SIDON, Lebanon: The residents of Lebanon’s largest Palestinian camp are perplexed by the sight of journalists roaming the streets. “Why are you here? It’s calm now,” many holler, jokingly.
Often considered the barometer of the restive camp, Ain al-Hilweh’s Souk al-Khodra (vegetable market) was packed over the weekend with merchants loudly promoting their products and housewives taking their turn in the bargaining game.
Although Ain al-Hilweh residents are enjoying the calm, in recent weeks security reports once again emerged that several Al-Qaeda members had left the camp for Syria and the Lebanese Army had confiscated weapons being smuggled from the camp.
Last week Speaker Nabih Berri handed Palestinian authorities a list of individuals suspected of plotting to assassinate him.
But Ain al-Hilweh’s three main blocs, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Alliance of Palestinian Forces and the Islamist forces, are downplaying the gravity of the reports, insisting that careful efforts are being undertaken to maintain peace and stability inside the camp.
Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the spiritual leader of most of the camp’s Islamist groups, including the most prominent one, Usbat al-Ansar, says all groups inside the camp are “entirely convinced” that tension in Ain al-Hilweh would have drastic repercussions and must be avoided.
Khattab and groups including movements such as Fatah and Hamas dismiss outright any talk of an Al-Qaeda presence in Ain al-Hilweh.
“There is no Al-Qaeda in Ain al-Hilweh,” Khattab says, adding that there are several “eager” youths who seek to defend certain causes. “Most left for Syria and I doubt they will return,” he continues.
“Only two came back. We are in contact with them and they don’t constitute a real danger.”
Hamas spokesperson in Sidon Wissam al-Hasan is more explicit and accuses Lebanese and regional groups of insinuating that Al-Qaeda is in Lebanon in order “to promote their own agendas.”
“Lebanon has long played the role of a corridor for Al-Qaeda but not a base,” says Hasan. “They are using the Al-Qaeda factor as a scarecrow.”
Sheikh Abu Sherif al-Aql, the spokesperson for fundamentalist group Usbat al-Ansar, also dubs the recent reports “baseless.” Even though the group has a long history of conflict with the Lebanese Army, he praises coordination with the Army and stresses its importance in keeping tension at bay in the camp.
“Maintaining stability in Ain al-Hilweh is more important than securing our daily bread,” he says.
Abu Sherif, clad in white with a long dark beard, adds that the Amal Movement was “misinformed” about the scheme to assassinate Berri. “We investigated those reports and discovered they are baseless,” he adds.
The sheikh echoes Khattab’s claims that extremists in Ain al-Hilweh who operate outside the command of the main Islamist groups have “little or no influence and can be controlled.”
A security source inside the camp tells The Daily Star close cooperation has been established in the last few years between the Lebanese Army and Islamist factions inside Ain al-Hilweh.
The source explains that thanks to efforts undertaken by former deputy head of Army Intelligence Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and head of Army Intelligence in south Lebanon Brig. Ali Shahrour, the military has been able to build bridges with various factions in Ain al-Hilweh including its fiercest opponents, Usbat al-Ansar.
“Several thorny issues and complicated cases have been resolved since then,” the source adds.
In a sign of warming ties, fortifications used by Islamist factions during internal fighting or attacks against the Army will all be dismantled Friday, the source says.
A number of Palestinian factions are also working to close ranks with several conducting internal reconciliations in a bid to safeguard the camp against potential shakeups.
One Fatah source says that the long-simmering dispute between the head of the Palestinian Armed Struggle force Mahmoud Issa, better known as Lino, and the commander of Fatah’s General Headquarters, Mounir al-Maqdah, was resolved during a gathering last week when the two men shook hands.
However, the mood of consensus currently governing Ain al-Hilweh remains fragile as individual skirmishes can quickly become politicized and spiral out of control, according to Fouad Othman, a member of the Follow-up Committee, the camp’s governing body.
Hasan speaks about fears that the camp could be affected by the polarization that dominates the Lebanese scene. “Yes, we have legitimate fears that Ain al-Hilweh could be dragged into the unknown,” he says.
Othman concurs but argues that Palestinian refugees have already passed several tests in that respect.
“We were not dragged to the fighting in May 2008,” he says, in reference to clashes that erupted between supporters and opponents of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, following his government’s decision to dismantle Hezbollah’s private telecommunications.
Othman adds that more recently Palestinian factions “firmly stood against” controversial Islamist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s attempts to implicate Palestinian refugees in Lebanese domestic affairs. “His [Assir’s] photos and those of [Syrian President] Bashar Assad were taken down across the camp,” Othman says.
As for the death of two Palestinian refugees in clashes in Beirut last month between Future Movement supporters and their rivals from the pro-Hezbollah Arab Movement Party headed by Shaker Berjaoui, representatives of Palestinian groups say they don’t interpret it as a dangerous sign.
Sheikh Khattab says that Palestinian refugees have become an “integral part” of the Lebanese political and social fabric and have therefore built their own allegiances.
“You find Palestinians allied with the Future Movement and others affiliated with Hezbollah,” he says. “These are individual allegiances and the rest of the Palestinian refugees should not be judged or labeled.”
Fatah official Maher Shabayta says that Palestinian factions have asked Lebanese groups not to involve their Palestinian supporters in any clashes. “But this remains very hard to implement,” he says.
In the meantime, and in order to keep a tight grip over Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon, factions are focusing on efforts to form the Higher Emergency Committee, which will be tasked with managing the issues of camps.
“This committee is meant to come up with a road map for the future and to hold inter-Palestinian and Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue,” Hasan says.
Othman says that it is the northern Beddawi camp, rather than Ain al-Hilweh, that could be considered as the weakest link.
Beddawi’s proximity to Tripoli’s restive neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, as well as the absence of any coordination with Lebanese groups in the area, makes the camp quite vulnerable.
Othman maintains that the Nahr al-Bared experience, when the Lebanese Army fought the Al-Qaeda inspired Fatah al-Islam militants in 2007, reducing the camp to rubble, is still fresh in the minds of everyone in Ain al-Hilweh.
“It’s always the people of the camps that pay the heaviest price, never the troublemakers,” Othman says. “Tension in Ain al-Hilweh means tension across Lebanon.”