Fatah officer killed in Lebanon refugee camp

Sunday 24/04/2016
Members of Palestinian Fatah movement carrying coffin of Fathi Zaidan

BEIRUT - The assassination of sen­ior Fatah military official General Fathi Zaidan in a car bombing has raised concerns regarding what is going on inside Lebanon’s Pales­tinian refugee camps.

Following the bombing at the Mieh Mieh refugee camp, tensions rose at nearby Ain Al-Helwah, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country. Ain Al-Helwah is con­sidered one of the most violent of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Conditions at the over­crowded camp have deteriorated as Lebanon struggles to deal with the influx of refugees from Syria.

Armed clashes have flared be­tween Fatah and the rival Islamist Jund al-Sham group at Ain Al-Hel­wah. Jund al-Sham was believed to have been behind the June 2015 assassination of Fatah General Ta­lal Balawna, sparking a series of re­taliatory attacks that many feared would erupt into open warfare. Similar fears are being expressed now.

Despite this, Fatah, which is the main power in Ain Al-Helwa and many other Palestinian refugee camps, is internally divided. Many in the camp say Fatah leader Pales­tinian President Mahmoud Abbas is responsible for the situation, not least for his failure to take the nec­essary measures to heal the rifts inside the camp.

Fatah is divided between those who are loyal to Ramallah under Abbas and those who have pledged allegiance to General Mahmoud al- Issa, who goes by the nom de guerre al-Lino and who is close to Fatah strongman Mahmoud Dahlan.

Despite the divisions and disrup­tion of efforts to heal the rift be­tween Abbas and Dahlan, the disa­greement between the two camps has not reached the point of open conflict.

Ain Al-Helwah features a com­plex mosaic of factions and groups. In addition to Palestinian groups Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and other factions affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organisa­tion (PLO), new Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), have emerged.

Fatah generally enjoyed good relations with Lebanon’s political and security forces. Abbas chose security coordination with Leba­non’s security apparatus over other options, albeit without direct Leb­anese oversight of the camp.

This led to Palestinian factions in the camp competing with each other to secure some form of rela­tionship with Lebanon’s multiplic­ity of security agencies. Ultimately, this sowed seeds of even more cha­os and distrust among Palestinian factions in Ain Al-Helwah.

Islamist forces are coordinating with Lebanon’s security apparatus, albeit through the official Palestin­ian leadership and the camp’s Joint Security Committee — the self-styled police and security appara­tus dominated by Fatah.

Observers warn that the Islamist groups are seeking greater unifica­tion and coordination to weaken Fatah’s dominance, which could lead to greater chaos and violence.

In addition to the presence of supporters of ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliate al-Nusra Front, Fatah al- Islam is also present in the camp. The radical Islamist group is best known for its role in the 2007 con­flict in the Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp. It is also believed to have ties to the Assad regime in Damas­cus.

Ain Al-Helwa, an island of Sunni Muslims in a Shia-dominated area, is viewed by some as a threat to Hezbollah’s dominance of south­ern Lebanon. This threat is com­pounded by Islamist groups Hez­bollah is fighting in neighbouring Syria and the threat of the Syrian conflict spilling over into Lebanon.

What is certain is that over the past few months the Lebanese Army has fortified its position around the camp, securing the en­trances and exits to Ain Al-Helwa. As for whether the coming weeks and months will see a full-scale conflagration in Ain Al-Helwa, the jury is out. Observers say that this would only take place following major regional or international rea­lignment, such as the abolition of the right to return.

Ain Al-Helwa is the most popu­lous Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Its fate will reveal much about those of all Palestinian refu­gees in Lebanon.