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.
Incidents such as these, coupled with the fact that the Palestinian security forces in places like Ain el-Hilweh are mostly under-qualified, ill-equipped, and too few in number, have prompted one Fatah official in Lebanon to declare they have “lost control” of the camps. Hamas echoed this statement with its recent launch of a “harmony campaign” in the camps, replete with banners and paintings emblazoned with slogans calling for unity and warning against sedition. The stated goal of the campaign is to discourage potential suicide bombers and to foster greater cooperation with the LAF in terms of handing over criminal suspects. Hamas’ “harmony campaign” is now being complemented by what it calls an “honor initiative.” This initiative is bold and well-timed, most likely designed to shield Ain el-Hilweh from the blowback Lebanon will suffer as jihadist rebels flee into Lebanon from the Syrian town of Yabroud, which fell to Hezbollah in late March. The lofty aim of this security initiative is to bind participants across sectarian, national, and ideological lines to an honor agreement to be announced in the near future. Participants to the agreement include Islamist factions in Ain el-Hilweh, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Authority, the Amal Movement, and apparently Hezbollah and the LAF. While the commitments of Hezbollah and the LAF remain unclear and hypothetical, the Palestinian factions are reportedly pledging not to host any fugitives or launch or be involved in any security incident whether inside or outside the camps. This memorandum-of-understanding will place the security burden onto the Palestinian factions, giving them legal and political cover to act against “takfiri” groups operating in the camp. Such a security structure will surely be put to test in the near future. While the Lebanese state seems willing to comply at the moment, should there be catastrophic violence traced back to Ain el-Hilweh, this agreement will likely have minimal impact on the Lebanese response.
Despite Hamas’ efforts and the pleas of Fatah, violence and fear are on the rise in the camps. Assassinations are becoming more frequent. Most recently, on March 10, high-ranking Fatah official Brig. General Jamil Zeidan was gunned down in Ain el-Hilweh in a possible reprisal attack from pro-Syrian Palestinian sympathizers, Shia gunmen affiliated with Hezbollah, or Sunni extremists attempting to silence moderates who would turn them over to the Lebanese government. This is the second time a Fatah official was killed in Ain el-Hilweh this year. On February 2, Wisam Abul Kel, a member of Fatah, was shot and killed by masked men outside the grocery store in the camp. In addition, at least one Palestinian faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), has broken ranks with its countrymen to support Assad and Hezbollah. The PFLP-GC is actually helping the Assad regime in its siege of Yarmouk. Such violence and disunity within the Palestinian factions—even inside Fatah—coupled with the imminent fallout from the loss of Yabroud, strengthens the argument that the atmosphere in the camps will be one of increasing chaos, one which will eventually necessitate external intervention.
Hezbollah, the self-proclaimed champion of Palestinian rights, is also taking notice of the camps’ destabilization and division. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah recently gave a speech on current events in the region, a speech that, at first blush, curiously focused on the primacy of resistance against Israel as opposed to the bombings in Lebanon and the war in Syria. Within the present context, however, Nasrallah’s overtures to the Palestinians cause make sense in that Hezbollah fears losing the Palestinian camps' support within Lebanon. Such support is based on a historical relationship that goes back to the Lebanese Civil War—specifically to the War of the Camps, in which Hezbollah supported the Palestinian camps that were then under siege by the Amal Movement. Hezbollah cannot afford further destabilization within Lebanon while it pursues its interests in Syria. Palestinian suicide bombers attacking Hezbollah or Iranian targets, acts that would inevitably kill innocent Lebanese, play right into the hands of Hezbollah’s domestic opponents who would prefer the group disarm in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.