refugees in the region and the condition of prisons.
Machnouk expressed optimism that security problems in the camps could be contained, preventing spillover into other parts of Lebanon.
Palestinian sources agreed that the presence of weapons in the camps was a problem, adding that the issue required a consensus agreement with the Lebanese government.
But they said that new security arrangements should go hand in hand with reforms to Palestinian civil rights, which they blamed for precarious security.
Machnouk’s visit to the south came a day after Fatah al-Islam official Bilal Badr’s bodyguard was shot in Ain al-Hilweh.
At least one gunman opened fire at 2 a.m. Monday in the Safsaf neighborhood of the camp, wounding Ali Khalil in the head.
Khalil was taken to a medical center inside the camp, but Islamist officials transferred him to Labib Medical Center outside the camp because he was in critical condition. He later died from his wounds.
Khalil was a bodyguard for Badr, an official with the radical Islamist Fatah al-Islam group, and the nephew of a Jund al-Sham official, Ousama al-Shahabi. He was also wanted by the Lebanese authorities. Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham are fundamentalism Islamist groups.
Security sources said that a meeting was being held between Shahabi and Badr in the Safsaf neighborhood shortly before the incident.
The Lebanese security forces arrived at the hospital, inspected the body and took Khalil’s fingerprints.
Tensions rose in Ain al-Hilweh after the killing, and gunmen took to the streets of the camp.
Palestinian officials immediately began efforts to contain the violence, allowing Khalil’s funeral to proceed Monday afternoon without incident.
An arrest warrant for Khalil had been issued last week by Lebanon’s military investigative judge. The warrant demanded the death penalty for Khalil along with five others accused of forming an armed group and carrying out terrorist attacks, as well as possessing weapons and explosives.
Palestinian sources said that Khalil might also have been involved in the assassination of Arsan Sleiman, the Islamist preacher, suggesting a link between the two killings.
In addition to the possibility of retaliatory assassinations, Palestinian sources said the killings might have been part of a campaign to remove wanted Islamists from the camps amid a broad Lebanese security crackdown in the north.
Palestinian sources said the assassinations aim to sow chaos in the camps and sabotage the recent neutrality agreement.
They said the Palestinian factions were determined to act with restraint to prevent the security situation in the camps from spiraling out of control.
The sources said they were determined to preserve the neutrality agreement with the Lebanese authorities in order to protect the Palestinian presence in Lebanon, saying it could be a precursor to a broader agreement on Palestinian security, social and humanitarian issues.