SIDON, Lebanon: Radical Islamist groups went on armed alert in Ain al-Hilweh over the weekend, heightening tension in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp and raising fears of renewed fighting between rival factions, Palestinian sources said Sunday.
Although life was normal in Ain al-Hilweh Sunday morning, residents in the teeming camp, located on the outskirts of the southern city of Sidon, feared that the current calm was just a lull before the storm.
The camp was rocked recently by inter-Palestinian fighting and a string of assassinations targeting members of rival Islamist groups, some of which are affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Rival Islamist groups, Osbat al-Ansar, and factions integrated into the so-called “Muslim Youth,” deployed gunmen in their neighborhoods in the camp overnight Saturday in what appeared to be precautionary measures to forestall attacks on their posts, the sources said.
Headed by Palestinian Islamist Osama Shehabi, the Muslim Youth includes the remaining members of Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the camp such as Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
The deployment of gunmen by the two rival groups came as representatives of the Muslim Youth were meeting at Shehabi’s house, the sources said.
The sources added that the deployment of gunmen by Osbat al-Ansar was not only in response to the Muslim Youth meeting, but also after the group received information that one of Muslim Youth’s factions was preparing to assassinate a senior Osbat official identified as Taha Shreidi in retaliation for the killing of Shehabi’s nephew Ali Khalil.
Shehabi had accused Osbat al-Ansar of killing Khalil, a charge the group has denied.
A media spokesman for Osbat al-Ansar warned of renewed fighting in the camp as a result of simmering tension between rival Islamist groups.
“Ain al-Hilweh is in great danger. The camp’s sheikhs are on an assassination list,” Sheikh Abu Sharif Akel said in Friday’s sermon. He urged wise Palestinian officials in the camp to intervene to prevent renewal of violence “before we all pay a price in our blood and honor.”
Khalil, a bodyguard of Fatah al-Islam official Bilal Badr, was shot dead by at least one gunman in the Safsaf neighborhood of the camp last Monday.
An arrest warrant for Khalil had been issued earlier this month 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, an 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.
Islamist groups in Ain al-Hilweh said in a statement that they had carried out limited military and security deployment to send a message to those concerned that they were not an “easy morsel” and they would not allow anyone to tamper with the camp’s security.
“It turned out that there are some who are seeking and plotting to stir up strife inside the camp,” the statement said.
Sheikh Jamal Khattab, head of the Islamic Jihadist Movement, said the security alert in Ain al-Hilweh was a precautionary measure aimed at protecting the camp and preventing any incidents or assassination attempts.
“The situation in the camp is generally calm and under control,” Khattab said.
In a bid to prevent renewed fighting in Ain al-Hilweh, a meeting is scheduled to be held at the Palestinian Embassy in Beirut Monday with representatives of various Palestinian factions, in addition to Islamist groups. The meeting will discuss ways to follow up on the implementation of a neutrality agreement signed by Palestinian factions in Lebanon in order 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 in Lebanon, including a wave of car bombings and suicide attacks claimed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, have prompted fears that the camps are harboring extremists, though Palestinian officials say those responsible for the attacks are not from the camps.
During a visit to Sidon last week, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said Palestinian factions in Lebanon should no longer carry arms and ought to seek protection under the Lebanese state.
He criticized the use of weapons in inter-Palestinian strife and said Lebanon had a responsibility to protect the refugees: “Palestinian arms inside and outside the camps are unjustified.”