Clashes between Palestinian factions resume in Lebanon’s Ein el-Hilweh camp

Some 20 people injured as armed confrontations between Fatah and hardline groups begin again in Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp.

Smoke billows during clashes in the Ain el-Helweh camp for Palestinian refugees, in Lebanon's southern coastal city of Sidon
Smoke billows during clashes in the Ein el-Hilweh camp for Palestinian refugees, in Lebanon's southern coastal city of Sidon on September 8, 2023 [Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP]

Clashes between rival factions have resumed in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, with heavy gunfire and shelling wounding at least 20 people and prompting residents of the camp and the surrounding area to flee.

Reporting from outside the Ein el-Hilweh camp on Friday, Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr said dozens of families had escaped the fighting overnight between members of the Fatah movement and hardline groups and were now sleeping in the courtyard of a mosque.

“Children are telling us that they managed to escape in an ambulance but the ambulance came under fire,” she said. “Mothers are saying that their children were screaming.”

Khodr said the fighting in the camp, which is about one square kilometre and houses more than 63,000 registered refugees, is part of a decades-long struggle for power and control between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah and the armed groups, which call themselves the Muslim Youth.

A man speaks with Lebanese soldiers as they stand guard at one of the entrances to the Ain el-Helweh camp for Palestinian refugees,
A man speaks with Lebanese soldiers as they stand guard at one of the entrances to the Ein el-Hilweh camp for Palestinian refugees, in Lebanon’s southern coastal city of Sidon on September 8, 2023 [Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP]

There had previously been several days of street battles in the Ein el-Hilweh camp between the factions after Fatah accused the groups of shooting dead one of their military generals on July 30.

Those street battles left at least 13 dead and dozens wounded, and forced hundreds to flee from their homes.

An uneasy truce has been in place since August 3, but clashes were widely expected to resume as the groups have not handed over the accused killers of the Fatah general, Mohammad “Abu Ashraf” al-Armoushi to the Lebanese judiciary as demanded by a committee of Palestinian factions earlier this month.

A committee of Palestinian factions in Ein el-Hilweh announced on Tuesday that their joint security forces would launch raids in search of the accused killers.

Khodr said residents had been living in fear “because for them it wasn’t a question of if but of when there would be a new bout of violence”.

Maher Shabaita, head of Fatah in the Sidon region, told The Associated Press news agency that the groups had launched an attack Thursday night in an attempt to forestall plans by Palestinian forces to clear armed fighters out of schools they had been occupying in the camp.

By late morning on Friday, the fighting had at least temporarily subsided.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported 20 people were wounded, including an elderly man, and transported to hospitals overnight. Shabaita said the wounded included three civil defence volunteers who came under shelling as they were working to extinguish fires.

There were no immediate reports of deaths. The public Lebanese University announced it would close its branches in the city of Sidon, which is adjacent to the camp, and postpone scheduled exams in light of the fighting.

Ein al-Hilweh, which was created for Palestinians who were forcibly displaced by Zionist paramilitaries in the run-up to Israel’s establishment in 1948, is now an overcrowded neighbourhood of Sidon.

Thousands of Palestinians who sought refuge from the war in neighbouring Syria have also joined the camp in recent years.

By long-standing convention, the army does not enter Palestinian refugee camps – now bustling but impoverished urban districts – leaving the factions themselves to handle security.

Officials with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, could not immediately give information on the number of casualties or displaced.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies