Rival Islamist groups vie for control of refugee camp

Ein al-Hilweh is the largest and most lawless of the 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Up to 80,000 people are crammed into the camp’s 1.5 square kilometer. (Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

EIN AL-HILWEH, 5 August 2007 (IRIN) - Ein al-Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest and most lawless refugee camp, has a street called Sharia Bustan Yahoudi (Jewish Park Street); the irony is a small instance among a litany of indignities suffered by the Palestinian refugees living there.

“It’s named after the Jews who used to live around Sidon,” Khoder Abdel Aziz, a 24-year-old resident of the street, tells us, referring to the neighboring port city, 45 kilometers south of Beirut.

“We never thought to change the name and we never harmed the Jewish cemetery inside the camp. But when the Israelis invaded in 1982 they put a fence around it.”

Where once talk of Jews and of the state of Israel — whose creation in 1948 drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into exile and succeeding generations, such as the youngsters living in Ein al-Hilweh, to the life of a refugee — would have raised angry words, on this hot and tense day the subject brings but a faint murmur.

The threat from within

Today, the most immediate security threat to the lives of the Sunni Palestinian refugees in Lebanon comes not from Israel but from Arabs living within their own refugee camps.

In the northern camp of Nahr al-Bared, a combination of lax security from the mainstream secular Palestinian faction Fatah, combined with a large population of unemployed and restless youths, provided a suitable environment for the rise of Fatah al-Islam.

The al-Qaeda-styled Sunni extremist group comprises some Lebanese and Palestinians, but is also made up of foreign Arabs, including veteran “jihadis” from Iraq, and fighters from Saudi Arabia who follow the Wahhabi ideology of takfiri, which condemns to death anyone who does not follow their austere form of Islam.

After Fatah al-Islam militants killed dozens of Lebanese soldiers near their checkpoints around Nahr al-Bared on 20 May, intense bombardments and fire fights have destroyed much of the once relatively prosperous and open marketplace camp and triggered a humanitarian crisis among more than 35,000 Palestinians who fled their homes.

In Ein al-Hilweh, where several thousand armed militants — aligned to various groups including Communists, Palestinian nationalists and Islamists pursuing global “jihad” — vie for control in the tiny 1.5 square kilometers cinder block camp and its lawless boundary, residents fear a catastrophe similar to Nahr al-Bared could soon befall them.

Hizballah-backed “security force”

On 4 June, fighters from the loosely knit Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Greater Syria) takfiri group — which Palestinians say now has no leader and has all but disbanded — attacked the Lebanese army checkpoint outside Ein al-Hilweh, apparently in reaction to the call by Fatah al-Islam for militants in other camps to rise up.

The group is based in a small stretch of no-man’s-land known as Taamir, between the boundary of Ein al-Hilweh and one of the Lebanese army checkpoints that overlooks the camp.

“There was a very major threat that the battle could have been brought here,” Sheikh Haj Maher Oweid, military commander of the Palestinian Islamist group Ansar Allah (Followers of God), told IRIN in his office in Ein al-Hilweh.

Following the attack, Ansar Allah were tasked with heading a new 80-member Islamist security force controlling two of the camp’s border checkpoints, including the one overlooking the Jund al-Sham stronghold.

“We have achieved two goals: preventing battles between Palestinians and between Palestinians and the Lebanese army,” said Oweid, whose group, which he says has 300 armed fighters and 1,000 supporters, split from Fatah in 1991 and began a seemingly unlikely alliance with the Shia militants of Hizballah.

“We are part of Hizballah. Everything comes from Hizballah: financial support, weapons, training. Palestine is an Islamic issue. Hizballah are Islamic. We are Islamic. There is no conflict between Sunnis and Shias here. We are Muslims.”

Oweid said Hizballah have an interest in preventing the rise of al-Qaeda-styled Sunni extremists in Lebanon, given the brutal sectarian conflict that has engulfed Iraq. Though Hizballah has not publicly confirmed its support for Ansar Allah, the group has long stressed it allegiance to the Palestinian cause.

Fatah challenges

The remainder of the checkpoints, as well as security inside the camp boundaries, remains the task of Fatah, whose commander in Ein al-Hilweh, Mounir Maqdah, says his militant wing is the largest in the camp.

Fatah militants have had regular deadly clashes with Jund al-Sham over the past six months, and also face a challenge from other armed and more radical Palestinian groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) or the Islamists of Usbat al-Ansar (League of Followers).

Maqdah said: “Nothing will prevent a security breakdown if we have something like Fatah al-Islam getting into this camp. That’s why it is so important to establish our own social associations to prevent extremism.”

The Fatah commander pointed to the opening in early August of the camp’s first US $5 million private hospital which will offer patients free treatment for heart disease. The money is from international donations to various Palestinian humanitarian groups, channelled through what Maqdah said was the Badr Foundation.

The Foundation has also paid for the construction of an education and sports center, which Maqdah said would be the largest center built in any Palestinian camp since 1948 when it opens at the end of the month.

“We hope we can attract thousands of unemployed teenagers,” said Maqdah, who had written to the foundation highlighting the need for social services to prevent Palestinian youth falling into the hands of radicals.

Saudi extremists

Oweid said dozens of Saudi extremists had been expelled from Ein al-Hilweh over the past year and blamed the war in Iraq and Lebanon’s absence of state authority for the security breakdown.

“There were many Saudis expelled from here. They are connected to al-Qaeda and they want to spread chaos. Lebanon is now the new front for al-Qaeda,” he said. According to Oweid, at least 45 Saudis have been fighting with Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared, with 30 of them killed, while more have been arrested across Lebanon. The army has confirmed a number of Saudi casualties.

“They come to Palestinian camps in Lebanon because they see them as an easy station on the way to Iraq. Al-Qaeda sees Lebanon as weak because of the split in decision-making and weak security.”

A nine-month old political campaign to bring down the US-backed government by the Hizballah-led opposition has closed parliament and left cabinet without its six Shia and allied ministers.

Economic fallout

“Life was really miserable before the conflict in Nahr al-Bared started,” said Ibrahim Shehadi, a car mechanic who 20 years ago sold his wife’s jewellery so he could open his business on Sharia Bustan Yahoudi.

Since the outbreak of fighting in Nahr al-Bared, many Ein al-Hilweh businesses have seen their incomes plunge, with Shehadi’s dropping from a weekly profit of $200 to $70.

“The Lebanese are too scared to come into the camp now to get their cars repaired. What happens in Nahr al-Bared affects us all,” he said. “We are concerned our Palestinian brothers will not be able to return to their camp, and if that happens we will rise up in support of them.”

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