BEIRUT — Two Islamist factions in Ain al-Hilweh camp, whose gunmen battled Fatah fighters since Thursday night, released statements Sunday afternoon calling for a ceasefire, prompting a cautious, and brief, calm in the camp.
The respite barely lasted an hour, with gunfire and fighting flaring up on different fronts in the camp a short time later.
"The Muslim Youth" group said in its statement that the call for a ceasefire was released "to preserve our people and our camp." Jund al-Sham commander Haytham al-Shaabi also called for a ceasefire.
Commenting on the statements, Fatah's Abu Iyad Al-Shaalan, Palestinian National Security Commander in Ain al-Hilweh, told L'Orient Today he hoped the rival groups would "indeed commit to the ceasefire, as they are the ones who always violate the ceasefire and attack our centers."
It wasn't immediately clear what caused the fighting to resume.
These statements were published after a day of intense fighting, as Lebanese General Security called the contending parties to a dialogue Monday.
A member of the Islamic Jihad leadership participating in the Palestinian dialogue committee, Shakeeb Al-Aini, told L’Orient Today that the dialogue intended “to set a ceasefire plan.”
Al-Aini told L’Orient Today that the clashes have caused nothing but the displacement of Palestinians and caused harm to Palestinians and Lebanese.
“Those clashes are causing systematic harm to the Palestinian cause,” Al-Aini said.
Earlier in the afternoon, the firefight between the factions had intensified, killing at least five, according to the head of the Palestinian Red Crescent, Riad Abou al-Inen, including a man killed by a stray bullet in the nearby village of Ghazieh.
A Palestinian security source confirmed to L'Orient Today that Islamist militants, including the Muslim Youth and Jund al-Sham, have sustained multiple casualties and injuries. The injured are being treated and the dead are being buried in neighborhoods under their control, the source added.
The fighting damaged several homes near the camp. A man in the Taamir district of southern Saida was said to have been wounded in a rocket attack Sunday.
Stray bullets hit the nearby villages of Maghdouche, Mieh Mieh and Dareb al-Sim.
A shell fell on the coastal road south of Saida, setting fire to an orchard. Another shell landed on the southern side of the city.
A Palestinian security source told L'Orient-Le Jour that elements of the Islamist group Jund al-Sham were able to advance on the Ras Ahmar front, on the Safsaf side of the camp. According to the source, Fatah said it had abandoned one of its positions for logistical reasons, while gaining ground on another front.
Abu Ayad al-Shaalan, the new Fatah-affiliated security chief in Ain al-Hilweh, said in a statement that "terrorist individuals and gangs are behind the security incidents, the constant violation of the ceasefire, and the throwing of grenades in Ain al-Hilweh."
"Fatah and national security forces are ready to counter, on all fronts, terrorist attempts to undermine the camp's security."
The Makassed Islamic Association announced in a statement Sunday that, “in order to ensure the safety of the students, teachers, and staff members,” it will postpone the start of classes in its four Saida schools due to the security situation in the city and its surroundings.
“The beginning of the academic year which was originally scheduled for the coming week has been postponed to a date to be later unspecified,” the statement said and concluded with a call for an immediate ceasefire.
As the fighting continued, a controversy erupted Saturday evening after the Lebanese Red Cross, the municipality of Saida and civil society organizations set up 35 tents to house camp residents displaced by the fighting.
The tents were set up at the entrance to Saida, in an initiative that was strongly criticized, notably by Jamaa Islamiyya, the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a press release, the party denounced the "security and political implications" of setting up the camp. It called on the municipality of Saida to "dismantle the camp and transfer the displaced to a safer and more dignified place," arguing that "the alternative to fighting must not be to set up camps, which do not protect [residents] against stray bullets."
Jamaa Islamiyya called for displaced persons to be temporarily rehoused in UNRWA schools.
Saida MP Abdel Rahman Bizri also rejected the initiative and its potential "negative consequences, for the Palestinians, the city of Saida and its inhabitants."
In response, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi ordered the municipality of Saida to dismantle the erected tents.
A local source who requested anonymity, told L'Orient Today Saturday that some 300 displaced persons from the camp had taken refuge in the municipality of Saida. Local scouts have come to provide moral and logistical assistance to the displaced persons.
Others have taken refuge in some of the city's mosques and abandoned buildings, or with relatives. Local NGOs put the total number of displaced people at 2,000. UNRWA schools and other public educational establishments could be called upon to house the displaced. Humanitarian actors on the ground are expecting the school year, originally scheduled to start in October, to be postponed due to the worsening situation.
Armed clashes began in Ain al-Hilweh at the end of July, killing at least 13 people. The latest wave of violence began Thursday evening, injuring some 20 people. A ceasefire agreement was concluded the following day, but was eventually violated.
During a telephone call with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Mikati Saturday called for restraint and insisted on the need to "cooperate with Lebanese security forces to resolve the tensions."
In his Sunday homily, the head of the Maronite Church, Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, commented on the situation in Ain al-Hilweh, saying that the clashes "constitute a danger to security and undermine the Palestinian cause."
For his part, the Deputy Secretary-General of Hezbollah Sheikh Naim Qassem Sunday expressed his "regret" over the ongoing fighting in Ain al-Hilweh, "as it involves conflict between brothers, puts pressure on the people, and affects the surroundings. There is no winner at all in this vengeful and senseless act, which cannot be acceptable under any slogan or title."
Speaking at a mosque in the city of Baalbeck during the annual meeting of the Islamic Religious Education Association, he said he believed this action "serves Israel, even if it is not directly related to it ..., because in reality, the camps should be calm in order to mobilize towards confronting Israel and preparing for the return after complete liberation, rather than engaging in infighting and power struggles."