SIDON/BEIRUT, Lebanon: The spiritual leader of all Salafist groups in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp voiced fears Wednesday of a possible armed sectarian confrontation between Hezbollah and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon if the party did not revise its policies at home and in Syria.
One of the most influential preachers in the Palestinian camp near Sidon and the head of the Islamic Jihadist Movement, Sheikh Jamal Khattab, said any fighting between Palestinians and Hezbollah could be worse than the violence between the Amal militia and Fatah forces in the 1980s, known as the “war of the camps.”
Separately, security sources told The Daily Star that Palestinian Islamist groups in Ain al-Hilweh had informed the relevant parties that they would respond with force to any attempt by Hezbollah to attack Future Movement offices in Sidon or take over the city.
Speaking to The Daily Star at his office in Ain al-Hilweh, Khattab explained that, unlike the three-year war of the camps, any new confrontation between Lebanon’s Shiites and Palestinians, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, could have greater sectarian ramifications this time.
“The situation is more dangerous today. When the war of the camps broke out in 1985, it did not pit Sunnis against Shiites,” Khattab said.
“That war was between the Amal Movement and Palestinians only, and the Shiites of Hezbollah stood against it. Iranian Shiite Sheikh Seyyed Issa al-Tabtabaei, the late Lebanese [Sunni] Sheikh Moharram Arifi and others moved to the Rashidieh camp [south of Tyre] to protest its siege by Amal fighters,” he said. “Now, however, the prospects of sectarian strife are much higher. ... Now it will be Sunnis against Shiites.”
There are some 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, also hosts more than 10,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria who have fled the Yarmouk neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus.
Although Palestinian factions in the camp have officially disassociated themselves from the crisis in Syria, several young men from the camp are fighting in the country alongside rebels, and some Palestinian Islamist factions openly criticize Hezbollah’s participation in the war in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Posters of Ain al-Hilweh men killed while fighting alongside Syrian rebels or against U.S. troops in Iraq are tacked up throughout the camp’s alleyways.
Khattab said that members of the Sidon-based Resistance Brigades were assaulting residents of the city and were generating a feeling of oppression and injustice. He suggested that peace in Ain al-Hilweh could only be restored through an agreement under which Hezbollah would stop its support for the party-affiliated group.
“Just as a suicide bomber from Sidon attacked the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, another person from Sidon could carry out a suicide bombing, this time in Sidon, as this oppression [inflicted by the Resistance Brigades] can lead to unfavorable acts,” Khattab said.
One of the two suicide bombers who attacked the Iranian Embassy in November, Mouin Abu Dahr, hailed from Sidon. His mother was a Shiite and his father a Sunni.
Khattab urged Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria and stop supporting the Syrian regime:
“I say that Hezbollah will emerge as the greatest loser in the future, and I am certain that Assad’s regime will not survive because it lacks the support of the Syrian people.”
The sheikh said that while some young men from Ain al-Hilweh had left the camp to fight U.S. troops in Iraq on the instructions of various organizations, there were few from the camp fighting alongside Syrian rebels, and they were not following any group’s instructions.
“None of the Palestinian organizations [in Ain al-Hilweh] are sending fighters to Syria,” Khattab said. “Maybe some Palestinians are joining the war out of enthusiasm, but these are in few numbers. ... We cannot prevent anyone from joining fighting in Syria. Most young men go there without the knowledge of their parents and organizations.”
Ain al-Hilweh was in the spotlight recently due to the arrest of Majid al-Majid, the leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Majid is believed to have lived in Ain al-Hilweh since 2012. After being detained by the Army in late December, he died last weekend, reportedly from pre-existing health problems.
Media reports have suggested that Mohammad Toufic Taha, also a resident of the camp, could be Majid’s successor. The group has claimed responsibility for the Nov. 19 Iranian Embassy attack that killed 30 people, including an Iranian diplomat.
Late last month, the Army asked Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh to cooperate in the handover of other suspects residing in the camp implicated in the embassy bombing, as well as others allegedly involved in a rocket attack on the Beirut southern suburbs last May.
Palestinian sources familiar with the issue told The Daily Star that Islamist factions in the camp were dealing cautiously with requests to hand over the suspects because attempting to apprehend them could spark internal fighting in the camp.
“Palestinian groups pursuing and arresting the suspects in Ain al-Hilweh is a complicated and dangerous [task] as it could lead to fighting between Palestinian groups, which would impact the camp’s environs,” one of the sources said.
Khattab stressed that there were no members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda or the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Ain al-Hilweh, saying instead: “There are people who support the doctrine of these groups everywhere.”
Separately, security sources said Palestinian Islamist factions in Ain al-Hilweh would not stand by idly in the event that Hezbollah gunmen attack their rivals in Sidon similar to the events of May 2008.
Six years ago, Hezbollah gunmen took over large swathes of west Beirut and attacked Future Movement offices in Sidon after the government of former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora decided to dismantle the party’s private telecoms network.
There are fears that Hezbollah could repeat their actions if President Michel Sleiman forms a neutral Cabinet, a proposal the party strongly opposes.
Lebanese security sources said that Palestinian Islamist groups in Ain al-Hilweh, particularly Usbat al-Ansar, Jund al-Sham, Fatah al-Islam, other Salafist groups and supporters of controversial fugitive Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir have all finalized preparations to defend Sidon against any attack by Hezbollah.
The sources added that members of these groups have enough support in Sidon, where thousands of Palestinians live, to enable them to fight inside the city rather than in Ain al-Hilweh camp.