'Suspicious timing' for the Ain al-Hilweh clashes

After a particularly violent weekend in Saida’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, a number of questions were raised. Was it a war among brothers or a political message?

'Suspicious timing' for the Ain al-Hilweh clashes

Lebanese soldiers guard the entrance to the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp on Monday near Saida. (Credit: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

“Suspicious timing.”

Commenting on the deadly clashes among Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati did not mince his words.

According to Mikati, the clashes turn the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon into “a mailbox at the expense of Lebanon and the Lebanese.”

This is particularly true since the violence between the nationalist Fatah movement and Islamist groups comes in a broader context of reconciliation between the Palestinian factions.

However, the appeasement seems once again to evade Lebanon, which continues to struggle with a deteriorating security situation and an ongoing presidential vacuum. The presidential vacuum also threatens the army command six months before the end of Gen. Joseph Aoun’s term.

Island of insecurity

Since Saturday, heavily armed clashes pitted members of the Fatah movement against Islamist groups, including Jund al-Sham, following the assassination of an Islamic group leader in response to the death of a nationalist executive.

The fighting, which continued until Monday, killed at least 11 people — including a Palestinian security official — and injured dozens of others. On Monday, stray bullets struck outside the camp, forcing Saida businesses and schools to close their doors.

Dozens of Ain al-Hilweh residents, including women and children, fled the camp.

Refugees who had taken shelter from the fighting in al-Musalli Mosque near the camp were relocated to UNRWA schools in Saida, which suspended all its services in the camp.

“We don't accept Lebanon to be used to settle scores on external matters, at the expense of the Lebanese and the people of Saida,” Mikati said Monday during a cabinet meeting.

He said he was following the situation “with the army and security forces in order to put an end to these clashes.”

“The prime minister is not right to say that these incidents are political in nature. Rather, they are linked to the internal dynamics within Ain al-Hilweh, which turned into an island of lawlessness because of Lebanese state policy,” said Abdel Rahman Bizri, MP for Saida.

Since the signing of the Cairo Agreement in 1969, Palestinian refugee camps have had broad autonomy, while Lebanese security forces are denied access. Many people wanted by the Lebanese state are said to reside within Ain al-Hilweh, which is also home to more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees.

Bizri and fellow Saida MP Oussama Saad led the mediation efforts that resulted in a ceasefire agreement on Monday. According to the terms of the agreement, an investigation committee will be formed and the shooters will be turned over to the Lebanese authorities.

“Our city already suffers from precariousness and economic difficulties, and these events are making things worse,” Bizri said.

But not everyone shares Bizri’s perspective. “The issue clearly exceeds the balance of power or internal rivalries,” Chamel Roukoz, former MP and ex-army officer, told L’Orient-Le Jour.

“The shots and bombs are directed at the Lebanese army and the city of Saida.”

On Sunday, the army reported that a Lebanese Army soldier was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar shell that fell on one of its positions near the camp.

“We blame Hezbollah for the deteriorating security situation,” said Kataeb leader Samy Gemayel said, who called on the army to intervene to restore calm in the camp.

“Hezbollah mobilizes its pawns in Ain al-Hilweh to show that the state and, subsequently, the army is weak and unable to ensure stability,” former Lebanese Forces MP Wehbe Qaticha told L’Orient-Le Jour.

Some of the Islamist factions that operate within the camp are known to be close to Hezbollah and Iran.

These clashes came at a time when Army Commander Joseph Aoun is perceived as one of the most suitable figures to assume the presidency, much to the displeasure of Hezbollah, which continues to insist on Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh.

Hezbollah declined to comment to L’Orient-Le Jour, denying any involvement in the matter.

Hezbollah’s ally, the Amal Movement, is trying to mediate between the warring factions, accusing “foreign figures” of seeking to cause trouble inside the camp.

“There is a clear willingness on the part of some actors to push the Lebanese Army into a dangerous confrontation,” Roukoz said. “All Lebanese must stand together to prevent this.”

‘To the advantage of Hamas’

On the Palestinian side, the story is different.

“The groups fighting Fatah are largely made up of strangers,” a Palestinian source told L’Orient-Le Jour. “We, therefore, suspect an Israeli attempt to sabotage President Mahmoud Abbas’s inter-Palestinian efforts for a rapprochement … The assassination of Fatah’s national security official in Ain al-Hilweh, Abu Ahmad al-Armoushi, makes it clear that this is a planned operation.”

While Israel is led by a far-right cabinet that is multiplying attacks on Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority ended its security coordination with Tel Aviv in January. Palestinian President Abbas also met with Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, the rival Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, in Egypt on Sunday after first meeting Wednesday in Ankara in the presence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As part of these efforts for a rapprochement, Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Faraj, close to Fatah, visited Lebanon last week.

On Monday, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian said that “according to the Sharia law, fighting between brothers is forbidden, for whatever reason,” and for an end to the clashes “that only serve Israel.”

Are the incidents in Ain al-Hilweh meant to sabotage all these reconciliation efforts and weaken Fatah in Lebanon?

“Since the rapprochement between Hamas and Hezbollah, the latter has often repeated the idea of ‘unity of fronts’ between all the ‘resistance’ groups, including the Palestinians,” said Michael Young, editor-in-chief of Diwan, a blog from the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.

“One can therefore ask whether there is not an attempt to put Fatah on the defensive in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon to the advantage of its rival, Hamas.”

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

“Suspicious timing.”Commenting on the deadly clashes among Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati did not mince his words.According to Mikati, the clashes turn the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon into “a mailbox at the expense of Lebanon and the Lebanese.” This is particularly true since the violence between the nationalist Fatah movement...