Fighting intensifies in Lebanon’s Ein el-Hilweh camp despite truce talks

Fighting between Palestinian factions have claimed at least 10 lives over the weekend, sources in the camp say.

Fighters from the Palestinian Fatah group take position during clashes with rival armed groups in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh near the southern port city of Sidon. [Bilal Hussein/AP Photo]

At least 10 people have been killed and dozens wounded in renewed violence between rival groups in a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, as stray bullets and shells hit residential areas in the country’s third-largest city Sidon.

The Ein el-Hilweh camp has been rocked by factional clashes since late July between the Palestinian mainstream movement Fatah and hardline groups. The first round left more than a dozen people dead.

Fighting resumed over the weekend after a month-long ceasefire and has since left at least 10 people dead, according to two Palestinian sources in the camp. Six of them were fighters from Fatah and another two were other group fighters, they said on Monday.

The two remaining victims were civilians, a Lebanese security source and two Palestinian sources said. One was killed on Saturday when a stray bullet from the clashes reached a town near the camp, the Lebanese security source said.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, shared its own tally on Sunday saying four people were killed and 60 others wounded. It called for an immediate halt to the violence.

Five Lebanese army soldiers were also wounded, one of them critically, when shelling hit two of their positions on the outskirts of the camp on Sunday, according to an army statement.

“We will not stand idle with what is happening in Ein el-Hilweh,” warned Elias al-Baysari, head of the General Security Directorate, in an interview with a local newspaper published Monday. “The situation in the camp is unbearable,” he said.

Al-Baysari later Monday hosted a meeting at his office in Beirut that included officials from several Palestinian factions to discuss the possibility of a new truce.

More than 50 others were wounded, according to medical officials and state media.

On Monday, gunfire and explosions were heard throughout the day inside the camp and stray bullets hit the municipality building in Sidon damaging windows without hurting anyone, the state-run National News Agency said.

The public Lebanese University was closed and the Lebanese Army closed off the main highway that links Beirut with southern Lebanon near the camp and traffic was directed toward a coastal road.

Dire humanitarian situation

Ein el-Hilweh is the largest of 12 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, hosting around 80,000 of up to 250,000 Palestinians countrywide, according to the United Nation’s Palestine refugee agency (UNRWA). The camps date back as many as seven decades to neighbouring Israel’s founding in 1948.

UNRWA said hundreds of families displaced from the camp have taken shelter in nearby mosques, schools and the Sidon municipality building.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting near the camp in Sidon, said, described the situation as “desperate”.

“Hundreds of families escaped the fighting, they’ve left their homes in Ein el-Hilweh. Others remain trapped inside,” Khodr said.

In some neighbourhoods, it is too difficult to venture out to reach areas outside of the camp, she said.

“These people were poor to begin with. The majority of Palestinians in Lebanon … if they cannot work today, they cannot put food on the table,” Khodr said.

Many are relying on support from local charities. But even UNRWA is a “cash-strapped organisation,” she added.

UNRWA appealed last week for $15.5m to repair infrastructure damaged in the last round of clashes in the camp, provide alternative education locations for children whose schools were damaged or occupied by fighters, and give cash assistance to people who have been displaced from their homes.

Khodr said it may need even more funding to repair additional damages reported over the weekend.

Separately, UNRWA said armed groups have taken over eight of their schools, forcing the agency to find alternatives to host students as the beginning of the school year nears.

The renewed violence has prompted fresh concerns that the clashes could spill over into the adjacent city of Sidon.

Residents fear a similar scenario to the northern Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, where Lebanon’s army waged a 15-week onslaught to dislodge armed groups in 2007.

A senior Fatah official is set to land in Lebanon on Monday and the acting chief of Lebanon’s powerful General Security intelligence agency will hold an emergency meeting on the issue.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies