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Palestinians Refuse Assir's Call To Join Battle in Sidon

Hamas is staying out of Lebanon’s sectarian conflict.
Lebanese army soldiers arrest supporters of hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon, June 24, 2013. Lebanese soldiers stormed a complex holding gunmen loyal to a radical Islamist cleric in the city of Sidon on Monday and arrested dozens of his supporters, security sources said, in a second day of clashes fuelled by neighbouring Syria's civil war. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX10ZBT

Today, there is an attempt to involve the Palestinian factions in the sectarian political conflict in Lebanon. On June 23, Salafi cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir urged all Sunnis in the country, including the Palestinians, to assist his group in their battle against the Lebanese army and Shiite Hezbollah.

The representative of the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas in Beirut, Ali Baraka, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview on June 23 that his movement and other Palestinian factions have nothing to do with the clashes between the Lebanese army and Assir's group in Abra, a suburb of Sidon in southern Lebanon.

But some Palestinians of the extremist Islamist groups Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam have responded to Assir’s call and on June 23 fired on the Lebanese army checkpoint in the Hay al-Taamir area, near the Palestinian camp of Ein el-Hilweh located near Sidon.

Baraka revealed to Al-Monitor that during the phone call he was in Sidon, mediating with Hezbollah and the Amal movement to prevent any involvement in these clashes by Palestinian factions in Ein el-Hilweh.

He pointed out that there is no problem between the Palestinians and the Lebanese army, indicating that his efforts with the Palestinian factions, Hezbollah, Amal and the Lebanese army have led to cessation of violence by some Palestinian fighters, referring to the shooting on the army near Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp.

However, on June 23, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Palestinians to avoid any interference in Lebanon's clashes and ordered his ambassador in Beirut to prevent any use of the Palestinian camps’ arms in Lebanon’s conflict.

Moreover, Hamas political bureau Chairman Khaled Meshaal asserted, in a phone call with Lebanese parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on June 24, the start of the cease-fire between the Lebanese army and the Palestinians in the area of Ein el-Hilweh.

Former Lebanese Minister of Defense Abdelrahim Murad said in a phone interview with Al-Monitor on June 24 that he hopes the factions from within the Palestinian camps stay away from Sidon clashes because they have no interest in such intervention, which could affect their situation in Lebanon and their central cause.

It is worth noting that some Sunni Lebanese groups have attempted historically to count on the Palestinian factions to assist them militarily. This was the fact with the group Al-Murabiton, which was funded and armed by Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Arafat had also supported the Islamic Unity Movement — Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami — a Sunni Islamist group, to control the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli in 1983 and 1984. That explains why some observers described the Palestine Liberation Organization as the “army of Sunnis in Lebanon” during the civil war between 1975 and 1990.

Assir who has failed to involve the Palestinian factions in his battle against the Lebanese army urged, on June 23, the Sunni soldiers to defect from the army, accusing the army of showing bias toward Hezbollah and Amal.

In fact, Assir’s call for army dissent reminds us of the civil war in 1975 when Muslim officers and soldiers had split from the army, accusing it of showing biased toward the Christian “Lebanese front.”

The Lebanese army claimed on June 23 that the aim of Assir’s group attack was the restoration of the civil war. “What happened today in Sidon went beyond all expectations. The army was attacked in cold blood and with the intent of setting off the explosion in Sidon, as in 1975, with the purpose of plunging Lebanon into a cycle of violence,” the army said in a statement.

Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani considered on June 24 Assir’s call for Sunni soldiers to defect from the army “a crime against the Sunnis and the Lebanese army.”

Murad also refused Assir’s call for Sunni soldiers to defect from the army. He told Al-Monitor, “It might be some foreign states' orders that dictate Assir, following the Friends of Syria meeting in Doha on June 22, to attack the Lebanese army, to keep it busy and drained.” He criticized the March 14 Alliance and Sidon’s members of parliament Bahia Hariri and Fouad Seniora for attempting to justify Assir’s attack against the army by blaming Hezbollah for its refusal of giving up its arms.

A Lebanese source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor on June 24 that there is a Western-regional attempt to blow up the internal situation in Lebanon, to distract Hezbollah and prevent it from an expected participation in an offensive in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The source referred to US President Barack Obama's phone call with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, saying he was worried by Hezbollah's intervention in Syria following its control over Qusair and Suleiman's call for Hezbollah to not take part in the battle in Aleppo and withdraw from Syria.

The continued violent clashes between the Lebanese army and Assir’s supporters killed at least 18 soldiers, 25 gunmen and wounded dozens more in the Abra area on June 23 and 24. The army has seized the Salafist group's complex and Assir has fled to an unknown location, in a tragic end of what the Lebanese have named "the phenomenon of Al-Assir."

Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanese analyst specializing in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. On Twitter: @haytham66

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