Pacifying Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp

Sunday 04/09/2016
Palestinian gunmen at Ein el-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp

BEIRUT - Maintaining stability in Lebanon and con­taining the devastat­ing effects of the war raging next door in Syria have been top priorities for the tiny country, which is reeling under the burden of hosting more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees.

The Lebanese Army and security services have prevented the infil­tration of terrorists through the eastern and northern borders with Syria, dismantled terrorist cells and foiled bombing and assassina­tion attempts.

The focus has recently shifted to pacifying the Ein el-Helweh shanty town, the largest of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, which has long been a source of secu­rity concerns, including fears it has become a haven for radical Is­lamic movements and a recruiting ground for extremism.

Collaboration between Lebanese and Palestinian camp security au­thorities resulted in the surrender of more than 35 wanted people in Ein el-Helweh, on the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon.

They were among some 500 people suspected of “belonging to extremist groups with charges ranging from shooting guns and carrying weapons to killings and taking part in terrorist actions” who were hiding in the camp, a se­curity source said.

“Most of those who surrendered [to the Lebanese Army intelligence services] are wanted for misde­meanour crimes,” the source said. “The most dangerous ones, espe­cially those who are members of radical groups inside the camp, are not yet willing to surrender and the formula under which such a move would be possible is not clear.”

The radical groups in question include al-Qaeda-affiliated Abdal­lah Azzam Brigades, which was responsible for a bombing attack that targeted the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) in southern Leba­non a few years ago and radical groups Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham. Their influence stretches over some of the camp’s neigh­bourhoods.

Good treatment by security forces and assurances of fair trials echoed positively across the camp, even among radicals, and encour­aged more wanted suspects to sur­render, the security source noted.

Those who were implicated in crimes were referred to judicial courts while those who were inter­rogated and shown to be innocent were released, a judicial source ex­plained.

“The recent move has helped close shaky files that have been open for years now,” the judicial source said, referring to attacks against UNIFIL and the 2007 fight­ing between the Lebanese Army and the Fatah al-Islam in Nahr el- Bared Palestinian camp in north­ern Lebanon after which dozens of fighters sought refuge in Ein el- Helweh camp.

Major-General Sobhi Abu Arab, head of the Palestinian National Security Forces in charge of the camps’ security in Lebanon, dis­missed the notion that Ein el-Hel­weh was a haven for terrorists.

“This is not true. There are no {Islamic State] ISIS, Nusra or Qae­da terrorists in the camp at all,” Abu Arab said. “The camp is well-controlled and all the factions here undertook the responsibility of preserving the security and stabil­ity of the camp and its surround­ings.”

The over-crowded Ein el-Helweh — home to about 100,000 refugees, including 12,000 newcomers who fled the Yarmouk camp in Syria — is being run by armed Palestinian factions, the strongest being the Fatah movement with 750 fighters, according to Abu Arab. There are also 300 fighters of various Pales­tinian groups, including Islamist ones such as Ansar Allah, Asbat al- Ansar, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Under a long-standing conven­tion, the Lebanese Army has no presence inside the Palestinian camps but tightly controls their entrances and surroundings, espe­cially at Ein el-Helweh.

“The camp is no security is­land… Things have changed with the developments in the region — Syria and Iraq wars — which used to affect the people in the camp,” Abu Arab said, noting that only 30 Palestinians from all of Lebanon’s camps had joined the war in Syria.

Today, the Palestinians, who had been a main fighting party in Leba­non’s 1975-90 civil war, want to keep away from “all troubles” and their camps “will not be a dagger in the back of our people or the Leba­nese”, he added.

While Abu Arab dismissed claims that booby-trapped cars were pre­pared in the Palestinian camps to be used in bomb attacks against Lebanese targets and neighbour­hoods, he acknowledged that the number of “the big (wanted) heads” remaining in Ein el-Helweh was 10-15 people.

He seemed confident they will surrender to Lebanese security and judicial authorities to face trial.

The security situation in Ein el- Helweh and other Palestinian refu­gee camps is not the most ominous issue. Living conditions in the camps have long been dire. They have received little support from the Lebanese government and ev­er-decreasing assistance from the UN relief agency, UNRWA.

“The issue is rather the dismal living conditions of hapless refu­gees who have been denied the most basic human rights,” said Hilal Khashan, chairman of the political studies department at the American University of Beirut. “Such conditions stand as a strik­ing testimony to the sufferings of displaced Palestinians.”

While the security situation in the Ein el-Helweh camp is “very much under control”, Khashan said “repeated warnings about an imminent takeover of it by radi­cal Islamic movements ring hol­low since malicious rumours have been circulating for the past ten years”.