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Lebanon News

Fear of escalation puts Ain al-Hilweh on edge

Fatah members stand guard in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh near Sidon, Sunday, March 16, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

SIDON, Lebanon: Ain al-Hilweh is again in the eye of the storm. There is constant talk among residents in the southern Palestinian refugee camp of the possibility of a deterioration in security, fears exacerbated by the Lebanese security forces’ confirmation of the existence of dormant terrorist cells that could awaken at any moment and target the Army. Tensions are being fanned by a conflict that has arisen between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and one of his main rivals, Fatah’s former leader in Gaza Mohammad Dahlan. Their bitter row is now playing out publicly across Palestinian news outlets and on social media.

Abbas has accused Dahlan of involvement in six murders, hinting that he might also be behind the death of former leader and Palestinian icon Yasser Arafat. Dahlan, who lives in exile in the Gulf, has denied the allegations.

Evidence of the effect the division is having on the camp was manifested in a rally last Sunday that saw hundreds gather to demonstrate in support of Abbas in what was interpreted as a message of defiance to Dahlan.

Even the forces belonging to Munir Maqdah, the Fatah military commander at the Ain al-Hilweh camp, participated in the protest, at which Abed Maqdah, the head of the pro-Syrian Palestinian faction Al-Saiqa, gave a speech emphasizing his support for Abbas and pointing to the legitimacy of his authority.

The accusations against Dahlan have led to an atmosphere of nervous apprehension in the camp. This feeling has been heightened by Abbas accusing Dahlan’s representative in Ain al-Hilweh, Mahmoud Abdel-Hamid Issa, aka “Lino,” of giving away information concerning Hezbollah’s presence to the Israelis during the July 2006 war.

Issa, head of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Armed Struggle in Lebanon, responded by saying he would not disobey Abbas and has since traveled to the United Arab Emirates to meet with Dahlan and coordinate over the next step in Ain al-Hilweh, a key location for Palestinian policymaking.

In the camp, yellow Fatah flags and pictures of Abbas hang everywhere as though he has won the conflict with Dahlan – although nothing is certain yet.

While touring the camp, The Daily Star heard firsthand the residents’ growing fears of escalating tensions.

Forceful attempts to tamper with the camp’s security have already been carried out and mosques are calling for divine providence to protect the camp from evil.

At the camp’s entrances, the Lebanese Army is maintaining heightened security measures and has increased its fortifications since last week, raising walls in the area adjacent to the Sikka neighborhood.

Sitting in his auto body and repair shop, Mohammad al-Hadid told The Daily Star that a storm was coming.

“ Fatah officials are fighting with one another while some fundamentalist elements want to make the situation worse and want to target the Army, and you want us not to fear our fate?”

His neighbor Abu Toufiq, a toy seller, echoed Hadid’s comments, saying something major was about to happen in Ain al-Hilweh.

“The problem will be between the Army and dormant terrorist cells which could be embraced in the camp,” he said. “The camp will be the victim of the big people’s game, and the repercussions of the Syrian crisis will throw a shadow over the camp, especially since the problems began in Arsal.”

The mountainous region around Arsal, a town where the majority of the population supports Syria’s rebels, has been the target of increasing attacks by the Syrian regime due to its use as smuggling route for the opposition.

Abu Mahmoud Yassine, an elderly man in his 70s who was driven out of Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria due to the heavy fighting, came to Ain al-Hilweh in the belief that it would provide him with the security he had lost in his homeland.

“I was disappointed,” he said, adding that he was scared of security incidents in the camp. “Misery tops misery; there is no security or dignified way of living.”

“Refugees over refugees; what happens after?” Abu Toufiq added.

During one conversation, the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade being fired caused widespread panic. It soon emerged that it was just a celebration to mark the release of a Palestinian prisoner from Roumieh prison, but the reaction illustrated how on edge residents are.

“We don’t want the camp to burn, we want a safe camp,” said a mathematics teacher who works in an UNRWA-affiliated school and asked to remain anonymous.

The teacher, who has a diploma in civil engineering, said she was unable to work in her field because it was one of many careers off-limits to Palestinians in Lebanon.

Outside Fatah’s headquarters, a man was watering withered flowers in a break between the rain showers.

He said he wanted the rain to purify the hearts of the Fatah members rather than the plants.

“We don’t want another Nahr al-Bared,” he added bitterly.

The Lebanese Army was involved in deadly clashes with Islamists in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon in 2007, a war that left the camp almost completely flattened.

Lebanese security forces have confirmed that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) now has a presence in Ain al-Hilweh and said its members consisted of both previous camp residents and Syrian refugees.

Islamist organizations in the camp, including Osbat al-Ansar and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, have previously rejected the takfiri ideology of groups such as ISIS and even now are trying to rein in Palestinian engagement with the group.

An Islamic source in the camp told The Daily Star that everyone in Ain al-Hilweh agreed that the camp’s weapons were only to be used against the Israelis and that anyone who tried to destabilize the camp was trying to undermine the Palestinian cause.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 19, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

Ain al-Hilweh is again in the eye of the storm.

Tensions are being fanned by a conflict that has arisen between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and one of his main rivals, Fatah's former leader in Gaza Mohammad Dahlan.

Even the forces belonging to Munir Maqdah, the Fatah military commander at the Ain al-Hilweh camp, participated in the protest, at which Abed Maqdah, the head of the pro-Syrian Palestinian faction Al-Saiqa, gave a speech emphasizing his support for Abbas and pointing to the legitimacy of his authority.

In the camp, yellow Fatah flags and pictures of Abbas hang everywhere as though he has won the conflict with Dahlan – although nothing is certain yet.

Forceful attempts to tamper with the camp's security have already been carried out and mosques are calling for divine providence to protect the camp from evil.

Lebanese security forces have confirmed that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) now has a presence in Ain al-Hilweh and said its members consisted of both previous camp residents and Syrian refugees.

An Islamic source in the camp told The Daily Star that everyone in Ain al-Hilweh agreed that the camp's weapons were only to be used against the Israelis and that anyone who tried to destabilize the camp was trying to undermine the Palestinian cause.


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