Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- “It’s a blessing in disguise,” say the optimists at Ain al Hilweh camp, which lies south west of the city of Sidon [also Saida] in south Lebanon.
Living under dangerous conditions that they have never been exposed to before, the residents find themselves ensnared in a conflict that unites the Lebanese government and army against the armed Palestinian militants at the camp.
The residents of Ain al Hilweh had been yearning for a new organization, part of the Palestinian forces present on the land, to regulate the rampant chaos and absorb all the movements and trends under one umbrella that could guarantee the stability and security of the people, whilst reinstating the relationship with Lebanon on a clear, secure and humanitarian basis.
This cautious source of optimism for Palestinians comes in the form of a joint Palestinian security force that has been deployed in a number of districts in the Ain al Hilweh camp and the Taamir neighborhood. This comes after the recent clashes between the Lebanese Army and Jund al Sham militants. The main roads leading to the camp have been reopened in both directions and this has encouraged the return of many of those who had fled when the clashes first broke out.
The formation of a new security force sheds light on the current distribution of the present forces in the camp; it includes dozens of elements from various factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), particularly Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Alliance of Palestinian Forces, in addition to elements from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A new addition to the ‘official’ Palestinian scene is the participation of elements from the Islamic forces, particularly Osbat al Ansar (League of Partisans), al Haraka al Islamiya al Mujahida (The Islamic Resistance Movement) and Ansar Allah.
Mounir al Maqdah is a former Fatah commander and presently an official in the movement and also the head of al Jaysh al Shaabi (the People’s Army). He believes that the aforementioned security force is capable of controlling and regulating the situation in a permanent way rather than just being capable of bringing about a temporary truce.
“Currently the situation is stable and very good. It is not simply a truce, things have returned back to normal. As Palestinian factions, we are united in our position; we do not want more battles in any other camps like those of Nahr al Bared. Our battle is not against the Lebanese army. There are some who have breached this and attacked the army, which in turn has retaliated. We managed to contain and diffuse the situation quickly so that the conflict does not spread throughout the camp. This is while bearing in mind that the people do not sympathize with Jund al Sham.”
In terms of the active presence of the group, al Maqdah said, “There is no single reference for Jund al Sham. There are six or seven groups, each ranging from 12-17 elements in size. Each group operates autonomously. They do not have a specific name; however they orbit close to al Qaeda. Their leader, Abu Yousef al Sharqia, announced his resignation some time ago, dissolved the organization and has since retired to his home.”
Sohail al Natoor, head of the ‘Humanitarian Development Center for Palestinians’ explained, “The fundamentalist forces help one another through both direct and indirect means. It’s true that the elements of Jund al Islam may not exceed 40 or 50 members and yet they are capable of confounding the army because they are stationed amongst civilians. As such, the manner with which to deal with their sources of artillery fire is the problem. The matter is not confined between two forces because there are civilians present who are paying the price through the shooting aimed at the army, which they are exposed to despite their lack of active participation in the fighting. The laws of war stipulate taking into account the appropriate time and circumstances so as to ensure the least amount of damage to civilians.”
Regarding the dominating force at the camp, al Natoor said, “The arrangements that have taken place reflect the realistic balance of power on the ground. A small power has benefited at the expense of the major force to set up a realistic political arrangement that deals with the new positions.”
However, he does not expect things to return back to normal at the Ain al Hilweh camp. “The situation will remain unsettled. This group is not the same as the traditional groups that penalize those who violate or defy it. Often, such a group is infiltrated and does not heed the commands of its Emir, which only causes problems at the expense of others. Ain al Hilweh has practically fallen hostage to these interactions between a large central force comprised of the factions and alliances, and between this ‘external’ power (Jund al Islam). This is why the situation is confined to temporary solutions.”
Al Natoor’s pessimism stems from the fact that, “The goals of the fundamentalist groups in Ain al Hilweh are neither announced nor part of the framework of a Palestinian program nor the Lebanese framework between the authority and the opposition. General slogans are prevalent, such as the Islamic State project etc.”
However the political picture at the camp does not conceal the human reality that the Palestinians are living. Between the few main streets that can barely cope with the passage of cars, there are various narrow alleyways where pedestrians crowd one another. It is difficult for a stranger to navigate through the camp unless they had someone from on the camps to guide them. Despite this however, before the visit is over, guides would extend their hospitality to visitors and invite them to visit again soon.
The houses at the camp, modest and irregularly shaped, are built in close proximity so that they overlap one another – as is the case for all Palestinian camps in Lebanon. The residents of Ain al Hilweh camp have become accustomed to internal violent clashes between the Palestinian factions on a daily basis for decades. They have become used to drowning in security concerns and those related to living, such as their needs and objectives. Such discussions range over topics from the supported employment opportunities for Palestinians in Lebanon to hunger, disease, the improvement of conditions in the camp, the liberation of Palestine and the right of return. Most of the camps residents are the Palestinians of 1948, mainly from Galilee and the upper Galilee region in Palestine and from the districts of Acre, Nazareth, Haifa, Safd and Taytaba. The inhabitants of the camp are distributed in accordance to the area from which they hail in Palestine. Additionally, there is a small number of refugees from 1967 who are unable to return to Gaza and other areas, as stated in the Oslo Accords of the time despite having all the required qualifications and documentation.
Dedicating time to work in organizations and factions remains a source of income for a large segment of the camps inhabitants. Monthly salaries range from 100,000 Lebanese Liras or Pounds (LL or LBP), which is approximately US $67, while elements earn LL 200,000, the equivalent of approximately US $130 depending on their rank and on the organization in question. This excludes the salaries of officers, cadres and sector officials.
Notwithstanding, various local people’s committees at the camp indicate that the rate of unemployment exceeds 50 percent, especially after the qualitative and quantitative reduction of offers granted by organizations to their affiliated members.
The number of employees in UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) is incredibly limited when compared to the size of the population. As for those who work outside of the camp, they are laborers who work one-off jobs, which are often at irregular times and of different occupations throughout the months. Even farming jobs have become irregular. The UNWRA provides Palestinian refugees at Ain al Hilweh with much relief on various level and fields, however it remains largely insufficient as the needs of the camp are huge, numerous and different.
Today, the routine of the daily struggle is threatened by a serious situation that is capable of tipping the balance of daily life at the camp, or of placing the Palestinian existence on a new road that will create a new formula that would classify the forces on the ground, legitimizing and embracing those that had been abandoned.
How else can one explain Osbat al Ansar’s joining forces to control Jund al Sham and its intervention between the elements of Jund al Sham and the Lebanese Army? It is common knowledge that many of the members of Osbat al Ansar are wanted by Lebanese justice for a number of crimes.
“Elements of Osbat al Ansar are not the only ones wanted by Lebanon,” said Mounir al Maqdah. “There are 5,000 Palestinians wanted [in Lebanon]. I am one of them and have experienced it firsthand. This did not prevent us from regularly meeting with Lebanese officials to discuss the situation at the camp and to coordinate with them. The laws that were previously issued were all political and were issued in absentia; they do not have conclusive sentences. I do not want to defend anyone but the former [security] apparatus used to cast the blame on any Palestinian suitable to bear the crimes of others, and the purposes were known for this. Osbat al Ansar has been participating in the steering committee, the Palestinian committees and the Palestinian decision for the past five years.”
He pointed out that, “Fatah movement remains the strongest force militarily and on a security level in Ain al Hilweh camp because Hamas does not have a military force in Lebanon. It has representatives and a large popular following.”
Some believe that the Syrian regime had been careful to ensure that the situation remained unstable in the camp for Yasser Arafat, and thus nurtured various Islamic groups, including Osbat al Ansar. Still, some of the camp’s residents do not hesitate to blame Yasser Arafat for abandoning the cause and relinquishing the repatriation right and the right to Jerusalem. Perhaps it was this dispute that led to the activity of the fundamentalist Islamic groups, especially since Palestinian refugees are classified as second-class citizens in Lebanon. The notion of resettlement is used as political ploy by these groups, meanwhile the Lebanese government places severe restrictions that limit employment and travel opportunities for Palestinians.
Sohail al Natoor said that the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, which was established by President Fouad Siniora’s government and is chaired by Khalili Makkawi, is capable of achieving fast efficient steps to change the present reality of the refugees in camps but that the political and security events had hampered its performance. He added that this committee was responsible for the introduction of construction materials into refugee camps and that what was required was speeding up the bureaucracy of documents and paperwork for those who need it.
Al Maqdah shares a similar opinion; “the first government to deal with the Palestinian issue is Siniora’s government, which was bold enough to put the issue on the table for official recognition so that the lack of human rights could be officially recognized. The committee’s dialogue was positive. All the problems were broached on the table ranging from judicial matters to coordinating Palestinian presence and arms at the camps. This matter is first and foremost a Palestinian demand before being a Lebanese one.”
Al Natoor considers that, “the Palestinian human reality is an essential factor in the Salafi trend; however he sees that it is controlled by the Palestinian cause which has witnessed numerous crises and debates. And yet, the ongoing displacement and the Israeli occupation bring the cause back to its essential core. Likewise, the cause will be restored to its rightful position when the Lebanese government concerns itself with the rights of Palestinians.”
The map of armed Palestinian factions and forces in Ain al Hilweh camp are distributed amongst three organizational frameworks: the PLO, the Alliance of Palestinian Forces and the Islamist forces. Outside of this framework is al Jaysh al Shaabi (the People’s Army), headed by Mounir al Maqdah, Ansar Allah organization and the Palestinian people’s committees.
The recent events at Ain al Hilweh camp have revealed the presence of al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad supporters. Some declare Osama Bin Laden as their leader and abide by ‘Jihad against the disbelievers and the foreign occupation’, as there are dozens of youth who went to fight against America and Israel, some of whom were martyred while others are still waiting.
The distribution map of the Salafist trend among Palestinian movements at Ain al Hilweh camp are headed by Osbat al Ansar, which is largely based at the camp. Osbat al Ansar was founded and initially led by Hisham Sharaydi who was assassinated in 1991 at the hands of Fatah. Osbat al Ansar has since instigated various provocations at the camp and is currently headed over by Ahmad Abd al Karim al Sadi (also known as Abu Mahjan) who was accused of targeting Lebanese security and of killing three Lebanese soldiers. The group has since had intense armed clashes with members from Fatah movement where many have fallen or been injured.
In the early nineties, the group was actively bombing nightclubs, theaters and liquor stores in Beirut. In 2005 some elements of Osbat al Ansar moved to Iraq via Syria under a resolution reached by the officials of fundamentalist movement who wanted to reinforce the ‘Jihadi status’ there. The group was accused of assassinating the head of the Islamic Charitable Projects Association, (ICPA) [also known as Al-Ahbash], Sheikh Nizar al Halabi in August 1995, and attacking a governmental building in Sidon, which resulted in the deaths of four Lebanese judges.
Osbat al Nour was established as a breakaway faction of Osbat al Ansar established by Abdullah Hisham Sharaydi, the son of the founder of Osbat al Ansar, adopting a more hard-line approach. Elements from Osbat al Nour were responsible for several assassinations, including Fatah leadership member Amin Kayed who had been accused of killing Hisham Sharaydi.
The Ain al Hilweh camp has since seen the rise of groups such as Jund al Sham, linked to Abu Musaab al Zarqawi, who gave them their name in addition to supervising the training of those who had joined the organization from the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. He relocated them to the Palestinian refugee camps in the north and south of Lebanon to fulfill his Jihadist project.
Jund al Sham came to the forefront after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri after Abu Adas appeared to claim responsibility for his death, while information had been leaked in Damascus of the arrest of an armed network affiliated to Jund al Sham. However, other factions and groups operate in Ain al Hilweh including Ansar al Allah, which have joined the joint Palestinian security forces. The group had formerly claimed responsibility for the launch of two missiles on ‘Al Mustaqbal’ television channel’s building in al Rousha neighborhood in Beirut in 2004.
Today the equation has changed at Ain al Hilweh camp. It seems as though this ‘terrorist’ feature could influence the existing movements in an attempt to assimilate them. Khalid Orf, the secretary-general of Fatah in the south pointed out that the Palestinian and Lebanese joining forces to control Jund al Sham will result in actions on the ground to prevent them from carrying out their practices that violate the residents of Ain al Hilweh camp and Sidon and the Lebanese army.
Only time will tell what the future holds for Ain al Hilweh camp.