SIDON, Lebanon: A 150-strong joint Palestinian security force designed to prevent recurring clashes between rival factions and the infiltration of Al-Qaeda-linked militants deployed smoothly in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp Tuesday.
The deployment is the latest attempt to shield Lebanon’s shantytowns from the repercussions of the turmoil in Syria and Iraq.
Headed by Gen. Khaled Shayeb, a senior Fatah official, the elite force comprises representatives from all Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh, including the Fatah Movement, Hamas, a coalition of Palestinian and Muslim parties as well as Islamist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
“It [the deployment] is backed and welcomed by all the residents of the camp as well as its parties and factions,” Shayeb told The Daily Star shortly after the force’s members, armed with AK-47 rifles, submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, began fanning out in the narrow alleys and streets of the teeming camp, located on the outskirts of the southern city of Sidon.
A short ceremony that brought together the force’s members with the camp’s residents and Palestinian officials preceded the deployment.
Backed by and in cooperation with the Lebanese authorities, the deployment is designed to restore security to the camp rocked recently by a string of security incidents and assassinations, including repeated clashes between Fatah members and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al-Islam militants.
The military move is also intended to prevent militants suspected of belonging to terror groups blamed for the recent wave of suicide bombings in Lebanon from taking shelter in the camp or leaving it, Palestinian sources said.
It coincided with a serious escalation of the situation in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli warplanes killed 14 Palestinians and wounded 80 others Tuesday, in a new campaign by Israel to stamp Hamas rocket fire as the two sides slid toward a new round of violence.
However, Palestinian sources said the success of the force’s mission depended largely on whether it would be granted a political cover to intervene in areas considered “a stronghold of Islamist groups which had been accused of responsibility for previous security incidents in the camp.”
“By deploying in some areas that witnessed security incidents recently, the security force has sent a direct message to those concerned that there would be no off-limits areas to this force if the need arose to enter them,” the sources said.
Speaking at the ceremony attended by various Palestinian factions, including militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, Shayeb said: “The security force today deployed throughout the camp. We will work to establish a similar security force to deploy in Palestinian camps from the south to the north.” He added that the elite force is tasked with maintaining “security and stability in the camp which would lead to security and stability in neighboring Lebanese areas.”
The force’s members patrolled the camp’s streets in four-wheel drive vehicles and military trucks equipped with automatic rifles and rocket launchers.
They entered the Taware neighborhood, where the militant groups Osbat al-Ansar and Jund ash-Sham are located. The two groups did not resist the force’s deployment.
The force’s members also fanned out in streets that were previously considered off-limits, especially in areas where Fatah al-Islam maintains offices. Changing its name to Al-Shabab al-Muslim (Muslim Youth), this group’s militants also did not oppose the force’s deployment.
Islamist factions had previously rejected any patrols by the elite force in their areas and warned they would prevent its members from entering the Taware neighborhood.
A Lebanese security source told The Daily Star that the force’s deployment presented Palestinian political and military officials with a very difficult challenge “because they should keep their promise to the Lebanese authorities” to hand over any wrongdoer or offender.
“If any fighting occurs and leads to injuries or deaths, the Palestinian security force must hand over the offenders without quibble, because we have provided the political cover for this plan to succeed,” the source added.
There was no resistance as the force’s members deployed in the Tahtani and the vegetable market streets and areas that witnessed fighting between Fatah and Islamists. The force also fanned out in areas considered as “green lines” that witnessed security incidents, including the Safsaf neighborhood, the Fawqani Street, Fatah’s offices at the camp’s main entrance and the Jabal al-Halib area east of the camp.
The camp’s Palestinian factions say that the deployment amounted to a show of solidarity with their fellow people and the resistance in Gaza.
The force is divided into several groups with different tasks. A 40-member unit will carry out patrols and escorts, a 30-member executive force will intervene when any fighting erupts, 20 members for social security, 35 men to direct traffic, and a 25-member unit to investigate any security incident that might happen in the camp and put suspected culprits in prison. The force also includes committees to deal with media and financial, administrative and budget management.
A senior Fatah official had told The Daily Star that the force’s headquarters would be at the Ziad al-Atrash Hall and would include a prison to prevent any security violations.
Speaking at the ceremony, Jamal Khattab, an influential religious figure and secretary of Islamist Factions in the camp, highlighted the force’s role in maintaining the camp’s security.
“The deployment of the security force is meant to bolster the steadfastness of our people in Ain al-Hilweh camp and their temporary presence in Lebanon until they return to Palestine,” he said. “The force will have a brotherly and mild attitude toward the camp’s residents. We are not in a battlefield, and the force will be a police that protects the security and stability of the Palestinian community.”
Fatah’s senior official in Lebanon Fathi Abu al-Ardat expressed his optimism about the success of the force’s mission.
“All [Palestinian] factions and national and Muslim parties in Ain al-Hilweh camp are united over the initiative we launched a few months ago which is the formation of a security force and the protection of the Palestinian presence, I mean security, stability and civil peace and strengthening Palestinian-Lebanese relations,” Ardat told the ceremony.
He urged the force’s members to deal with “flexibility and mercy with our people who want security, stability and peace for their sons.”
Ardat vowed that Palestinian refugee camps would not be used as “a mailbox” to send letters by any regional party.
“We in Ain al-Hilweh camp are presenting an example to be followed in preserving security, peace and stability until we return to our land in Palestine,” he said, adding: “The camps will not be mailboxes through which to send letters. The Palestinian rifle is directed toward Palestine.”
Hamas official Ahmad Abdul-Hadi echoed a similar view. “We as Palestinian refugees in Lebanon uphold the right to return and to our national freedom. We do not want our camps to be used as a mailbox by anyone.”