BEIRUT — When Shadi Mawlawi and Osama Mansour escaped their native city of Tripoli in November during clashes between the Lebanese army and the local, armed militant groups they led, they found refuge among Salafist factions inside the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Sidon. Lebanese troops have only rarely ventured into the Palestinian camps, despite the 1987 abrogation of the 1969 Cairo Agreement between the Palestinian leadership and the Lebanese government that the army refrain from entering them. Mawlawi and Mansour, the most wanted men in Lebanon, have been charged in absentia with belonging to an armed terrorist group with the intent to carry out attacks. Amid recent rumors that the Islamic State (IS) is planning to declare an emirate in Lebanon, many fear the group might make an appeal to some of the Palestinian factions there to join forces.
Palestinian individuals have been identified among the perpetrators involved in a series of car bombs and suicide attacks targeting Lebanese army and Hezbollah strongholds in the past few years. In one incident in February 2014, Nidal al-Mghayer, a Sidon resident with relatives in Ain al-Hilweh, was identified as the driver of a car bomb that exploded outside the Iranian Cultural Center in Beirut. Those carrying out the attacks do not like that the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah is fighting alongside the Syrian army against predominantly Sunni rebels in the ongoing civil war in Syria, and they complain that the operations conducted by the Lebanese army only target Sunni groups.
New measures implemented by the Lebanese military over the last year have improved the security situation in the country, but tensions remain. “The fear is that IS and other regional groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, that threaten Lebanon's stability could find support in the camps,” said an army official who requested anonymity. Naim Abbas, one of the IS leaders killed last August during clashes with the Lebanese army in the northeastern town of Arsal, was a Palestinian from the Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut. Abbas, born in Ain al-Hilweh, was allegedly a key figure behind the series of suicide attacks and car bombs that rocked the capital from mid-2013 to the summer of 2014.
Last summer, after lengthy negotiations between the Palestinian factions and Lebanese authorities, a 150-member joint Palestinian patrol was deployed inside Ain al-Hilweh with the purpose of tamping down outbursts of deadly, factional violence, primarily between Fatah and Salafist groups. The number of incidents plunged after July 8, the day of the joint patrol's deployment covering most parts of the camp. Only two incidents have since been reported, whereas the previous year, the camp experienced a series of security incidents that left dozens of dead and wounded. The patrol consists of fighters from Fatah, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), while the Salafist Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham and Asbat al-Ansar declined to join.
“You don't really see them, as they don't wear distinctive clothes,” Natalia Sancha, a Spanish aid worker in the camp since 2009, told Al-Monitor. Besides the joint patrol, each group still maintains its own gunmen in the areas they control. There are more than a dozen different factions in Ain al-Hilweh.
“Now the security in the camps is very good, and the Palestinian groups are together,” Ali Baraka, Hamas' representative in Lebanon, said. This was confirmed by others. “Nearly everything is under control, and if there is a fight, in two minutes it is over,” Ziad, a PFLP official, said. “Why? Something is happening underground.”
Palestinian groups and Lebanese security institutions, government officials and political parties continue to engage in a covert dialogue. In a meeting at the end of February, government officials and Palestinian representatives discussed the possibility of extending the Ain al-Hilweh security operation to the al-Taamir and al-Taware neighborhoods in the camp, both of which are dominated by Salafist groups.
The 12 Palestinian refugee camps, which host at least half a million people, have largely been spared from major clashes. Ain al-Hilweh's size and history makes it an exception. Since the Lebanese civil war (1975-90), camps north of Sidon have been under the control of a coalition of Palestinian factions led by Fatah, while pro-Syrian factions controlled camps to the south. Being situated on the dividing line made Ain al-Hilweh a “battleground” for competing groups, Nadim Shehadi, director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, said. Most of the bursts of violence in Ain al-Hilweh, he said, have been related to interfactional disputes involving internal issues and the situation in Palestine and Syria.
None of the factions, however, has asserted support or publicly pledged allegiance to any of the regional jihadist groups despite fugitives from them finding cover there and appearances of flags bearing the Shahada (testimony), like that adopted by IS. “Nobody is interested in turning Ain al-Hilweh into a new Nahr al-Bared,” Sancha said, referring to the Palestinian camp in the north that fighting between the army and Fatah al-Islam militants turned into a war zone in 2007. After months of clashes and bombardments, the camp was practically razed.
The different groups know the Lebanese army has the political cover and support for carrying out operations to maintain security. Nonetheless, some Ain al-Hilweh militants from the Salafist Fatah al-Islam and Jund al-Sham were supportive of the militia led by Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in its confrontation with the army in the Sidon neighborhood of Abra in August 2013. The army immediately retaliated and bombarded two of the Salafists' buildings. The crackdown on armed groups in Tripoli is another example of the berth granted the military. Western and regional countries are providing billions of dollars and logistical support to modernize the army, allowing it to become more effective in addressing security risks.
Shehadi believes that Lebanon's particular balances, based on a sectarian political system with each party strongly tied to external actors, could keep such actors as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra at bay. “In the end, all the Palestinian factions act in a very Lebanese way. They all are in conflict, but somehow they manage to maintain peace.”
An attempt to address socio-economic problems, refugee rights and security issues in the Palestinian camps was made in 2005 through of a national dialogue. The Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC) was founded at that time and charged with addressing, among other issues, Palestinian arms inside and outside the camps, but the Palestinian file was quickly forgotten.
“At one time, there was an agreement to remove arms held outside the camps, but we never had the mechanisms to do so,” Abdel-Nasser el Ayi, director of the LPDC office, said. “The core of the problem is that the Palestinian file is used as part of the internal political debate, when there should be a national interest to determine [political] positions. At the end of the day, it will reflect on the stability of the country.”
Meanwhile, average Palestinians continue to struggle under difficult conditions. Socio-economic indicators in the camps are dismal. A 2012 survey by the American University in Beirut assessed that 66% of Palestinians lived in poverty and only 50% were enrolled in secondary school. In the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Ahmad sells vegetables at a little stand on the main street. “We all know each other in the camps, but I don't believe anymore in these politics and negotiations, they haven't improved our life.” He concluded, “We just have to survive.”