Palestinians in Lebanon Camps Victims of Corrupt Security

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Already facing harsh poverty, Palestinians living in Lebanon’s refugee camps also suffer under the thuggery of armed groups, Omar Wehbeh reports. 

As if the poverty and deprivation felt by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were not enough to blight their lives — which grow worse by the day — armed groups affiliated with Palestinian factions have now emerged to control the fate of tens of thousands among them. They are trampling on their rights, killing the weak, and squandering their life’s work, all in plain sight, and without anyone lifting a finger to help.

Mohammed Mustafa, who was also known as Abu Khazna, did not expect his life to end this quickly after having returned to settle in the Shatila Camp after several years abroad looking for a better life in Germany. He was killed by the same security committee that was supposed to “maintain security” inside the camp.

In 2010, Abu Khazna filed a complaint at the committee’s headquarters, thinking that doing so would be the best avenue to solve a dispute he had with one of the local businessmen who installed an internet junction box on his house’s wall. But a fight broke out between him and the committee members, leading to him returning home in order to avoid their wrath. But they followed him there, stormed his house, arrested him and confiscated his weapon.

When his relatives interceded on his behalf, Abu Khazna was released but his weapon was not returned. The argument reignited when he insisted on retrieving it, but this time shots were fired and he was killed.

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The incident is well known to all of Shatila’s residents. Abu Khazna’s brother, who returned from Germany to file a complaint, was rebuffed by the committee which abetted the perpetrator, refusing to open an investigation and hand over the culprit to Lebanese authorities.

The fact is that Abu Khazna was not the only victim of the committee members’ disregard for people’s lives. In July 2008, a young woman, Reem, was killed at a checkpoint manned by the security committee at the entrance to Shatila. The perpetrator was never held accountable or handed over to the authorities.

For more than 30 years, gunmen organized under the name of the “security committee” professionally undertook the arbitrary arrest and investigation of people, even though they possessed no official capacity to do so. Things evolved to them turning a blind eye to drug dealers operating inside the camp and its surrounding areas, despite the fact that the dealers’ identities were well known to the committee and the inhabitants alike.

Life seems normal in the camp’s alleyways, which are crowded with inhabitants and bursting with activity. At first glance, passersby would surely fail to realize that these mazes hide plenty of stories about the oppression, lack of security and injustice that the camp’s unemployed inhabitants suffer from. Its youth are sliding deeper into addiction every day, their lives senselessly wasting away.

The camp’s refugees used to run their daily affairs on their own, solving their problems with the help of senior dignitaries and prominent families, until the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975, when all factions fell under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

A popular committee was then established to manage the service sector (water and electricity, the sale of real estate, etc...), and an apparatus was formed under the name of “al-Kifah al-Moussalah” (the Armed Struggle) in 1982 to serve as an internal police force.

However, when the Fatah al-Intifada group split from the PLO and the latter was forced to leave Beirut, and after Syrian forces entered Lebanon and fierce battles erupted for control of the camps, the organizations backed by Syria — such as Fatah al-Intifada, the General Command, and al-Saaiqa — dominated the popular committees and formed security committees to replace the Kifah (internal police force).

The security committees then spread their de-facto control over all the camps in the absence of any Palestinian-Lebanese understanding on how to run the camps, their armed forces exploiting the fact that the camp was located in an area that did not fall under the control of Lebanese authorities.

Hani (26 years old) stands in front of his one room house that no sunlight ever enters. He takes out a cigarette from his pocket and lights it with trembling hands as he says: “Unemployment has driven me to addiction. When drug dealers smell the scent of a young unemployed poor man, they begin looking for the best way to ensnare him by offering him small quantities or bribing those around him to encourage him to use drugs, if he were reluctant to do so on his own.”

Dealers usually target young men with priors who are unable to find jobs and leave the camp. Hani, for example, unintentionally got involved in an armed robbery.

At the cafe he frequented, two of his friends asked him to fetch his uncle’s car so that they could take a drive to Beirut, but then robbed someone along the way. When police uncovered their involvement, Hani became a wanted man and was confined to the camp, unable to leave it for fear of being arrested.

He began spending his time at the cafe until his miscreant friends drove him to drugs by convincing him that their use drove away all worries and eased anxiety.

Hani is a typical victim of these cafes, where drug dealers endeavor to target young men looking for solace. The security committee entrusted to keep the camp’s security is unable to put an end to their activities. It either turns a blind eye — especially when the dealer has power and influence — or claims to arrest the offender if he turned out to be new to the business, and exploits his weakness.

Kamil (an alias) is a young man who got involved in drug dealing with a gang led by (M.J.). He says that the security forces refrain from pursuing three of the major drug traffickers (K.E., Abu Ch., and Ali A.). On the contrary, there exists a friendship and understanding between one of them and some  security force members as a result of them belonging to the same [political] organization.

For example, Adnan, who worked alone, was arrested inside the camp carrying close to seven kilograms of cocaine. When the security committee handed him over to Lebanese authorities, he was only found to be carrying one kilo! Where did the rest go? Kamil, who was recently released from prison, said that the security committee claimed to have destroyed it or handed it over. But in fact, they had resold it to other drug traffickers.

Ahmad A., who previously worked for the committee, confirmed that its officials routinely appropriated seized items (drugs, money, bicycles, pistols, etc.) but that nobody knew what they did with them. The accused are routinely either handed over to the state or secretly whisked away after striking a deal with the committee’s officials. He also mentioned (F.L.), who was a trafficker who used to shower them with cash in order for them to cover up for him.

Drug trafficking does not stop at the Shatila camp’s boundaries, where poor Lebanese neighborhoods intersect its outlying areas and the Lebanese state has no presence: from al-Rahab neighborhood to the Sabra camp, and from the western neighborhood to the Farhat neighborhood. This geographical intermingling has led to common security and social problems, where a number of drug traffickers have been observed to operate. (A.Y.) is a Lebanese citizen who frequents the areas neighboring the camp to openly sell drugs. The Security Committee’s members used to turn a blind eye to his activities so that the problem did not escalate into a fight between Lebanese and Palestinians.

Abu Khazna departed this earth despite himself, so did Reem. Yet, Hani continues to live in a state of resentment towards those who traffic and sell drugs under the protection of those who are supposed to protect him and other youth like him. Hani knows well that he and addicts like him are not mere victims of drugs alone, but are also scapegoats whom the security committee finds no qualms in accusing of being drug traffickers and handing them over to Lebanese authorities when its own members come under pressure. Hani’s friend (who is also an addict), was sentenced to five years in prison when the security committee turned him over for drug trafficking. Instead of receiving medical treatment or being let out on bail paid to the committee after promising to quit his addiction (as many do), he was thrown in jail leaving behind a wife and two children.

Hani, on the other hand, prefers not to leave his house for fear that he will once again fall victim to drugs, and to avoid the informants who work for Lebanese police. He wishes he could leave the camp and live outside it as have done more than two thirds of the inhabitants whose financial situation improved to the point of them renting their houses to Syrians and Lebanese.

According to statistics released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the number of Palestinians in Shatila Camp is around 5,000 people, or one third of the camp’s total inhabitants, estimated to number 15,000. The majority of the camps residents are Syrians, in addition to some Lebanese, Kurds and bedouins. These “foreigners” are more prone to fall victim to transgressions by the security committee through what is known as “Jibaya” (a levy), or protection money that falls outside the purview of any laws or customs. The committee thus sends out patrols that collect money from residents and some shop and store owners, especially the Syrians among them, in exchange for protection; a practice that gradually mutates into extortion.

The popular committee in charge of administering the camp’s service sector is in no better shape. Its  budget and levies lack oversight, and it imposes inflated rates on rental and sales contracts for non-Palestinians residents. The weak [those without connections] can only comply for fear of being targeted or thrown out of the camp. Raafat Murra, the political representative of Hamas in Beirut said that “the authorities in charge of the popular committee sell the camp’s allotment of water and electricity.”

Yet, despite all the transgressions, residents and officials continue to back the security and popular committees, because “their presence is better than their absence” as Murra put it.

Structure of security committees in the camps

The security committee originally consisted of members of Palestinian factions that were mandated by the PLO’s leadership — which included all factions — to take part in preserving the camp’s security during the civil war in Lebanon. The PLO is made up of 11 Palestinian factions, most notably the Fatah movement, the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP), the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) and the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF). However, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) has suspended its membership in the PLO and formed the Palestinian Forces Alliance with Fatah al-Intifada, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The security committee was created in 1985 in the refugee camps in Beirut and was put under the control of Fatah al-Intifada, the PFLP-GC and Al-Saaiqa in 1988, after the war of the camps erupted in Beirut and North Lebanon. This came following the entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon and the defection of Fatah al-Intifada from the Fatah Movement. However, the Fatah Movement and other PLO factions exerted their control over the Palestinian camps in Sidon and South of Lebanon through the PLO-affiliated al-Kifah al-Moussalah [the armed struggle].

The security committee’s abuses vary from one camp to another. While the Lebanese government does not recognize its legitimacy, it has tried to take advantage of its existence. Moreover, intelligence services have communicated with it to turn in wanted people, if possible, in case they entered the camps, the Palestinian researcher Ahmad Hage said.

Characteristic part of Shatila

The Shatila refugee camp is a special case that is unlike other camps, even those under the control of the Forces Alliance. This is caused by the different demographic structures and the great impact of the surrounding areas. However, the committee’s failure to perform in other camps is clear. The security committee cannot turn in all wanted persons to the Lebanese state except in rare cases [after a consensus is reached between all factions, as was the case when Fatah al-Islam militants fled the Nahr al-Bared camp in Tripoli into the Beddawi refugee camp in 2007], as it may open the door to internal and family problems.

The security committee is dominated by Fatah al-Intifada, the PFLP-GC and al-Saaiqa. However, Hamas has paid $1000 in return for not mandating its members, claiming that it doesn't have a military wing in Lebanon. The security committee’s members do not exceed 12, and there are 20 members — two from each faction — whose terms are supposed to rotate. There are members who take allocations without showing up. In contrast, Fatah al-Intifada members participate in patrols, which promote the influence of this faction within the committee. Thus far, the PLO factions do not participate in the security committee in Shatila.

Commenting on the corruption within the popular and security committees, Hassan Zeidan, an official of Fatah al-Intifada in Lebanon, said: “Workers are not saints and may make mistakes just as any other employee in any administrative office. However, no one is holding them accountable.” Zidane pointed out that there is no unified popular committees and the division between the Forces Alliance and the PLO has produced a bad security situation.

Zeidan emphasized that “the security committee is focused on arresting drug runners and dealers, and everyone is being turned in. The only beneficiaries of its absence are those dealers and thugs.”

The Palestinian factions — with the exception of the GC — have refused to participate in this committee, claiming that there is no financial coverage for members that will join the committee, Zeidan said.  Hamas has not answered the request of providing support and the PLO has set conditions for its participation and said that the PLO-affiliated al-Kifah al-Moussalah still exists. Nevertheless, the Fatah al-Intifada official emphasized that “the committee will continue with its work despite its vulnerability, until the day comes where it is supported by the people and the rest of the factions.”

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