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Lebanon halts work as Palestinians reject wall around refugee camp

The Lebanese government’s decision to build a wall at the southern Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh sparks angry reactions from Palestinian factions.
People walk past a Lebanese army checkpoint at the entrance to Ain al-Hilweh camp Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon, South Lebanon September 22, 2016. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho - RTSP03P

US President-elect Donald Trump's plan for a wall along the US-Mexico border isn't the only one raising controversy these days.

Construction began — and halted — last month on a wall at Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese army said the 6-foot-tall cement wall, which is intended to help keep terrorists and criminals from passing into and out of the camp, supposedly had the approval of senior Palestinian faction officials. But construction stopped when condemnation arose from numerous quarters.

Residents of the camp and some Palestinian factions staged a demonstration last week, rejecting the idea of encircling and isolating the camp from its surroundings, turning it into “one big prison.” They also deny longstanding claims that the camp threatens Lebanon’s security, and allegations that about 200 extremists from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the Islamic State (IS) reside inside the camp’s neighborhoods. But the camp has a history of widespread, deadly infighting among various factions.

Informed security sources told Al-Monitor that the security situation has been deteriorating in the camp since 2013. There have been dozens of clashes between some radical groups and Palestinian factions, and dozens of killings. In 2014, Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nouhad al-Machnouk said, “It is no longer acceptable that the camp remains a hotbed where fugitives flee from justice.”

Maj. Gen. Munir al-Maqdah, the commander of the joint Palestinian security force in the camp, told Al-Monitor by phone that a meeting was held Nov. 24 between delegates of the camp's Palestinian security committee and Brig. Gen. Khoder Hammoud, the head of the Lebanese army intelligence branch in the south. The parties agreed to halt work on the wall until the concerned factions come up with an alternative — within two weeks.

Maqdah added that the Palestinian factions had held another meeting and issued a statement “squarely rejecting said wall, which would harm historical relations and the common struggle of the brotherly peoples of Lebanon and Palestine.”

Raafat Morra, a Hamas media officer in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor the Hamas movement is against any action aimed at isolating the Palestinian presence in Lebanon or viewing them as a security threat. He said the various factions have made concerted efforts for five years to minimize conflicts in the camps. “We managed to pull this off, as camps have seen relative calm and have cooperated with the Lebanese authorities to maintain security,” he said.

The Lebanese army issued a statement Nov. 25 saying that the “security wall” is “merely a protective fence in some sectors that doesn't overlook residential areas” of the camp and that aims to “prevent the infiltration of terrorists from and into it.” The statement added that the wall will help close off tunnels that fugitives in the camp use to access nearby agricultural fields.

The Lebanese army was surprised by Palestinian objections to the wall, since intelligence officials and senior Palestinian faction officials said they had "previously agreed on the matter," according to the army statement.

Critics of the wall say that rather than providing security, the barrier would promote division and provoke refugees, while harming them psychologically.

Marwan Abdul Al, an official in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “The [proposed] wall will not serve its goal of maintaining security. We fear that it would harm the image of the camp and turn into a metal scarecrow in the mind of the public, promoting the culture of estrangement and hatred instead of communication and dialogue.”

He also said comprehensive security can be achieved by promoting “the sovereignty of the Lebanese state and justice for Palestinians, according to the equation of rights and duties.”

A Palestinian journalist residing in the camp, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor, “The wall would turn the camp into a cage, and people inside would be like animals in a zoo.”

Hassan Hoballah, who handles Palestinian issues for Hezbollah, told Al-Monitor the party "rejects any act involving injustice or persecution, or a racist act against the Palestinian people in Lebanon, as they are our brothers and our guests.”

Hoballah called for finding security alternatives to the wall based on cooperation between the Lebanese army and the Palestinian factions to prevent the infiltration of terrorist groups.

Other Lebanese officials, political parties and groups also issued statements condemning the wall.

Islamic legal scholar Sheikh Selim Sussan, the mufti of Sidon and its districts, on Nov. 24 bluntly rejected the wall, which he said would "turn the camp into one big prison for our Palestinian brothers and further stir feelings of hatred and discrimination against them.”

He added, “I do not know who was behind the idea of building this wall” that separates “the people of Sidon and Palestinians who share several bonds together” at the national, religious and family levels.

There's no doubt a new approach is needed to address Lebanese-Palestinian relations, an approach that would lead to more social and economic rights for Palestinian refugees in terms of work and residence, as well as better living conditions in the camps scattered in most of the Lebanese provinces. This new approach could also take into account Lebanese concerns of the resettlement of Palestinian refugees on one hand, and the perils of any infiltration by terrorist organizations inside camps and the resulting security threat on the other.

Ain al-Hilweh camp is the largest camp for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in terms of both population and area. Estimates of its area range from only about 1 square kilometer (0.4 square mile) to 2 square kilometers. Population estimates range from 60,000 to 80,000.