Refugees seek lasting peace in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh

Over the past week, about 3,000 people have fled fighting among armed groups in the Palestinian refugee camp.

Life in the camp was already hard before it was gripped by the week of bloodshed [AFP]

Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Lebanon – Hundreds of displaced Palestinians crowded into the reception hall of the Musalli mosque last Friday as a volunteer read aloud the latest news about the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, where fierce factional fighting last week displaced an estimated 3,000 people.

As the camp was consumed by battle, mattresses, toys, clothes and other personal belongings blanketed the floor of the mosque that sheltered civilian refugees. Along with the nearby Sidon Municipality building, dozens of mosques have hosted Ain al-Hilweh’s displaced.

The volunteer informed residents that a ceasefire – the third in less than a week – had been reached between the secular Fatah party and its allies, on one hand, and the ultra-Salafist Jund al-Sham and its broad alliance of Islamist armed groups on the other. Within six days of fighting, six Palestinians had been killed and more than 70 injured.

Abu Shadi, 51, and his family arrived at the mosque before sunrise last week. “We fled under fire,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that his wife and five young children had been weeping. “We came back from a friend’s house after the first ceasefire on Sunday, then all of a sudden, it exploded again.”

Everywhere Palestinians go, we have to flee from guns and bombs. Now our house is gone. Where can we go? To another refugee camp?

by Abu Shadi, Palestinian refugee

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Returning home after the second ceasefire, Abu Shadi found that his house had burned down. “We just came to Ain al-Hilweh two years ago from the Deraa refugee camp in Syria,” he said. “Everywhere Palestinians go, we have to flee from guns and bombs. Now our house is gone. Where can we go? To another refugee camp?”

Inside the camp, the streets were covered with debris and the charred walls of homes destroyed in fires that broke out when armed groups fired RPGs into heavily-populated areas.

Life in the camp was already hard before it was gripped by the week of bloodshed. Camp officials say more than 70,000 Palestinians, plus the 10,000 Palestinian refugees who fled from Syria, were cramped into a single square kilometre.

With Palestinians banned from more than 70 professions in Lebanon, unemployment hovers between 75 and 80 percent, as humanitarian aid dries up due to the funding crisis hitting the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

Munir Maqdah – a veteran Fatah leader and head of the Palestinian Joint Security Forces, which was created in March to crack down on armed groups linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the Nusra Front – said fighting broke out when Jund al-Sham tried to assassinate a local Fatah member on August 21.

“Now the ceasefire is in place and we hope it will last, but the situation is still very tense inside the camp,” Maqdah told Al Jazeera.

Coordinating with other hardline Salafist groups, such as the Muslim Youth and Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham over the past year has assassinated dozens of Palestinians – particularly those with political connections to the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside the Assad government in neighbouring Syria.

Most recently, in late July, a sniper shot and killed Fatah military leader Talal al-Balawneh (also known as Talal al-Ourdouni) as he drove his car through the camp.

Marwan Issa, a Lebanese member of the Hezbollah-backed Resistance Brigades, was found dead in the boot of a car in Ain al-Hilweh last April. He is believed to have been slain by Salafist groups who were angry about coordination between local groups and Hezbollah, and wanted to dissuade the Palestinian Joint Security Forces from deploying troops in the Jund al-Sham-controlled Tawari neighbourhood of the camp.


“The Joint Security Forces are now controlling the camp and have the support of the local population,” Maqdah said, “but the wounds are deep and will take time to heal”.

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Sheikh Jamal Khattab – leader of the Islamic Mujahideen Movement, a Salafist group that is part of the Islamic Forces alliance, which participates in the Palestinian Joint Security Forces – accused Fatah of holding all Islamist groups responsible for the actions of Jund al-Sham.

Although Khattab is wanted by the Lebanese government for allegedly recruiting residents to fight with hardline opposition groups in Syria, his movement maintains cordial relations with Hezbollah and has been a staunch opponent of Jund al-Sham.

Yet, over the last week, the Islamic Forces fought alongside Jund al-Sham as they battled Fatah and other nationalist and leftist parties. “After Jund al-Sham tried to assassinate a Fatah member, Fatah attacked us and all of the Islamic organisations in the camp,” Khattab told Al Jazeera. “Now that we’ve reached a ceasefire, we will rejoin the Palestinian Joint Security Forces. Jund al-Sham is still the main threat.”

Few of Ain al-Hilweh’s displaced residents are holding out hope that the ceasefire will stick. Abu Ahmed, a father of five who came to the camp in early 2013 after fleeing the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, said he had no choice but to go back to his half-destroyed home in the Tawari neighbourhood.

Palestinian refugees from Syria face difficulty in Lebanon

Above the bullet-riddled walls of his home, black flags associated with the Nusra Front and ISIL were draped from the rooftops of apartment buildings. “This is our political leaders’ fault,” he told Al Jazeera. “There’s not a single good one from the whole leadership. They don’t care about us. They’re all corrupt and fight for their own interests.”

Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre, agrees that the next outbreak of fighting is not far away.

“Nobody is optimistic about the ceasefire in Ain al-Hilweh,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese fighters have taken refuge in the camp, as the Lebanese army is forbidden from entering any of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps. “If Palestinian security forces cannot impose themselves as the strongest military force, the fighting and instability will continue.”

Fuad Othman, a local leader of the leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), claimed that civilians have paid the price for the Salafist groups’ goal of using Ain al-Hilweh as a training ground and recruiting base. “Jund al-Sham is the main problem, but the other Islamist groups [that fought with them] are part of the roots of this crisis,” he said. “It’s not about religion. It’s about money – they are rifles for rent.”

Several United Nations facilities inside the camp were damaged during the fighting, explained UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness. “UNRWA condemns any armed group that fails to respect its obligations under international law to protect civilians and to respect the inviolability of United Nations premises,” he said in a statement.

Back in Ain al-Hilweh, 32-year-old Hussam Issa fears that fighting will break out again – and sooner rather than later.

“There is no negotiating with those extremists,” he said of Jund al-Sham. “Every time they make a deal, they go back to assassinating political leaders and civilians.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera