A new round of clashes erupted in the ‘Ain al-Hilweh Refugee Camp (RC) in southern Lebanon in late February 2017. Two people were killed, more than ten were injured, and property and infrastructure suffered damages.
The round of violence came after factions from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) withdrew from the High Security Committee and the Joint Security Force. The clashes took place between Fatah-affiliated factions and Islamic factions, but neither side made any decisive gains.
The crisis in ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC is linked to the wider local and regional political climate, especially the issue of the right of return for Palestine refugees and the position and status of the camp in southern Lebanon. It is also linked to the long-standing conflict between Fatah and Islamic groups, the presence of wanted Palestinian and Lebanese nationals in the camp, difficult humanitarian conditions, and the international focus on counter-terrorism. Many efforts were made to stop the violence, with mixed results.
There are several scenarios that could materialize in the ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC, including:
– Full Lebanese army control over the camp.
– Control of the camp by a joint Palestinian force.
– Continuation of the status quo.
Given the political and security complications in Lebanon and the region, it is likely the crisis will linger, with bouts of tension and precarious calm. The main stakeholders will want to contain the fire under the ceiling of the initiative launched by the Palestinian factions in 2014 to protect the refugee camps.
Clashes in ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC flared up in late February 2017, producing a new round of violence that was probably the fiercest in recent times. Two were killed, the youth Maher Dahesheh (16) and Ahmad Khalil aka Abu ‘Aishah, while several were injured.
Residential buildings, shops, vehicles, water pipes, and electric lines were damaged extensively, and schools and health centers, including those of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), were shut down.
The greatest damage was inflicted on the political and security levels among Palestinians themselves, and between Palestinians and Lebanese. The residents of Saida city where the RC is located staged a general strike to protest Palestinian in-fighting, as bullets and shrapnels from the fighting fell in the city.
The ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC is in eastern Saida, in an area surrounded by Lebanese Sunni, Shiah, and Christian majority districts along the highway leading to south Lebanon, used by the UN peacekeeping forces deployed to the country since 1978, and proximity to Lebanon’s offshore hydrocarbon reserves.
The RC and environs are home to nearly 70 thousand people. It has seen key moments in its history, including the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the battles between Palestinians and Lebanese parties, and an armed conflict between Yasir ‘Arafat’s Fatah faction and the Revolutionary Council (Abu Nidal). Following the Taif Accords that ended the war in Lebanon in 1989, heavy weapons in the RC were surrendered to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
RC Elements have been accused of links to bombings in Lebanese territories, murder of four judges in Saida in 1999, harboring al-Qaeda-linked terrorist elements from outside Lebanon, and fighting in Iraq and Syria. While a period of calm in the camp followed the end of the civil war in Lebanon in 1990, this lasted only until 1997 when clashes and bombings returned. The Lebanese army has since surrounded the camp, and tensions have continued from that time to this day.
1. Political Dimension
‘Ain al-Hilweh is one of the largest Palestinian RCs in Lebanon and other host countries. Thus, it is of major importance concerning the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the peace process. Unrest in ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC dates to 1997, following years of calm, after the Madrid Peace Conference (1991), the Oslo Accords (1993), the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (1994), and the emergence of a regional and international trend to terminate the Palestinian issue, drop the right of return, and impose naturalization of refugees in Lebanon.
2. Security Dimension
Notably, there are local, regional, and international entities that appear interested in using the ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC as an arena for settling scores, sending political messages, and harboring wanted outlaws. Indeed, it is illogical that all Lebanese territories enjoyed unprecedented calm between 1990 and 2005, when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, while ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC continued to undergo unrest, experiencing relentless assassinations and bombings despite its small surface area that does not exceed 2 sq. km.
3. Lebanese Dimension
The Lebanese state has refused to impose its security authority in the ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC and other refugee camps. The Lebanese government is opposed to deploying the Lebanese army inside the camps, but maintains a strong presence near the camps especially ‘Ain al-Hilweh. This has exacerbated lawlessness there and deepened the rift with Lebanon’s authorities, while solidifying the image of the camp as a lawless spot.
4. Social and Humanitarian Dimension
The ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC, like all Palestinian communities in Lebanon, is ravaged by economic, humanitarian, and social hardship. The Lebanese authorities prohibit refugees from working and owning property legally. Educational and health services are subpar, and the infrastructure in the camp is dismal. The bare minimum of health and environmental standards are not satisfied in housing in the camp, with its narrow streets and lack of public and recreational spaces, lack of education and higher education opportunities, and high unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy rates.
More than 5 thousand fugitives wanted by the Lebanese state reside in the camp, most of whom with expired charges. The Lebanese army imposes a strict security cordon around the camp, searching those entering or leaving, and restricting access to specific points. The army has erected walls, sand barriers, and checkpoints around the camp, prohibiting construction, all amid restrictions on the work and activities of UNRWA.
There are several factors influencing the conflict in ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC
1. The absence of a unified Palestinian political, military, and security reference point that can enforce the order. Palestinian factions are in a state of in-fighting, especially between Fatah and Islamic groups which Fatah is trying to eradicate.
2. The lack of official Lebanese interest in the situation of Palestinian refugees and the RC, and in improving, for example, their economic and social conditions and shifting the security approach through a political, security, and development strategy.
3. The presence of radicalism in the RC linked to entities outside it, influenced by events in the region, and its conflicts and divisions. Sometimes, these radical elements take part in these events or harbor wanted fugitives.
4. The presence of a close link between groups operating the RC and local and regional intelligence agencies, affecting their decisions and shaping their orientations.
5. The entry of several fugitives to the camp, such as Badi‘ Hamadah, who killed three Lebanese soldiers in 2002. He was later handed over to the authorities and executed. Others include Fadil Shaker, who entered the camp after the clashes in Saida’s suburb of ‘Abra in 2013, and Shadi al-Mawlawi, who moved to the camp in 2014. The Lebanese government insists on the handing over of these, at a time when there is no reason for these individuals to remain in ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC. The Palestinian factions have failed to apprehend them, as they enjoy the support of certain groups in the camp.
6. The discovery of oil in the Mediterranean Sea off the Lebanese coast, and the presence of international peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon. Oil companies and the international forces fear that the RC could be used to stage attacks against their personnel.
7. The presence of Islamist fugitives in the camp places the situation there in the eye of the global “anti-terror storm.” There are active attempts by entities linked to Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) in Ramallah to prosecute, kill, or arrest these elements.
8. Fatah desires to regain its influence and control of the camp, as one of the leading refugee camps that was once part of its zone of influence. This has led to conflict with all factions that have opposing political, social, and ideological orientations, and reject the policies and programs of the PLO.
First: The Lebanese Army Takes Control
This would mean for the LAF to obtain Palestinian approval and regional and international consent to enter the RC and enforce the order there, whether under an accord or by force. This scenario, however, is unlikely, at least in the near term, because of the lack of appetite for this option in Lebanon, and the difficulty of obtaining regional and international support given the sensitivity of the Palestinian issue and the future of the Palestinian refugees. The Lebanese government fears naturalization, and does not want to bear economic, social, and humanitarian responsibility of all refugees.
There is also a fear of a Lebanese-Palestinian military confrontation that repeats the war between the two sides, and the high human cost, unguaranteed results, and far-reaching implications of such a scenario. For this reason, the LAF will likely keep in place their security measures around the RC, while resolving the fugitives issue with a preventive approach to “terrorism.” At the same time, the LAF would work to contain clashes and unrest, without the Lebanese government bearing the economic and political burden of refugees.
Second: A Strong Palestinian Position That Would End the Crisis
This would mean the emergence of a strong Palestinian political position that would lead to a consensus on ending the conflict, by choice or by force.
Palestinian factions have attempted to put an end to the conflict in ‘Ain al-Hilweh. In March 2014, the Palestinian factions launched a unified initiative to stop the violence, forming a security committee comprising 250 officers in the RC. However, this did not stop violence; the bombings, assassinations, and shootings continued, intensifying in the summer of 2014. Members of “Resistance Brigades,” which have been accused of targeting Islamists in turn, were assassinated. Assassinations and attempts at assassination between Fatah and Islamists also occurred.
Despite several Palestinian attempts to stop violence, success remained elusive because of the complex political and security situation in ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC, the plurality of players, the expanding influence of outside forces, the continuation of Palestinian divisions, the dithering of officials in charge of the security committee, and the expanding differences within Fatah leading to its withdrawal from the committee in February. It seems that the Palestinian factions cannot resolve the situation internally, despite repeated attempts.
Third: Crisis Continuation
This would mean keeping the status quo, including divisions, conflicts, and armed unrest. This scenario remains the most likely in the near term, given the link between the RC issue and several local, regional, and international political issues; the future of the Palestinian issue and the right of return; conflicts in the region; and the “war on terror.”
Another reason is the inability of Palestinian factions to settle the situation militarily and hand over the fugitives, amid Lebanon’s lack of appetite to address the causes of the issue and bear the political, legal, and social responsibilities for the camp. Meanwhile, Fatah has a continued desire to fully control the RC and fight Islamic factions there in the context of “counter-terrorism,” while the Islamists fear Fatah’s security role in cracking down on their ranks.
The continuation of the crisis means the humanitarian suffering in the camp will continue, undermining the Palestinian issue and presence. This means there is a powder keg at risk of exploding and destroying the entire RC. Palestinians believe that regardless of security issues in ‘Ain al-Hilweh and the risk they pose, they have so far been able to keep the camp neutral from regional conflicts, sectarian strife, and local and external divisions since the crises in the region and the Syrian war erupted. No assault outside the camp has originated from it.
1. Seeking serious Palestinian-Lebanese cooperation to reach a radical solution to the crisis, and launching Palestinian-Lebanese dialogue on all the points of the bilateral relationship to reach practicable solutions.
2. Separating the ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC issue from all regional political issues and complexities
3. Dealing with the issue of fugitives with wisdom and firmness, and finding political and legal compromises to resolve their cases where possible. Policies that respect the law and spare the camp from bearing responsibilities bigger than its ability to cope with must be pursued.
4. Drafting a plan of development for ‘Ain al-Hilweh RC.
5. Forming a joint Palestinian strike force that would end violence and keep order.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre extends its sincere gratitude to Mr. Ra’fat Murra for contributing to the draft of this strategic assessment.