Palestinian camp clashes put spotlight on radical Islamists
Beirut - Ain al-Hilweh, the largest of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, has gained a notorious reputation as a hiding place for outlaws and more dangerous small radical Islamist groups. The crowded shantytown, housing more than 80,000 people, including a few thousand who fled Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp, has been the scene of intermittent clashes between rival armed factions.
The latest round of fighting, which broke out on April 7, pitted the camp’s joint security force against the Sunni Islamist militant group headed by Bilal Badr. Six days of clashes that killed seven people and wounded 40 others ended when the joint security force, made up of the major Palestinian factions and led by the mainstream Fatah movement, moved into the Al-Tiri neighbourhood that was under the control of Badr and his followers.
Badr, who is wanted for many crimes, including attacks against Lebanese Army positions in southern Lebanon, the killing of Palestinian camp officials and contacting armed groups inside Syria, refused to surrender and “disappeared” inside the shantytown. A security source said Badr reportedly sought protection with other Islamist groups in the camp that put him under “house arrest” in line with a settlement to end the fighting.
Cracking down on the Islamist hardliners in Ain al-Hilweh, on the outskirts of the port city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, proved to be costly and no easy mission. It reopened the question of why Palestinian factions are armed and how to counter radicalisation in refugee camps.
The responsibility of maintaining security inside Ain al-Hilweh lies with Palestinian armed factions in the joint security force. The Lebanese Army is positioned around the camp and tightly controls its entrances but has no presence inside due to a long-standing convention. It recently suspended construction of a concrete barrier around the camp after an outcry by inhabitants.
The disarmament of the Palestinian factions was never explicitly raised after the Lebanese militias were disarmed and dismantled in line with the 1989 Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement that ended the 1975-90 civil war. With an overt blessing from Syria — then the main power broker in Lebanon — only Hezbollah retained its weapons for being a “resistance movement” fighting Israel.
Over the years, the Ain al-Hilweh camp turned into a source of security concern, with many fearing it had become a haven for radical Islamic movements and a recruiting ground for extremism. That triggered collaboration between Palestinian camp security authorities and Lebanese security services who requested handing over a few hundred wanted people holed up in the shantytown. A few dozen wanted from among an estimated 500 people suspected of belonging to extremist groups have surrendered.
Camp officials have maintained that many are wanted for minor violations, charges that have been dragging on for years, while the various Islamist radical groups count no more than 120-150 fighters among their ranks.
“The problem is not Bilal Badr, who has 40-50 fighters. It is rather about all the other Islamist factions that will not allow that any such (Muslim) group be destroyed by any national or secular party even if this group turned to be linked to terrorism,” said Suheil el- Natour, a Beirut-based Palestinian analyst and activist in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
Besides Badr’s group, the radical groups in question include al- Qaeda-affiliated Abdallah Azzam Brigades, which was responsible for a bomb attack that targeted the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) in southern Lebanon a few years ago; Fatah al-Islam; Jund al-Sham; and Shabab al Muslim (Muslim Youth). Their influence stretches over some of the camp’s neighbourhoods.
“These are very small groups but the issue is not about their numbers. They fight fiercely with the belief that they are going to heaven,” explained a Palestinian security official, who requested not to be named. “The last round of fighting revealed how much Fatah and the other non-Islamic factions have become weak and unable to crack down on these groups.”
It also revealed that the problem is so complex and the situation has reached an impasse. Lebanese authorities who are cracking down on radical Lebanese Islamists want the Palestinians to clear their camps of the most extreme groups. “But if the Palestinian factions cannot control the (Ain al-Hilweh) camp, what will happen?” asked the Palestinian security source.
Who is funding and supplying these small radical groups with sophisticated, new weaponry is another question.
Rampant poverty and high unemployment at the camp are factors that attract followers to such groups, the security source said.
Most of the camp’s residents live in misery, lacking the minimum required for a decent living, acknowledged Hassan Mneimneh, the head of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee. In February, it launched a census to survey the number of Palestinians in Lebanon to improve economic and social conditions.
“It is in Lebanon’s interest to improve the conditions of the Palestinians in a drastic way,” Mneimneh said. “If these camps remained as they are now, they will continue to be a fertile ground for hardline groups whether Islamists or leftists — or any other form of extremist ideas to exploit the misery in the camps.”