Lebanon's Next Flashpoint

Palestinian refugee camps like Ain el-Hilweh are on the brink of chaos, chaos that might spread.

For the approximately 18,000 Palestinians remaining in Syria’s besieged Yarmouk refugee camp, life is a horrifying daily struggle, a veritable hell on earth. Earlier this month, Amnesty International released a report confirming this dystopian reality. The report reveals that 128 people have died from starvation since last July; the inevitable outcome of a military blockade imposed on the camp by Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad. The purpose of the siege is to root out foreign Sunni jihadist militias, e.g. Jabhat al-Nusra, who now occupy the camp. These militants have set up bases within the camp, and have been able to recruit new fighters from within the vulnerable Palestinian population in order to further their goal of toppling the Assad regime. Rumors of people resorting to eating grass and stray cats and dogs while trying to avoid being killed by sniper fire or Assad’s crude yet lethal barrel bombs are now tragically commonplace. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the organization charged with bringing in humanitarian aid to the famished population, has been unable to consistently carry out its mission, as firefights, broken truces, and Syrian military obstructions have impeded its access to the camp. Amnesty and others are now claiming Assad is using starvation as a weapon of war, a distinctly savage strategy in a war where barbarism and brutality have become the norm.

One could dismiss Yarmouk as a war crime committed by a uniquely cruel and cornered dictator, a crisis that could not be repeated elsewhere. This would be a mistake. As the Syrian war spills over into Lebanon, we are witnessing a chain of events that could lead to a similar standoff between the Lebanese Army (LAF) and/or Hezbollah and Sunni jihadists now taking sanctuary in Palestinian refugee camps within Lebanon such as Ain el-Hilweh, the largest in the country with a population now bursting with well over one hundred thousand people. While the Cairo Agreement of 1969 - which granted the PLO security authority over the camps in Lebanon - has been nullified, the common practice within Lebanon is still to leave policing of the camps to the various Palestinian factions within the framework of security committees. De facto Palestinian sovereignty in the camps (which are governed in the form of popular committees), and self-policing by the security committees has, with exception, been a successful endeavor. Historically, Palestinian security forces have been able to locate and hand over wanted men to the LAF, and thus the LAF has routinely been able to stay out of the camps. Regrettably, this fragile tacit agreement may not survive much longer.

The influx of formerly Syrian-based Palestinian refugees, some already radicalized, into Lebanese camps such as Ain el-Hilweh has coincided with the infiltration of well-armed, well-trained fighters whose goal is to bring the Syrian war to Lebanon, punishment for Hezbollah’s “interference” in Syria and the LAF’s perceived loyalty to Hezbollah and bias against local Sunnis who claim they are defending themselves from Shia aggression in cities such as Tripoli, Sidon and Arsal. These jihadists, well-versed in the enticing poetics of martyrdom, have been able to exploit the impoverished conditions and bleak nature of camp life in Lebanon – perhaps the worst in the Arab world – to recruit Palestinians and sow discord within the camps. Such destabilization flies in the face of the camps’ pledge to be a neutral party to the regional sectarian chaos now plaguing both Syria and Lebanon and to stay out of the internal politics of their host countries.

The largely sectarian friction now emanating from the camps is boiling over into Lebanese society with terrible effect. Palestinians with connections to Ain el-Hilweh have been implicated in a number of bombings targeting Shia strongholds in the last year. Adnan Mohammed, a former resident of Ain el-Hilweh, was identified as one of the two suicide bombers who killed 25 people outside of the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon in November 2013. Nidal Hisham al-Mughayer, a Palestinian from the village of al-Bisaria (with family in Ain el-Hilweh), was identified as a participant in the twin attacks on the Iranian Cultural Center in Beirut on February 19 that killed ten people. Naim Abbas, a Palestinian from Ain el-Hilweh and a high-ranking member of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (an al-Qaeda affiliate named after a Palestinian preacher and fighter), was captured on February 11, 2014, after being implicated in several car bombings that sent shockwaves throughout Lebanon. Abbas was known to many as the most dangerous terrorist in Lebanon. Nearly all of the radicalized Palestinians have claimed allegiance to the Azzam Brigades, Jabhat al-Nusra, The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or to the extremist Lebanese Sunni Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who along with singer-turned Sunni extremist Fadel Shaker is possibly hiding in Ain el-Hilweh since becoming a fugitive for his role in attacks on LAF checkpoints that left thirty-eight dead in June 2013. Dormant cells of Palestinian nationals in Ain el-Hilweh are allegedly preparing more attacks targeting the LAF in Sidon.