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Clashes in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camp as security void looms

The UN recently warned that poverty and crime is on the rise in the camp due to the Lebanese economic crisis.
Smoke rises during clashes between an extremist group and the Palestinian security forces in Ain al-Hilweh camp, near the southern coastal city of Sidon, Lebanon, April 8, 2017.

Deadly clashes erupted in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon overnight on Thursday, leaving at least one killed, and adding to the wave of economic and political instability in Beirut. 

A member of the Palestinian political party Fatah, which leads the Palestinian Authority, was killed, while seven others were injured. The fighting occurred between Fatah and Islamist groups, according to Lebanon’s official National News Agency. 

The agency identified the deceased as Mahmoud Zbeidat. The clashes came as head of Lebanese General Security Gen. Abbas Ibrahim stepped down on Wednesday, creating another void in the power structure in Lebanon. 

Background: Ain al-Hilweh is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon with a population of around 80,000. The bulk of the inhabitants are refugees from the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and their descendants. Others are Palestinians who were displaced by the Lebanese civil war. More recently, some Palestinians from Syria have come to the camp due to the war there, according to the United Nations. Ain al-Hilweh is located near the city of Saida in southern Lebanon. 

The Lebanese government has not granted citizenship to most Palestinians in Lebanon, in part due to concerns that this would alter Lebanon’s fragile confessional system of government whereby power is divided between the Shiite, Sunni and Christian communities. Palestinians are predominantly Sunni Muslims.

Various armed factions have a presence in the camp. In addition to Fatah, there are various Islamist groups, including Jund al-Sham and Usbat al-Ansar. 

Why it matters: Clashes have occurred in Ain al-Hilweh for years, and the issue is continuing. The United Nations’ Palestinian refugees agency UNRWA documented 13 violent incidents in Ain al-Hilweh in 2022 — the most of any Palestinian refugee camp, according to a February report. 

Reuters also reported a Palestinian security official was assassinated in the camp last August.

Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon as a whole are experiencing increased poverty amid the economic crisis. Some of the violence in Ain al-Hilweh and the other camps was related to clashes between armed groups, but UNRWA said crime is also an issue. 

“Palestinian refugee camps and gatherings are experiencing an elevated level of petty crime driven at least in part by deteriorating economic conditions. Robbery of people in the streets, as well as persistent theft of items such as power cables, solar panels, gas bottles, Wi-Fi routers and vehicles has led to widespread anxiety among Palestinian refugees,” read the report. 

Residents of Ain al-Hilweh also suffer from overcrowding and poor infrastructure. The Lebanese news outlet L’Orient Today reported a building collapse in the camp last month. The outlet said many buildings are at risk of collapse in the camp. 

Know more: Lebanon is experiencing growing political instability in addition to the economic crisis. President Michel Aoun left office in October and has yet to be replaced. Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim also stepped down on Wednesday upon his term ending and reaching retirement age, The Associated Press reported. Ibrahim played a major role in the Lebanese security establishment, and notably acted as an interlocutor in hostage negotiations between the United States and Syria. 

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