BEIRUT

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Syria unrest sparks rifts among Lebanon’s Palestinian factions

File- In this May 14, 2003 file photo, Palestinian militants from the popular front for the Liberation of Palestine the General Command show their skills in front of journalists in the refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, near the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon. (Mohammed Zaatari/The Daily Star, File)

BEIRUT: The unrest in Syria and Hamas’ policy shift regarding its ex-patron have created rifts within the Alliance of Palestinian Factions, known in Palestinian circles as the “Tahalof.”

“The problems started when some Hamas leaders left Syria,” a senior security source told The Daily Star about the Islamist Palestinian group abandoning its headquarters in Damascus earlier this year.

“Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has clearly adopted the stance of the Ikhwan with regards to events in Syria.”

According to the source, Hamas has sided with the 19-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, drawing the ire of the remaining Tahalof members.

The Alliance of Palestinian Factions is a coalition of groups opposed to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which was an attempt, endorsed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel, to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In the wake of the Oslo Accords, eight factions including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah al-Intifada, Al-Tahrir Front, Al-Jihad Front, Al-Saeqa, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Revolutionary Communist Party formed a coalition against the agreement brokered in Norway.

Almost 20 years later the alliance, long considered to staunchly back the Assad family’s rule in Syria, seems to be standing on shaky ground.

Differing stances with regards to the bloodshed in Syria have also caused latent internal problems to surface.

A senior Palestinian source admitted “deep divisions” between Hamas and most of the remaining factions of the Tahalof.

“Divisions within the alliance are no longer a secret and they are of political and ideological nature,” the source said.

Although major cracks are apparent within the ranks of Tahalof, member factions are still hesitant to talk about the divisions.

However, clashes between members of the alliance have become a common occurrence in camps across the country.

Representatives of Islamic Jihad even asked The Daily Star to immediately leave their headquarters in the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp when asked about divisions within the Tahalof.

“They fight among each other on a daily basis,” said Abu Matar, a veteran fighter in Burj al-Barajneh.

“So far the skirmishes are easily contained, but I think it’s a miracle how the camps are calm so far.”

Hamas politburo member Osama Hamdan reluctantly admits to the existence of rifts among the Tahalof related to the fighting in Syria, but argues that other factors have also widened the gap.

“It might be true that there are some differences in opinion regarding some political issues,” Hamdan said.

“However,” he added, “more recently we don’t seem to agree over how to go about handling inter-Palestinian and Lebanese-Palestinian relations.”

The Hamas official continued that several factions in the Tahalof frowned upon the recent rapprochement between Hamas and the PLO, which he said aimed at “bolstering joint Palestinian work in Lebanon.”

Mohammad Yassine, spokesperson for the Tahrir Front, said the Hamas-PLO reconciliation in Lebanon was not the true cause of the problem, explaining that the meetings of the Tahalof’s Central Committee have been frozen since Syrian unrest erupted in March 2011.

“We protested against excluding certain parties from meetings between Palestinian factions, including Hamas, and Lebanese officials,” Yassine said. “We are against monopolizing Palestinian decision making in Lebanon.”

Yassine explained that that the Tahrir Front, Jihad Front, Fatah al-Intifada and the Revolutionary Communist Party have sent a letter to Prime Minister Najib Mikati protesting their exclusion from meetings held between Lebanese officials and the remaining Palestinian factions.

Representatives of the four groups have also held meetings with the president of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, Khaldoun al-Sharif, and head of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who many have considered the coordinator of Palestinian-Lebanese ties since his tenure as the head of Army Intelligence in south Lebanon.

Yassine believes that in light of events in Syria and the resulting friction, it is highly unlikely that the weakened alliance will preserve its original components.

“The unrest in Syria will directly impact the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon and elsewhere,” Yassine said. “The current status quo will change and alliances will be reshaped.”

But both Lebanese security sources and Palestinian sources agreed that discrepancies within the Tahalof will not have drastic repercussions on the ground in refugee camps across Lebanon.

“There is an agreement among all Palestinian groups in Lebanon that we will not be dragged into fighting or chaos,” said the senior Palestinian source. “Camps will not be used as a rifle in the hand of any [external] group.”

The source maintained that rifts within the Tahalof will remain political and will not degenerate into clashes, adding that Palestinian camps in Lebanon have so far kept a clean record with respect to “dissociating” themselves from the conflict in neighboring Syria.

“If you have noticed, pro and anti-Assad protests are banned within camps. You don’t see any,” the source said.

“We think that taking sides will harm the Palestinian cause.”

According to the source, Palestinian factions in Lebanon have “learned their lesson.” They will not tolerate a repeat of the Nahr al-Bared events, when the northern camp was reduced to rubble and its residents displaced in the 2007 clashes between the Lebanese Army and the Al-Qaeda inspired Islamist group Fatah al-Islam.

“We performed an assessment of past experiences, and Palestinians have learned their lesson. For example, we refuse to repeat mistakes committed during the [1975-90 Civil War],”the source said.

“We are also aware of the fact that Lebanese groups disagree on almost all issues except those related to Palestinian refugees, and we will not be the scapegoat this time.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 06, 2012, on page 1.

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