EIN EL-HILWEH, Lebanon, (AP) – Palestinians in Lebanon’s largest refugee camp are watching the dispute over power between Hamas and the Palestinian president with dismay, fearing it will only make their dream of one day returning home even more distant.
They also fear the tensions could spill over here: The refugees in the densely populated, impoverished camp are as divided as their fellow Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank between the Islamic militant Hamas and the Fatah movement of U.S.-backed President Mahmoud Abbas.
The two rivals — along with smaller factions — have long carved out separate territories in Ein el-Hilweh’s neighborhoods and some districts are no-go zones for members of rival groups. The camp is notorious for shootouts among armed factions over the years.
Hani Hourani, a 29-year-old vegetable vendor in Ein el-Hilweh, does not see a bright future.
“As long as we are divided how are we going to go back” to Palestine, he said. “If we can’t reach agreement in small Gaza how are we going to go back to a nation whose leaders are in dispute? So that we kill each other?”
Hourani said both sides are playing with the Palestinian people. Abbas follows an American agenda, he argues, and Hamas wants to go with the Iranian vision.
“We are in the middle. We want to go back, but do what? How can we agree on the basis of a state, if we can’t live together in Gaza,” Hourani said.
Hassan Youssef, a refugee who was born here 51 years ago, said he sees the chances for a homeland dwindling.
“The dream of returning is always in our thoughts and on our minds, every hour of the day,” said Youssef, who runs a metal workshop. “I believe if there is unity it will (happen). But with the disputes it will become more distant, for sure.”
In Ein el-Hilweh, in southern Lebanon, some 70,000 refugees live in a cramped shantytown about a square kilometer (0.4 square miles) in size. It’s one of the biggest of the more than 30 camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan that house the families of Palestinians who lost their homes in the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel.
The camps frequently reflect the tensions brewing in the Palestinian territories.
In 2007, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in fighting that largely drove out Fatah supporters. Israel’s 22-day war on Hamas in Gaza has heightened tensions between the Islamic militant group and Abbas’ Fatah, even as Egypt and other Arab countries try to push them into reconciliation.
The struggle for dominance is evident the moment you step into Ein el-Hilweh. At the camp’s entrance, a large poster proclaims the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is headed by Abbas, as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian People.” A PLO gunman on a checkpoint waves cars through after they are thoroughly checked by Lebanese troops who ring the camp. But nearby is a faded picture of Fathi Shakaki, the slain founder of Islamic Jihad militant faction, which is allied to Hamas.
Gunmen hanging out on street corners keep on eye on their faction’s turf — some openly clutching guns, some with pistols tucked to their waists, others sporting Islamic fundamentalist beards. Wall graffiti and pictures of “martyrs” also give evidence of which territory is whose.
On another street, fresh pictures of Hamas leader Said Siyam who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza are pasted on walls. Some pictures of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — Abbas’ predecessor — have been torn off. Pictures of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal were ripped off walls at Bourj el-Shemali, another southern refugee camp.
The factions are not bothering each other for now, residents say, but tension is in the air. One person was killed in December in a nearby refugee camp in a shootout between rival family members loyal to Hamas and Fatah.
Despite the animosities, faction leaders here say there is no interest in starting a fight. Leaders have set up a joint committee and a 150-member armed force ready to intervene in Ein el-Hilweh if anything breaks out.
Brig. Gen. Munir Makdah, who runs the PLO’s Armed Struggle police unit, says Palestinians in Lebanon already have enough problems, including poverty and a lack of social and civil rights.
“We are keen on sparing the camps in this country any more suffering,” said Makdah, behind him a picture of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. “Everybody is a loser” if tensions erupt.
Hamas representative Abu Ahmed Fadl says his group is working to defuse any tensions and denies Hamas is arming its supporters.
Sheik Jamal Khattab, a cleric who represents several Islamic militant factions in Ein el-Hilweh, agrees. “What’s important for us is to safeguard our security and stability,” he says in his office a few blocks away from Makdah’s office.
Khattab maintains no faction has enough power to take over Ein el-Hdddddilweh. The white-bearded cleric says Israel’s Gaza offensive united Palestinians at first — but that mood evaporated after the shooting stopped in mid-January. He points out that there were no confrontations here when Hamas took over Gaza from Fatah in 2007.
Besides, he says, there is little to fight over. “In Palestine, it’s over who governs, but in Ein el-Hilweh it is over what?”