SAIDA —Efforts were well underway late Tuesday afternoon to enforce a ceasefire in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp for Palestinians, located on the outskirts of Saida in South Lebanon.
Clashes have ravaged the camp since Saturday. A ceasefire between Fateh members and Islamist factions was announced Monday evening but was not respected, with fighting resuming during the day.
On Tuesday evening, a meeting was held at the Palestinian Embassy in Beirut in an attempt to defuse the tension. "The Joint Palestinian Action Committee condemns the incidents in Ain al-Hilweh. It calls for the implementation of the ceasefire and the removal of armed elements from the streets to allow the return of the inhabitants. It also calls for the creation of an investigation committee," stated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary General Fathi Abou Aardat on behalf of the committee.
Fouad Osman, a Palestine Liberation Front (PFL) official in Ain al-Hilweh, told L'Orient-Le Jour that the Joint Palestinian Action Committee had visited the Fateh fighters and the Islamists to ask them to respect the ceasefire.
Security sources told our correspondent that special army units were sent to Saida on Tuesday and are stationed at the city's northern entrance for the time being. They are expected to set up other army points near the camp.
Sporadic gunfire and shelling were still heard in and around the Ain Al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp outside Saida on Tuesday, despite a ceasefire that was announced Monday night. A stray bullet from the fighting on Tuesday injured a pregnant woman near the camp, local residents told L'Orient Today.
A L'Orient Today reporter found entrances to the camp still closed on Tuesday morning, making it impossible for hundreds of people displaced by the fighting to return home. Instead, they are sheltering inside nearby UNRWA schools in Saida, where volunteers have brought them food and medical supplies.
The clashes broke out Saturday in the al-Safsaf neighborhood between Islamist factions — who are close to Hamas, which is allied with Hezbollah — and the Fatah Movement stationed in the al-Baraksat neighborhood, near the northern entrance to the camp. The violence escalated and stretched across the entire camp, with stray bullets hitting nearby parts of Saida.
In a Monday statement, Islamist forces within the camp announced that the Joint Palestinian Action Committee, with the sponsorship of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, had agreed on an immediate ceasefire, but the sound of gunfire could still be heard within the camp.
According to UNRWA on Monday, 11 people were killed and another 40 injured since the start of the clashes.
"Two UNRWA schools have sustained damage. More than 2,000 people were forced to flee in search of safety," UNRWA said in its statement on Monday.
Most of the residents of al-Tameer Street near one camp entrance, who are mainly Lebanese, have fled the area and still haven’t returned, L'Orient Today's reporter found.
The clashes have resulted in property damage and the burning of several houses and shops inside Ain al-Hilweh.
"Around three shops, however, have opened Tuesday, making use of the relative calm, to sell their products that have expiration dates. A butcher has opened a bakery, and a croissant shop," L'Orient Today's reporter said, citing sources inside the camp.
Displaced families hoping for fast return
Some 350 families who fled the camp over the past few days have sought refuge in the nearby Musalli mosque, though volunteers said they would be transported to UNRWA schools further from the scene of the clashes. A shell exploded close to the mosque on Monday night.
Sheltered in the mosque, 56-year-old Um Ahmad was waiting on Tuesday to return to her house in the camp.
“I hope that with the announced ceasefire my return will be faster,” she told L’Orient Today.
She hasn't slept for the past three days.
Nearby, 75-year-old Abu Mahmoud was sitting on the staircase of the mosque beside his son Atef. He cursed the Palestinian factions, and the Palestinian Authority, which “resulted in harming us only and never benefited us.”
An "emergency meeting" was underway Tuesday around noontime in Saida's Dar al-Fatwa, headed by the Mufti of Saida, Sheikh Salim Susan, along with representatives of several political parties.
At a press conference after the meeting, Osseiran questioned the purpose of the clashes, describing them as “senseless fighting that only benefits the Zionist enemy.”
He emphasized the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire. “After that, the fighters should sit together and agree to form a committee to investigate the crime and identify those responsible, handing them over to the Lebanese judiciary,” Osseiran said.
He concluded by noting that meetings at Dar al-Fatwa would continue until a new ceasefire is enacted.
Ain al-Hilweh is home to more than 54,000 registered Palestinian refugees who have been joined in recent years by thousands of Palestinians fleeing the conflict in Syria.
The densely populated camp is regularly the scene of shootings and clashes, either due to personal disputes or because of tensions between various Palestinian factions.
The latest clashes are the deadliest in years.
Reporting contributed by Muntasser Abdallah