SIDON, Lebanon: Sporadic clashes between rival gunmen in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh left eight wounded Monday, mostly civilians, as a separation force was established to try and quell the fighting.
Prior to the deployment of the force, Palestinian sources had told The Daily Star that the situation in the camp, located in the southern city of Sidon, was likely to deteriorate further as camp officials seemed incapable of calming the warring factions.
The deterioration in Ain al-Hilweh’s security came after a series of assassinations recently rocked the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon.
Tensions were sparked after two gunmen from the disbanded Fatah al-Islam group headed by Bilal Badr shot at a Fatah Movement headquarters run by Fatah officer Talal al-Urduni, prompting the guards to shoot back.
The ensuing intermittent fighting forced schools inside the camp and nearby Sidon neighborhoods to evacuate students by midday, while shops and other centers closed down.
Palestinian sources told The Daily Star that Monday’s clashes were connected to last week’s attempt to assassinate Alaa Ali Hujeir, a Palestinian member of Fatah al-Islam, which left him in a critical condition. Badr accuses Fatah of being behind the act, but the movement denies any involvement.
In wake of the clashes, Fatah and other secular and Islamist factions in the camp intensified contacts in a bid to defuse the situation. Frustrated with the fighting, hundreds of Ain al-Hilweh refugees marched to the scene of clashes in a bid to bring them to an end. Many fled the camp, fearing further escalation.
Sheikh Jamal Khattab, who was chairing a meeting of his Islamic Jihad Movement when the fighting began, told The Daily Star that Monday’s incidents were a reaction to “false news” about Hujeir’s death.
“Issues of disagreement can’t be solved with shooting,” said Khattab, the spiritual leader for Islamist groups inside Ain al-Hilweh. “Such attacks can’t be justified. The clashes should end here.”
Khattab said he expected the clashes to end, as they resulted from an “individual dispute.”
Late Monday, it was announced that a separation force, composed of the Usbat al-Ansar Islamist group and the Islamic Jihadist Movement, had been created to contain the clashes. Members of the two-group force were shot at earlier in the evening but were still working to calm the situation, according to Khattab.
He said the forces were dispatched to sensitive places but emphasized that this was a temporary fix rather than a final solution.
Khattab said the camp was also waiting for the newly announced Palestinian security force to be formed, which is likely to compose of 100-150 members representing different Palestinian factions, including Islamist groups.
The camp has been on edge following a series of assassinations and disputes that have led to fears of clashes similar to the 2007 Nahr al-Bared fighting. The northern camp was flattened during hostilities between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam. More than 35,000 people were displaced by the fighting.