Three days of fighting between rival armed groups inside the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon have killed at least nine people and wounded dozens more, officials say.
Lebanon’s army on Monday sealed off the area around the Ein el-Hilweh camp near the southern port city of Sidon as clashes continued despite Lebanese and Palestinian efforts to broker a ceasefire.
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Reporting from outside the camp, which is home to 55,000 refugees, Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr said on Monday afternoon that the intensity of the “fierce” fighting had “increased in recent hours”.
“This really has the making of a humanitarian crisis,” she added. Dozens of families have managed to escape the densely populated camp, but others are trapped inside because it is too dangerous to flee, and some have taken shelter in mosques, Khodr said.
The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees has suspended its aid operations and services in the camp, she added.
A Lebanese army spokesperson said the death toll on Monday had risen to nine, The Associated Press news agency reported. At least 37 people were reportedly wounded.
The violence began on Saturday when an unknown gunman tried to kill a member of an armed group named Mahmoud Khalil but instead fatally shot his companion.
Full-blown clashes erupted the next day when fighters in retaliation shot and killed a military general from the Fatah group, Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi, and three escorts as they were walking through a parking lot, according to a Palestinian official, who spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity.
‘We ran for our lives’
Local Lebanese lawmaker Osama Saad announced a new ceasefire on Monday afternoon after a meeting between Lebanese officials, security forces and Palestinian factions, but fighting continued afterwards.
“It seems the situation will escalate further,” a local woman said outside the camp. “We heard about a ceasefire on more than one occasion, but no side is holding to it. The situation is dire. Families are dispersed here and there. Security is totally absent inside.”
A man who managed to flee the violence said his entire neighbourhood had been destroyed.
“We ran for our lives, leaving everything behind as shells and bullets were flying over our heads. Until midnight it was all calm, but by 2 in the morning, fighting renewed. It has intensified since then,” he said.
Ein el-Hilweh is one of 12 camps established in Lebanon in 1948 for Palestinian refugees after the creation of Israel. After a 1969 agreement between Lebanon and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Lebanese army has generally avoided entering the camps, but some Lebanese officials have called for the army to take control of the camps in the wake of the recent clashes.
Samy Gemayel, a member of parliament and head of the Kataeb party, called on Monday for “the disarmament of the camps and placing them in the custody of the Lebanese army”, according to the state-run National News Agency.
Palestinians in Lebanon have restricted rights to work and own property, and the vast majority of them live in poverty.
Rami Khouri, director of Global Engagement at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera the violence was “a recurring side-effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Zionist conquest of Palestine”.
“This kind of tension recurs regularly, and therefore, it really reminds us that one of the benefits of resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict is a Palestinian state, … which will obviate the need for these camps and take away these tensions,” he said.